Executive Coaching & Development, Leadership Training, Strategic Planning & More | Chicago, IL | Primer Michaels
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Team Building

There are several distinct warning signs that senior leaders are not operating as an effective team.

-Real meetings happen in the hallways, bathrooms or in people’s individual offices. They are not having the discussion around the table together. If you were to film the actual meeting, you would not hear the important topics and discussion. You would not see constructive conflict. You would hear quiet, and you would see a lot of head nodding and people leaving the meeting and then having real conversations.

-People lobby for position before or after the meeting. They do not expect to have a real discussion around the table, so they concentrate on their own agendas and they do everything they can to line up people for an agenda prior to the meeting.

-Meeting agendas and meeting outcomes show that they are not talking about the hard or important issues. It is a warning when agendas and outcomes show that they are taking care of business, but they are not going deeply enough into the things that are truly significant that are either helping or derailing them.

-Decisions are revisited. They talk about an issue and we think we have made a decision, but week after week or month after month, we are coming back to the same topic.

There are a number of big reasons why senior leadership teams struggle in the context of team building, and they are tied to human nature.

-Conflict avoidance – It is hard to address the elephants in the room. Addressing them takes courage and requires candor, and it is daunting when you do not really know how people are going to react. It is easier to not talk about them. A relatively extreme example involves a board we were invited to help. They wanted to make progress and I learned of an issue they had been stuck on for two years. When I asked how they typically make decisions, they said they voted. When I asked if this particular topic had come up for vote, the answer was no. The reason it had not come up for vote was because they knew they did not have consensus, so they kept avoiding putting it on the agenda. Conflict avoidance is huge.

-Time – Talking about the real issues requires time. We take on too much. We are always pressed for time. The important issues are not always the urgent issues, so we rush to the urgent thing without talking deeply enough about the meeting material to resolve issues that stand in our way.

-Resistance to collaboration – Senior leaders struggle with team building when they resist collaborating with their cohorts to co-create solutions. We have some senior leaders who have an impression that they must bring the answer, and if they do not have the answer, they let the issue rollover and they will let it roll over for quite a while. In reality, collaborative sharing and even showing vulnerability, as in, “I need your help. Let’s go forward on this,” is an indication of really good leadership.

-Relationships – Many senior leaders do not spend enough time on one-on-one connections with people to instill in them the feeling and belief that they matter, that they are connected to the work and that their voice counts.

There are six keys to effective team building.

1) Senior leader’s courage – This is probably the most important element of effective team building. When the warning signs are in play that the senior leaders are not operating as an effective team or at as high a performance level as they could, somebody must put that issue on the table, and that is the job of the senior leader. He or she must not avoid potential conflict, but be vulnerable and put issues on the table, call attention to the elephants in the room, and articulate those things that need to be addressed. The senior leader must make sure that the agenda is aligned with the most important work. Again, this requires courage. Without courage, we cannot address the hard issues.

2) Constructive disagreement – The team must organize solidly around the concept that the reason for our meeting is constructive disagreement. If we are going to come into a room and nod our heads without ideas, and if we are going to withhold our points of view, there is no point to our meeting. The leader could go around to every team member individually and gather input to present an idea for a solution at the next meeting. That is not the best way to construct solutions or to work together. We need a framework for constructive conflict.

3) Commitment to making decisions – A senior team needs to commit to make decisions. There are important decision-making processes that could help. The clear articulation of the issue to be decided, what our decision-making pathway will be, what each team member’s role in the decision is and by when we want to decide will help a team to move forward and feel a sense of momentum as they do their work.

4) Individual accountability – There needs to be an understanding that when we come into this room, each one of us around the table is accountable and responsible for upholding our standards and our commitments. We basically hold hands in agreement that this is where we are. This is where we are going. These are our most significant issues, and we are going to work on these issues constructively until we get completion.

5) Commitment to results – The team must recognize that we are here to get results. We understand clearly what our key priorities are, what are goals and targets are and we can answer the question, “Where are we now, relative to where we’d hoped to be?”

6) Relationships – Interestingly, this ties into project management work where the most successful project teams enjoy being together. It is tough to enjoy being together if we do not know each other well enough and if we are only spending time together around the meeting table. So, having some free, fun time together, getting to know each other better and appreciating each other, are important components of effective senior teams.

An example of a company, specifically, a senior leadership team implementing the best practices, is a midsize accounting firm that felt stagnated. They knew they had a growth opportunity with some new rules and regulations, and they had some trouble getting organized around making the most out of this opportunity. They decided to apply the best practices. One of the first things they did was really learn from their past experiences. They were fabulous at what they did, so they decided to take the time to study what they had done that was similar to the kind of challenge that was in front of them. They got a very good shared understanding of what their goals were, where they were aiming, what they thought was possible, and then they were able to apply learning from all their good years of experience. With that kind of confidence, they were more willing to take some risks and do some things differently. They were somewhat bolstered by the rich discussion they had about what had gone well in the past. They were courageous, and they took risks in both the actual work they were taking on and in the communications that they were implementing around the office.

Morale was up as they set their track. They were talking about what was really important. They were talking about why their goals and new initiatives were important, what difference they would make, and what people’s personal connections to them would look like. People understood very clearly what was in it for the firm and what was in it for them personally, and you could see the momentum building. They recognized the plan’s milestones, clearly monitored progress and celebrated when things went well. When things did not go so well, there was an organized effort to get back to the table and learn what was next.

The most obvious benefit of the good team building was concrete outcomes. This firm tripled their growth in three years because they fully leveraged the opportunity that was presented in a way that kept people unified, enthusiastic and motivated to accomplish their goals.

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