The Reality of teams at the top

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Recently I was talking with a group of leaders, all of whom are direct reports to the so called top team (as they referred to it), and they were lamenting that the top team members were not demonstrating teamwork as they believed it should be. They were interested to understand why the top team found teamwork so challenging.

The first distinction to make is that teamwork is not the same as high performance in a team.  Jon Katzenbach[1], an expert in the area of teams, first suggested this more than 20 years ago. Interestingly the top team members were acknowledged by their reports as being more concerned with high performance and leadership as a team than teamwork – why?

Individually members of top teams are required to:

  • Lead, manage, and influence, the actions of a large number of people within their span of control;
  • Exercise personal judgement in assessing a wide range of risks, allocating resources, and choosing strategic and tactical options relating to those areas for which they are accountable.

On top of those responsibilities they have to:

  • Be individually accountable for what happens on their “watch”. All have P&L responsibility or other KPI’s against which they are more likely to be individually rather than collectively assessed;
  • Sustain organisational performance through setting clear-cut direction and individual objectives for their next levels and beyond;
  • Pinpoint where critical decisions need to be made, and assess the cause and effect of actions that result on other parts of the business;
  • Leverage their time and experience through prioritisation and efficient organisation;
  • Strive to secure the best individual talent and expertise for their respective teams;
  • Finally, they are more likely to be remunerated/incentivised as an individual as opposed to group delivery.

So what conclusions can be drawn? Maybe top team is a misattributed title? Certainly they are a small number of people with complementary skills, who are committed to a common goal(s), however they are unlikely to be mutually accountable for the delivery of every outcome, only a selected few.

A top team functions more as a focal point, a place where there is strong collaboration with one another, where they assess performance and relevant information, and make decisions or review decisions that have already been made. This team’s value comes from their role as a collection of the most influential, skilled, and experienced individuals who have the capacity to mobilise collaborative efforts throughout the organisation by bringing together their expertise and setting accountability for a much broader group of people; then empowering and leading the levels below to resolve issues and make rapid incisive decisions that gain commitment and deliver sustainable profitable performance.

The reality is that for most leaders at these levels devoting scarce resources and challenging themselves to be a team in the popular vernacular makes little or no sense as they are more familiar and comfortable with the skills of leadership which are different to those needed to be a team.

As leaders we can expect them to establish clear purpose, set strategic direction and goals, show the way forward, and model and align behaviour that underpin the culture needed for sustainable performance. So while they may be a team in name only people really should expect real leadership from the team at the top.


Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.

[1] Teams at the Top; Jon R.Katzenbach

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