The Reality of Teams at the Top

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Recently talking with a group of leaders who were all direct reports to a senior executive team, they were lamenting that the senior executives to whom they reported were not demonstrating the teamwork they believed a team of that calibre should be. They were interested to know why I thought these senior executives seemed to find teamwork so challenging.

The first distinction to make is that that teamwork is not the same thing as team performance. Jon Katzenbach, an expert in the area of teams first suggested this almost 20 years ago. The executive team are more concerned with team performance that teamwork- why? Individually these senior executives are required to:

  • Lead, manage and influence the actions of a large number of people;
  • Exercise personal judgement in assessing a wide range of risks, resources and strategic options;
  • Be individually accountable for what happens on their “watch”. Most will have P&L responsibility or other KPI’s against which they are more likely to be individually than collectively assessed;
  • Sustaining organisational performance through setting clear-cut individual objectives for the next levels and beyond;
  • Pinpoint where critical decisions need to be made that not only effect their own span of control but that of others as well;
  • 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 based on individual as opposed to group delivery;

So what conclusions can be drawn from such a scenario? Maybe top team is a misattributed title? Certainly they are a small number of people with complementary skills , they may be committed to a common goal, however, they are unlikely to be mutually accountable for the delivery of that goal as they more likely to be committed to achieving their own goals and KPI’s.

A senior executive group functions more as a focal point, a place where they consult with one another, present performance results and other recent and relevant information, and validate decisions that have already been made. The senior executive team’s value comes less from these formal activities and more from their informal role as a collection of some of the most influential, skilled and experienced individuals who have the capacity to mobilise collaborative efforts throughout the organisation by bringing together the expertise and accountability of a much broader group of people than themselves. Empowering the levels below to resolve issues and make rapid, incisive decisions that gain the commitment of the organisation as a whole.

The reality is that most executives have precious little time to spare and the idea of consuming scarce resources challenging themselves to be a real team makes little or no sense as they are more familiar and comfortable with the skills of leadership which are different to the discipline 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 we should expect real leadership performance from the team at the top.

Reference to understand more suggested reading: Teams at the Top: Jon R. Katzenbach .


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