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Keeping Leadership Team Development Real

The imperative

According to a report issued by Bersin and Deloies (2012) over $14bn per year is spent on leadership development programs in the US alone. Yet Matthew Gitcham from Ashridge Business School in the UK found only 7% of organisational leaders believed their organisations were adequately developing them for future leadership roles and responsibilities.

This appears to be particularly true when related to leaders leading change programs and developing high performing cultures. A recent report suggests up to 85% of organisational change programs fail so why do so many companies invest in programs that seemingly do not deliver the results they seek?

Given the investment in leadership development this is a damming statistic of leaders ability to do what they are paid to do. McKinsey’s, in a 2014 report, suggest there are 4 main reasons these programs fail to deliver the intended results.

  1. The organisation failed to set the context for the development programs at the outset i.e. the development was happening in isolation to the organisation and its needs.

  2. The important activity of active reflection, which is often taught in leadership development programs, was ‘decoupled’ from the real work being done. This in effect means leaders were taking part in reflections but not reflecting on how impactful they were as leaders and therefore not developing in accordance to the organisation’s needs.

  3. Programs under estimated the importance of leader’s mindsets and how each leader actively contributed to the organisational culture. The more each leader understands their personal impact the more the culture can be shaped towards higher performance.

  4. Programs had no pre or post measurements. Therefore these they become episodic events rather than a strategic on going intervention towards a desired outcome.

What We Have Learned Over The Last Ten Years

Leadership teams set the pace for the overall organisational development. If the leadership team and its members are not developing, growing and learning then the organisation will accordingly slow down.

Leadership Teams need to align their own development to the strategic needs of the organisation in order to have a chance of getting best value from the time spent on development.

Going on a development program that is not tailored to the broad environment the organisation finds itself in is likely to become a theoretical exercise rather than a practical opportunity to learn.

The leadership team will develop as fast as the slowest person on the team. Therefore individual coaching in parallel to team coaching can be very effective.

As the world is accelerating in complexity leadership teams need to navigate systemic dynamics and learn to thrive in ambiguity.

Learning to communicate effectively means more than learning ‘crucial conversations’ type phrases. It involves the ability and knowledge to move dialogue from defensive patterns to generative and reflective dialogues.

Effective leadership outperforms in effective leadership over time, so it worth investing in developing the most senior leaders in the organisation, particularly during tough trading conditions. Of course this feels paradoxical in nature at the time.

Leadership team development often feels like two steps forward and one step back. But consistency will lead to positive results that have impact.

The following learning are key to a successful leadership team development itself with positive business impact.

1. Make a clear decision as to why you are a team and what is the mandate for the team

Are we a team?

Do you need to be a team or a working group?

Do you actually need to be a team? It seems obvious but of course it is not! Many leadership teams strive to be a team, talk as if they are a team but in fact have so little in common, being a team becomes a hindrance. Quite often choosing not to be a team is a wise move.

Katzenbach & Smith’s work suggests that most teams are in fact working groups. There are a range of ‘types’ of working groups including informational; decision making; project led; coordinating and consulting. All are task orientated with specific outputs.

Some leaders prefer not to have a team. IBM’s Asia Pacific Regional Head decided he did not require a team. That leader felt he was leading a sort of “divisional holding company” so a single leadership team was not the answer. He led a collection of working groups that managed each division but did not come together as a traditional executive team would. Similarly, many pharmaceutical regional level leaders realise the country markets they lead have so little in common as market places that the reasons and time spent in coming together as leaders, rarely provides value. A typical working group is a leadership team that works in a shared service environment in financial services such as an insurance company.

Each leader on the team might be responsible for a diverse range of functionalities such as buildings, security and external communications.

They all happen to report to one person such as a COO but have little interdependence or requirement to deliver together. Striving to be a team is often a waste of time for those people. They are better off focusing on how to work efficiently together and leaving the teaming to their functions.

However, a leadership team is different to a working group. It has five main characteristics that make it unique:

  • A clear mandate from stakeholders to deliver an output that can only be delivered by them working together.

  • Clear boundaries i.e. it is clear who is on the team and who is not.

  • Interdependencies between the members as they work toward a collective purpose and strategy.

  • Stability, as they work together long enough to facilitate shared decision making.

  • Collaboration and collective outputs.

Dysfunctionality in leadership teams often stems from a lack of understanding of the reason the team is coming together in the first place. Reporting on monthly activities is the lowest level of value a leadership team can add to the organisation yet that is what most teams actually focus on.

When there is no clear reason or purpose to be a leadership team, challenging each other as team members becomes difficult and ends up in either passivity (being nice to each other) or in aggression as some of the more dominant members fight for their own agendas in the absence of a team agenda.

A leadership team needs to clarify its mandate to gain clarity on what work it can uniquely deliver together that no other team in the organisation can deliver.

This allows for prioritisation.

2. Ensure the right people are doing the right roles in the right way on the right team

Jim Collins made a very clear point about getting the “right people on the bus” and we believe he is still accurate. However, it is not just the team members who have bought into the vision. A high performing team needs every member to embrace the vision and strategy. This enhances alignment and subsequently enhances the opportunity to maximise execution of that strategy.

If people on the team are not aligned it is important to take action quickly to ensure their alignment or facilitate their exit from the team. Many leaders inherit a team, or part of a team, and often do not consider until it is too late, as to whether or not the existing team members are those which will enable the achievement of the desired outcomes.

Team based research suggests that the quality of team structure (size and norms) is the dominating factor that engenders success. Structure includes the overall size of the team, the types of tasks focused on (‘meaningful or menial’) and the accepted norms of conduct.

Studies vary on the optimal team size. For example, informational working groups / teams usually have smaller sizes than an alignment team. Team based research usually quotes 8 -10 members to be the ideal size.

For a senior team, members need to be able to ‘think globally, not locally’ i.e. beyond their own function. The idea of being part of a ‘first team’ is an essential concept in terms of its leadership capability. Members need to buy into the idea that the leadership team is their first team rather than their functional team.

The natural level of thinking for a leader is to think of the team they lead as their first team. Many leaders on Executive teams think that their team is the function they ‘lead’ as opposed to the one they sit on. This can lead to internal competition and lack of alignment.

In fact if a leader is part of an organisational leadership team, leading a functional team such as marketing or finance is the role they play on behalf of their team, i.e. the job they do for the leadership team.

Seeing an operating rhythm for the leadership team allows efficiency of meetings and of how work gets done. Many leadership teams fall into the habit of setting up a bi weekly or monthly meeting where they review the month gone by. As the business complexity expands this meeting increases in hours to become a full day or two day meeting. Observations of the energy levels in the room suggest the second half of these meetings are less than optimal. Worse still we have seen teams add an agenda item of Innovation or Blue Sky Thinking at the end of these meetings when everyone’s brains are already fried!

Teams get frustrated at their own lack of creative output. Instead, leadership teams need to create an overarching rhythm of different types of meetings that require a range of inputs.

One area of discussion that many teams overlook is the notion of “decision rights” in a leadership team. This area of work covers the simple and complex areas of what decisions are made by whom and in what manner. Asking a team to make a decision is very interesting to observe. Most teams rush into the process of deciding. The best teams start with the question, “how are we going to decide?” i.e. “what process or methodology”? Despite the initial time spent on an activity that is not the actual decision itself, the mere act of thinking about the overall process accelerates the overall speed of decision and in most cases, the quality of decisions.

Our 5Q framework has been used for leadership teams across Australia and Asia in their journey towards high performance. It addresses the five most important questions that leadership teams need to answer and work through at different stages of their development.

Leadership team members need to learn to work within
their first team and to lead their functional teams.

They are different teams.

3. Take time to build trust within the team

Academic researchers teach us that trust within team members is like the grease on the cogs of a mechanical wheel. It facilitates transparency, sharing of personal information, hunches, ideas and useful knowledge.

But trust takes time to build.

Team members need to understand that some of them are more predisposed to trust each other upfront until proven otherwise, while others are more predisposed to expect their colleagues to earn trust over time.

Team members who share similar backgrounds, shared experiences or world views are more likely to develop trust together first. Understanding each others histories prior to commencing working together is a worthwhile way to uncover experiences that are unexpectedly similar. Over a team dinner invite team members to share story about themselves that no one knows, or bring a momento to illustrate their history that is interesting.

Teams that invest in developing shared norms and rules of engagement for how they operate are more likely to build trust within.

Trust also develops over time through frequency of contact with each other and sharing experiences together. Yet many teams believe they need to trust each other on day one. Learning to have ‘real’ dialogue together allows the trust to build and insights to emerge.

Dialogue enables a group to reach a higher level of consciousness and creativity through the gradual creation of a shared set of meanings and common thinking process. These have to be learnt together.

Our experience suggests teams need to acknowledge that everyone on the team comes with difference experiences that moderate their propensity to trust each other. Some people start with the premise that everyone is trustworthy until proven otherwise. At the same time, others start with you need be monitored until you prove your competence and we will ease off control as you continually prove yourself. Of course these premises are never overt.

Therefore, as a collective team starting with the notion, “I trust you enough to do your job and not stab me in the back”, as one client put it, is a wise premise.

Trust will continue to build from this point.

Starting with a premise that leadership team members only need to trust each other enough in order to start working effectively together is wise.

“…We used to spend hours debating decisions that in fact had little to do with the leadership team and wasted time. Once we got clarity on who to make decisions and where the decision rights lay, we increased the speed and quality of decision making in the organisation…”

4. Our individual mental models are hidden below the surface

Our mental models are the overall collection of beliefs, values and ways of making sense of the world. Some mental models we hold are obvious, what sports teams we support, what kind of political philosophies we are attracted to and how we like our coffee!

But the majority of our mental models are beneath the surface and pop up when we least expect it.

When a colleague presents an idea or suggestion and we react quickly and negatively to that suggestion, one of our mental models has been triggered unconsciously. We are reacting in an uncontrolled manner.

The problem is the other people in the room only see the reaction itself, not the underlying belief, thought pattern or fear that has surfaced that reaction.

Conversations that naturally in the absence of understanding each others mental models will often be overly polite, overly critical or worse still, superficial.

Learning about the perspectives our colleagues are bringing to the conversation allows the conversation to move to a reflective or generative level.

Leadership teams need external help to do this work. Coaches who are skilled at understanding dialogue and group dynamics bring huge value by assisting teams understand the mental models beneath the surface. The work involved includes the team learning the conversational roles, as described by David Kantor, they naturally inhabit in their team meetings, such as being a Mover, An Opposer, A Follower and a Bystander.

Using conversational models such as Kantor’s four player model as above, helps the team members to observe themselves in action (having conversation) which illustrates their natural patterns and surfaces their individual mental models.

Team members learn to judge their colleagues on their intentions rather than just their behaviours. The skilling of leadership team members then allows the conversation to move from controlled to generative.

Structured dialogue in a safe environment is the only way to
understand each others mental models of the world and how those models are surfaced in every day conversations

5. Leadership teams need to embrace openness and the complexity this brings

Systems theory is a way of thinking that helps us reflect on the complexities of modern organisational life. The collection of ideas that make up systems theory have their origins in biology, physics, anthropology and are a meta theory or framework that prevents us from getting paralysed with complexity. The overall framework is useful as it strives to reduce complex ideas to simplicity or simple forms.

Leadership teams find systems theory useful as they gain a discipline for seeing the whole, inter relationships, white spaces, patterns of changes within their organisations and related industries, that they might have otherwise ignored. One leader said after a ‘Systems Theory master Class’ we ran, “This has allowed for greater understanding of the whole have never seen before..”

Openness or open systems is a concept within systems theory that has strong relevance to leadership teams. Think of a leadership team as a system. A systems can be open or closed.

An open system takes it inputs from the environment it is within, then modifies the input to create an output (be it materials, energy, information etc). An open system needs to be able to interact with its environment and needs to have a degree of ‘fit’ to its environment.

For a leadership team to be effective in our modern hyper connected world, it, as an open system needs to have a qualitative connection with its environment, be it feedback or otherwise. It needs to be open to the fact that many of its stakeholders will not appreciate the outputs of the leadership team, be it decisions, direction, organisational policies or other leadership artefacts. Yet leadership teams still continue to lead in a command control style impact, expecting their employees or customers will do exactly as the leadership team has demanded. This of course is nonsense and leads to the ultimate demise of the team.

In systems theory a system (leadership team in our case) that ignores feedback or qualitative connections with its own environment or external systems are called closed systems. A closed system is mechanical and eventually run down.

One important area of complexity within organisations is the notion of nested. Nested systems are in effect sub systems of a larger system, i.e. a smaller team as a subset of a larger team. Think of the Russian doll scenario where there are many dolls within a larger doll.

In organisations there are many examples of nested teams including:

  • A team member can then be a sub system (nested) of the team or teams

  • A Sales Function can then be a sub system (nested) of the Commercial department.

  • A Commercial Department can then be a sub system (nested) of the local organisation or company.

  • A local Company can then be a sub system (nested) of the larger international organisation or company.

  • A larger Company can then be a sub system (nested) of the whole industry.

All of these nested systems interact with each other and (hopefully) exchange feedback with each in some form. All interact and have impact on each other. Small changes in one part of the system can have a huge impact on another part. Learning to appreciate the inter connectedness between various parts of the system and the overall lack of control a leadership team does have is an insightful learning for the team. Therefore their levels of collective influence and dialogue are more important than seeking control.

For a leadership team to be effective in our modern hyper connected world, it, as an open system needs to have a qualitative connection with its environment

6. Leadership teams need to 'skin the cat' in many ways

When we understand that teams operate within complex environments and that remaining as open as possible to their environment both brings extra complexity but solutions then we also learn about equifinality.

Equifinalty means that all final ways are equal, i.e. there are multiple ways to get to the final outcome. A leadership team need to appreciate that there are multiple opportunities open to it at any one time, they just have to be found.

There is no dominant or one ‘right way’ to achieve an outcome. Leaders who have had extensive experience in one industry or geography are often tempted to insert their ‘right way’ as the way an action needs to be handled in the new team environment. Sometimes this works but often their insistence on ‘the right way’ becomes the actual barrier to its implementation. That leader needs to be hyper aware that there are multiple ways to get to the outcome they had previously experienced. The way they know obviously did work but it may need to be tweaked, radically changed or not used at all, to have a any chance of replicating that success elsewhere.

Remaining open to possibilities and opportunities allows for generative conversations to emerge and innovation to take place. One client recently said that ‘a good idea has no owner, as it has been birthed over several conversations’.

An outcome may have different beginnings or starting points and yet end up at the same end point. Likewise one action may lead to many outcomes.

Many leadership teams report one of their frustrations is handling multiple priorities, particularly priorities that are competing with each other. As a leadership team, the system, has more than one output or goals to achieve.

Sometimes values or priorities can be different or opposing which can lead to more complexity and difficulty.

Federal governments grapple with this reality at every budget. Leadership teams have to take time to understand the range of objectives on their collective plate, appreciate the stakeholders that are asking for those implemented objectives or outcomes and then collectively- as a team- seek to uncover options for implementation.

The notion of equifinality of open systems teaches us that openness leads to many ways to get to the one outcome. There is no right or one way to get there.

7. Leadership teams need to ignore the one-off meeting approach to solving issues

There is a natural and understandable reluctance for leadership teams to spend more than a one day or two day offsite meeting to discuss how to work well together. Our society has a high divorce rate so we as individuals are unskilled in approaching conversations that solve inter personal and intra personal conflicts.

Yet we know that quality organisations are built upon quality conversations, i.e. the dialogue between the leaders sets the tone for the organisation. Functional teams take their lead from the functional leaders. If the heads of Sales and Marketing functions do not operate well together, it is likely the overall functions will not either, thus leading to commercial issues down the track.

Problems such as delays in product launches, go to market strategies being ineffective, lack of customer insights, pricing problems all lead back to the combined leadership not working together to solve issues pro actively.

Having a one off meeting to discuss future direction, team rules of engagement or team values and then expecting everything to perfectly work out is naive at best and stupid at worst. The knowing doing gap exists within all of us. The reason we have a surge of sales of the latest diet books in January every year is that people did not put into practise (doing) what they promised themselves a year earlier would work (knowledge).

Team development takes time and happens over time. Our experience is the minimum effort required for a leadership team is to have three dedicated team meetings of typically two days each over a year long period for the team to take enough reflection time to adequately shift the levels of behaviours.

For many teams the individuals within the team are learning, growing and evolving at different rates. They bring unique experiences to the team from prior employers that naturally moderate their contribution to the team. Expecting everyone to develop at the same rate is mis founded.

For many teams, the team will develop as fast as the slowest person on the team. Individual coaching is a useful way to accelerate the individual leaders. This can happen in parallel using more than one team coach. One client recently his realisation was that not everyone has the same understanding of what a high performing team needs to look like. Coaching of individuals shaped this understanding into a common understanding allowing the team to flourish.

The minimum effort required for a leadership team is to have three dedicated team meetings of typically two days each over a year long period for the team to take enough reflection time to adequately shift the levels of behaviours.

Leadership team development takes time and happens over time.

“… Half doing the process does not work. We needed individual coaching support to really push the team. At different times over the last year we were in different rates of improvements as individual leaders but over time we all got to where we needed to be..”

8. Leadership Teams Have To Take A Systemic Approach To Their Development

What is  systemic approach?

According to Yves Morieux who wrote ‘Resistance to change or error in change strategy’,

“The organisational context drives behaviours such as collaboration or competition which ten drive mindsets and psychological engagement through feelings, mindsets and values. Thus taking a wholly systemic view of leadership development is essential in order to develop the organisational culture.”

Aligning all development at leader and culture levels to the organisational strategic context is an imperative to build a high performing culture.

Many organisations use a culture diagnostic tool such as The Leadership Circle, to assess the current and desired culture of their organisation.

This allows the leadership team to pull on key ‘levers’ over time to accelerate the organisation towards its stated goals.

The levers include:

  1. Context And Alignment: The main role for a leadership team is in setting clear direction and alignment on core projects. Developing a road map towards specific business outcomes with timelines sets the context for all other development in the organisation. Priorities can then be decided upon behind the contextual direction.

  2. Leadership: Starting at the leadership team level and progressing to the N-4 layer of leaders, this lever focuses on the leaders: modelling the desired behaviours, demonstrating collective alignment towards outcomes, managing all communications to emphasise the desired behaviours and outcomes, managing their time to ensure focus on key outcomes, actively shaping organisational narratives through story telling and very actively reflecting on their own contribution towards the organisation culture particularly with tacking their personal biases.

  3. People Development: High performing cultures develop through the active process of people development. Successful organisations involve their senior leader in these initiatives.

    Typically senior leaders get involved in any development related to organisational strategy, key projects, execution of essential initiatives, coaching each other in peer coaching sessions, coaching direct reports on desirable behaviours, working one on one with key talent in the organisation and finally in any initiative relating to the overall organisational culture.

  4. Cross-functional Projects: These are how the work of high performing organisations get done. Not only are silo’s broken down but diversity of thought are tapped into and barriers to execution are broken down. The leadership team often are leaders and sponsors of key projects and need to ensure they are executed well.

  5. Values, Mindsets and Biases: High performing cultures get clear over time on the internal values and mindsets that are necessary to achieve the strategic desires of the organisation.

Equally they spend time on understanding individual and collective biases that might hinder progress. Every human being arrives at work with inherent biases as part of their humanity. Biases such as a desire to fit in and be liked will open prevent a leader giving crucial feedback to direct reports as needed.

A bias to be right could manifest as a leader been seen to be arrogant and condescending. Deeper personal work at individual and collective levels is essential for each leader to understand their contribution to the barriers in the organisation.

Five systemic levers include setting the context for alignment, leading through modelling the core behaviours needed in the
, coaching the talent, sponsoring cross functional projects and developing the best shared values, beliefs and mid sets over time.

Profiling tools such as The Leadership Circle are useful in assessing the current culture of the leadership team itself or the organisation culture to determine the current-future reality gap.

Development can then be tailored to specifically target the five main levers that will impact the desired outcomes.

9. Choose your coaches wisely!

There are many leaders in the market yet your organisation has chosen a select few, probably for good reasons! They have the most suitable qualifications, experience in your industry, value sets that align with where you are heading and fit within the leadership team.

Likewise the coaching market is full of coaches who would like to work with you. Yet not every coach is best suited to team coaching.

At a business level the skills required include experience at working at or with C level leaders, broad consulting experience within or for organisations, strong interpersonal skills, a wide based knowledge of business to draw upon, deep appreciation of complexity and complex adaptive systems as well as a working knowledge of strategy development and group dynamics.

At a process level the coach needs to be familiar with a range of facilitation methodologies, team structuring frameworks, personality styles, learning methodologies and group dynamic models.

At a personal level the coach needs to be able to detach from the content of the conversation and manage the process to enable the group dialogue to emerge and flourish.

Finally a great sense of humour is very useful too!

Ultimately a great team coach is an expert in promoting dialogue. The root of the word dialogue stems from the Greek words dai and logos, with dai meaning ‘through’ and logos meaning ‘word’ or ‘meaning’. Thus dialogue can be understood as a flow of meaning, a conversation in which people think together.

The role of the team coach is to help the group members to suspend judgement, become more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, to be open, to listen to others, and most importantly to listen to their own personal internal processes.

Their own self awareness needs to allow them to self manage reactions at both personal and group levels and to expect the unexpected. Great team coaches engage in regular external supervision as well as on going personal development to stay great and to assist transformation within their clients.

Not every coach is best suited to working with leadership teams as an entity.

Leadership team coaching requires extensive experience and a diverse range of skills

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