How to Keep a Leadership Team in Sync
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Leadership teams are tasked with their organization's future. This requires a lot of time to think and focus, but leaders are often too busy to deliver on the most important thing they need to accomplish.
You need everybody to fly in the same direction, but instead you've got a dozen strong opinions and people digging in their heels. What can you do? After a decade of working with senior leaders around the world, I've seen the same problem manifest over and over again. Here are a few tips for successfully managing this challenge and reaching new levels of collaborative performance.
Listen, Listen and Listen
The most important thing for the team's leader to do is listen. A couple of days ago, The New York Times ran a piece about what makes some teams smarter than others. Teams with more women outperformed mostly male teams, largely because the women paid closer attention to the nuances of communication. I don't believe that this is a skill that only women can master, as I've met men who are equally good at it, but it is one that many women are trained to master from a young age, so there are more women who recognize the value of this critical skill.
In listening, the leader ensures sure each person on the team is heard and deeply understood. Each team member should be encouraged to contribute facts and opinions, even if (and especially if) those opinions fly in the face of prevailing opinion.
This doesn't mean that the leader should have consensus from everyone. This is one of the single biggest errors in thinking that I see repeatedly. Forward motion can be held up indefinitely by the need for consensus. The leader's job is to weigh all the input and then make a decision, not wait until there's unanimous support. In a strong, healthy team, there's a lot of trust.
Hold Members Accountable
Once a course of action is determined, everyone needs to fully commit.
Accountability, like innovation, is such an overused word at this point that it's easy to forget what it means. What it means in this context is that everyone is committed to the same plan, and deviations from this commitment need to be pointed out by other members of the team and quickly corrected.
Lack of support for the plan doesn't give a team member the right to opt out. At this level, once significant time and resources have been committed to a plan, the only responsible way to opt out is to seek employment within another organization. Staying on the leadership team and passively or actively sabotaging a plan erodes its chances for success.
I hear this a lot too: "Everybody has their own little fiefdom." What it means is that individuals are more focused on their own silos than they are on the overall success of the team and organization as a whole. The healthiest organizations switch the focus to collaboration, and accomplish this in a number of key ways.
One way to accomplish this is to carefully design meetings. It sounds like a mind-numbing starting place, but the results from a thoughtful redesign of meetings are extremely powerful. There are basic ways to do this, such as separating the contribution of facts and opinions, structuring the speaking time to limit tirades, tangents and ego, and making sure that tactical and strategic discussions do not take place simultaneously. Science House often facilitates strategic off-sites with senior leadership teams. In healthy teams, the focus stays on strategy. In weaker teams, tactics threaten to encroach.
Another frequent comment is that "everything is a number one priority." By definition, that cannot be true. If everything is a top priority, then your team lacks priorities. This happens a lot when the strategy is not clearly established or communicated.
Senior leadership teams with lack of clarity around strategy often underestimate the impact this will have on the entire organization. A laundry list of competing priorities serves to entrench the fiefdom mentality, with each leader looking out for their own function rather than putting the needs of the organization first. It's hard, and perhaps impossible, to ask people to make sacrifices or behavior changes when these shifts aren't being modeled at the top.