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Imagine my surprise…and delight…to hear about 2 executive teams planning off sites to “get to know each other”. I heard about this over the course of 2 days of work. And these are large corporations with members who have been together for some time. I came back to my desk and culled through my files to see if this was an anomaly or a trend. Even more to my surprise I counted 3 more clients on that list and remembered speaking with a few colleagues within the last month reporting the same.

In my wildest dreams I could not have predicted that in 2013 executive teams would be getting back to basics: let’s get to know each other better so we can trust each other so we can break down some of our barriers so we can get more and better stuff done. It’s been my tune forever but whoop-de-doo…too touchy feely. Or so I’ve been told. When I’ve pressed teams to take a moment to actually connect to each other I’ve been told “there is work to be done and we know each other well enough and stop being a shrink.” I can almost hear my grandmother’s words ringing in my ears…”If you wait long enough…” Of course she wasn’t talking about the business world but it still applies.

So, what’s in the drinking water out there to create this turn of events? Here is my list of theories. Pick the one that applies to your organization.

  1. There are some very effective SVPs of HR making in-roads with the CEOs.  Although I wasn’t able to pull it off when I was an HR exec, there are some very talented and savvy HR leaders who have gained the confidence and trust of the CEO. They have been able to make the case that a high powered group of leaders does not a team make. Until you establish a personal relationship with each other you don’t really care about what is happening in their part of the business. Bravo to you HR folks.
  2. High tech is no substitute for high touch. In fact, it makes the human connection more imperative. We’ve spent the last decade abbreviating our communications with each other…getting all the way down to 140 characters. Snippets and sound bites just aren’t enough to make things work. I suspect that many senior folks are feeling thirsty for real human contact.
  3. Globalization, telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements limit contact. This might be good for a certain level of productivity but having all your executive team meetings via phones and videos leaves a lot to be desired. Everyone has made the adjustment but I think many are feeling the gaps.
  4. Austerity sucks. As hard times hit in the past 5-8 years many companies scaled way back on people, travel and discretionary expenses. So no more quarterly face to face executive team meetings, fewer in person CEO-direct report conversations, fewer co-located team peers, greater individual responsibility as departments were combined etc. More to do, less time to hang out together. I think it is catching up on everyone. It’s not possible to do any more with so much less. Everyone is exhausted and they need to turn to each other for support.
  5. Team building as a science has gotten better. Thankfully. Most executive teams wouldn’t dream of a ropes course or a storming, norming blah blah session these days. Not that those didn’t have value at a different point in time…maybe. The needs are more basic and few are impressed with bells and whistles any more. Most good books or smart consultants say the same thing today: just get to know each other. If we’ve learned anything about organizations and teams and productivity and innovation in the past decade it all comes down to human beings connecting. Period.

What thrills me more is that execs are using story telling as the primary tool. (see my earlier post on Storytelling) In my experience, it becomes very hard to dismiss or ignore someone once you know even a few things about their story. “I grew up dirt poor” or “My father died when I was young” or “I went to college on a track scholarship” or “I went to boarding school” or “My family moved 6 times while I was growing up” or “My family was one of three black families in our neighborhood”. You just can’t look at the person the same way after you have this information. And that’s when the bridging and connecting begins. As humans we are curious to learn more and to share our stories as well. We are programmed to need each other…even if the business world doesn’t discuss this.

To be clear I am NOT talking about creating a kumbaya moment with your team. I’m saying get away from the office, put away the devices, crack open the wine and just tell your stories. You’ll be surprised at what you hear.

And if you’re able to go someplace great to do this…count me in!

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