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Leading Teams Ain’t Easy

I wish all those “Just Do These 5 Things” articles about how to build an effective leadership team actually worked. It’s not that they are fundamentally off base…establish trust, don’t let anyone dominate, call out misbehavior consistently, encourage open and honest dialogue…it’s just that doing these things in reality is harder than it sounds and doesn’t always work out.

Here’s a dose of what happens on most leadership teams in the real world.

  • Meetings are painfully boring and too long. Most members leave the room knowing that is 3 hours they are never getting back.
  • All focus is on the CEO. S/he decides what will/won’t be discussed. Everyone is gauging what side of the issue to take based on where the CEO is leaning. Only a small, vocal minority don’t give a shit about playing into the CEO’s hand.
  • When asked, very few executives would say their group is a team. Instead they would say it’s a collection of functional experts who manage their parts of the universe. There is some trust and some intersection but little of the interdependencies and easy collaboration that we think of for highly effective teams.
  • Contrary to the wisdom of posters, there is a whole bunch of “I” in team.
  • Where a leader is perceived as weak or ineffective a shadow team emerges. There is a de facto leader and a few colleagues who find ways to run the organization in spite of the leader. Some of this is helpful and some of it is just friggin’ nuts.
  • That notion of robust discussions with multiple points of view that lead to fantastic decisions is a myth. The most heated debates are more of the win-lose type rather than the let’s-find-the-best-idea one. More frequently there just isn’t much debate.
  • Another myth: constructive conflict. In theory it absolutely can happen. In reality there are few executives who have the skills to pull this off.
  • There is a lot of outrageous misbehavior that goes unchecked. A member publicly undresses a peer, CEOs have angry outbursts regularly, a member stonewalls every decision with a long list of “exceptions”, colleagues say one thing in public and another in private, members go back to their teams and rant about how dysfunctional the leadership team is, peers undermine each other’s work. Some of this gets addressed privately but there isn’t an overall expectation of healthier and more productive behaviors.
  • More executives than you can imagine are anxious. They are concerned about the health of the company, gaining the respect of the CEO and their peers, not losing their best talent, getting a smaller bonus than others and even losing their jobs. That anxiety fuels some squirrelly actions.

Here’s the bottom line: leading a highly effective team is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I have written other entries (see the Teams category) but let me say a few new things here.

It is certainly possible to learn how to lead a team. The difference between learning, say, how to create and implement and strategy and building a team is that the former is an analytic exercise while the latter is an interpersonal one. Teams are a petri dish of human behavior…including your own. Understanding the complicated dynamics, knowing where you are in the mix and figuring out how to manage all that in productive ways ain’t easy. Rather than picking up a book on Teams I suggest you start with Yourself.

To do an okay job leading a team you need to be able to:

  • Allow for conversations with multiple points of view. If you are most influenced by the last person who spoke (something I hear from many CEOs) you need to practice keeping an open mind until all opinions have been expressed.
  • Be comfortable with disagreements and differences. The major advantage for having a team in the first place is many POVs. Don’t push to get “alignment” prematurely. That may be your discomfort in the driver’s seat.
  • Hear what is NOT being said. Has everyone spoken up? What is the underlying, unspoken message that no one is willing to raise? What is the missing piece?
  • Intervene and stop people when they are misbehaving. You must have the courage to publicly and privately confront people when they are being disrespectful, manipulative, undermining, submissive, obstructionist or back stabbing their peers.
  • Track the interpersonal dynamics amongst the members. If you aren’t able to see/hear the complicated network of relationships…the many layers of team interactions…then you are missing the real guts of what is taking place.
  • Find the sweet spot of how you want to model team behaviors. If you want others to speak up, you need to hold back. If you want people to trust each other, you need to be trustworthy. If you want members to assume positive intent, you need to resist negative interpretations. The team is taking its cues from you. Make sure you are fully aware of what message you are sending.
  • Remove those who are making things impossible for everyone else. Just because someone always delivers the results doesn’t mean they should remain on the team. If those results are at the expense of others that can’t be okay. If you value results at any cost by one over the collective outcomes of the team you are leaving money on the table and will lose talented executives.

These traits are just a start. Having self awareness and adept interpersonal skills are at the root of being a great team leader. It is a different learning path however. It is introspective, it is pushing yourself to try new and uncomfortable actions, it is pushing passed your own insecurities, it is developing skills you didn’t learn in B school. Nine times out of ten, taking conscious steps to grow in these ways is deeply personal, pushes some unexpected buttons and will really confront you with some old and engrained ideas. My clients have called this the therapy part of coaching. I think of it as understanding what notions and past experiences have become lodged in your behaviors that prevent you from learning some new tricks.

My intention was to be descriptive here. Lest you think I have just handed you a “Just Do These Things” list…not so. Experience has taught me that when it comes to knowing ourselves there ain’t no such thing as a short list of to-do’s.

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