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Leading Executive Teams: Getting Real

You are a senior executive in charge of a major business unit. You have had a very successful ascent to the corporate upper echelons. Along the way your employers sent you to the finest executive training programs at Wharton or INSEAD or Michigan. You have a drawer full of personal style profiles and 360 feedback reports and coaching journals. You are fully aware of your strengths and weaknesses and have had some success at changing unproductive behaviors. You have a fairly robust EQ and you work at improving it. You’ve read all the thought leaders on executive style and leading teams. In short, you are experienced, well trained and self aware.

So why is your team such a mess?

You followed the best wisdom to create a proper mission, a reasonable structure, a set of norms, clear roles, feedback processes and decent member selection. In spite of all your best efforts, the team is mired in personality clashes, turf battles, finger pointing and generally unproductive behaviors. You can’t figure out what you are doing wrong or how to get things back on track.

Or maybe you have done all the things mentioned above and the disruptive behavior is only coming from one truly aberrant team member. You have counseled that person on numerous occasions and you are now in conversations with the VP of HR to remove this person from the company altogether. You are certain that getting rid of the one bad egg will dramatically improve the team’s effectiveness. You have the support of your executive coach although she warns you that removing this person will not solve the team problems; that this person’s behavior is masking other ills.

So what is the problem and what is the solution?

In a nutshell the problem is that effectively leading a team of high achievers is very complicated and often messy work. Therefore the solution is not a simple one. So let me offer a few insights and a few recommendations.

Successful and ambitious people have strong egos and much of their self worth is tied up in their job performance and status. Those attributes are often healthy and productive. But when you put 8 of those people on the same team some less wonderful dynamics can ensue. Competition, insecurities and gamesmanship can derail or distract the team. I put this in the category of normal human beingness…rather than pathology. If you are the leader you need to be vigilant about staying focused on results rather than getting caught up in the posturing.

Some team members will go to great lengths to be the leader’s favorite. When you are talented and successful there are two ways to go when it comes to team collaboration. You can be truly humble and appreciate the power of team effort and consistently work well with your peers. Or the little devil on your shoulder can whisper to you that you need to be recognized as the best and smartest. We all have the capacity to hear that little voice. If you are prone to give into it you risk alienating your colleagues and pissing off your boss. If you are the leader, you can manage the ass kissers by ignoring their efforts. Every time a direct report starts saying “You know I tried to support Jeff’s client meeting but he was so ill-prepared” cut him/her off with a simple “Since you’re the only one in the room right now I’d prefer to address only your concerns. I don’t like to talk about others who are not present.”

Watch out for the lightning rod. There’s always one on the team. This person becomes the object of everyone else’s negativity. S/he makes themselves an easy target by always taking a contrarian position or being a naysayer or showboating or constantly disappointing the team. The more this person messes up or disrupts, the louder the rest of the team complains. This person becomes fodder for private rants and ridicule and chews up a lot of time that could be spent more productively. If you are this person, there is nothing I can say to persuade you to change your ways. You like setting yourself apart from others and you struggle to adapt to collaborative behaviors. It’s tied up with your self image. So for you folks who are the boss or peers to this person, don’t waste too much energy. You won’t change them and you are letting yourself waste valuable time. Besides, you are setting up an us vs. lightning rod dynamic which has no upside. You will get sucked into bitch sessions that go nowhere but momentarily feel good. Instead find ways to marginalize this person. Cut them off in meetings: “Thanks Rod. I’d like to hear from others.” Provide direct feedback: “You’ve set yourself up as an outlier on many issues. Is there any chance you are willing to come into the fold with the rest of the team?” If the behavior is bad for the business, speak privately about possible consequences: “You can’t badmouth your colleagues with the customers. I’ve received troubling feedback from them. Consider this your only warning to stop this. I won’t allow you to damage our customer relationships.”

If the lightning rod or bad apple leaves, there will be a brief team honeymoon and then new issues will surface. It is good to get rid of poor performers or extremely difficult people but don’t think it is a panacea for the team. So much attention gets diverted to the bad player that the other dynamics are less prominent. Once there is more air in the room don’t be surprised when new conflicts surface. They have just been waiting in the shadows and less active while someone else took center stage. Trust me, someone/something will fill the void. It’s just the nature of teams. You can minimize the disruptive dynamics by over emphasizing the collective goals and objectives. Force the interdependencies between functions and members. Address the difficulties early and firmly.

As a member of a leadership team it is imperative that you find ways to appreciate, respect and work well with your colleagues. Not only will you enjoy your job more but the workforce needs to see you folks playing well together. Fissures on the senior team have a profoundly negative impact on the staff. Countless surveys cite “lack of confidence in the leadership team” and “lack of alignment at the top” as major reasons why employees leave companies. If the senior team isn’t functioning well the business will suffer.

If you are the leader of the senior team you must manage the individual personalities and team dynamics effectively. I’ve seen too many leaders prefer to avoid conflict, hope that the members sort things out themselves or just wish things were better. These passive positions are damaging. They hurt you, the team and the company. If you aspired to the top leadership role then I suggest you take on all the responsibilities that come with the territory.

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