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How to create successful leadership teams

By Rob Pyne

If you want to understand more about ‘teams’, a quick search on Amazon shows there are more than 50,000 books. If you want to understand more about ‘leadership’, a search will again reveal more than 50,000 books you could buy from Amazon. However, a search for books on ‘leadership teams’ reveals only four relevant books.

Is this because leadership teams don’t matter? No: for example, when deciding whether to buy into a company, US investors see the quality of the leadership team as the second most important criterion – after the financial statements.

So, is it because leadership teams work in exactly the same way as all other teams?

In my experience, that’s also not true. When I see people join the ranks of a leadership team for the first time, there is often a period of adjustment to the different demands of the top team. For example, if you’ve spent your career in the Marketing Department and then you get promoted to Chief Marketing Officer and join the leadership team. You suddenly need to have a working knowledge of all the other areas of the business, from finance to IT to operations. In addition, you’re helping make whole-of-business decisions – you shouldn’t be turning up just to report on the status of Marketing.

4 ways leadership teams are different

Comparing successful leadership teams to functional teams (that is, teams within one business function) highlights four differences. Each one helps leaders think about how they get the best out of their leadership team and adapt their leadership style to their ‘top team’. These four differences relate to the leadership team’s:

Purpose: Why the team exists. The leadership team exists to create value by setting the direction, integrate the work of many functions, and set the standards. Other teams exist to coordinate and manage people and resources.

People: Who is in the team. The leadership team consists of representatives of multiple different functions, each with different perspectives. Other teams usually consist of people from the same function, often with quite similar perspectives and backgrounds. 

Product: What the team produces; its output. Leadership teams make decisions and create strategies and plans. Others tend to create action lists.

Processes: How the team operates. Leadership teams interact much less frequently and are rarely co-located. They also require different types of thinking, with a greater focus on creative-analytical intelligence. Other teams interact frequently and focus on practical intelligence – making common-sense plans for today and tomorrow.

These differences put pressure on new team members to learn new ways of teaming. And they can create misalignment between team members if they are not explicitly discussed.

How leadership teams can flourish

The fundamental challenge I see in leadership teams is that each member has a slightly different view of these questions: why we exist, how we operate, what we produce. 

So, the very first thing a leadership team needs to do is to lay the foundations by explicitly answering these questions. This will often lead to some constructive tension, “If we exist to set the direction and integrate the various functions of the business, then why do we spend 90% of our meetings going through department-by-department updates?”

In turn, this question encourages the team to align its real-time conversations and meetings with its reason for existence. That might involve creating two or more different types of leadership team meeting: for example, a weekly operational meeting to keep the business running; and a monthly strategic meeting to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.

Once you’ve aligned on the why, what, who and how of your leadership team, what next? To flourish in the long-term, you need to take care of the team, allowing renewal, reflection, and refuelling opportunities. Typically, this might take the form of a quarterly “pit-stop” where the team takes time off the racetrack to reflect on the last quarter, connect with each other, and plan for the next quarter. In that pit-stop you can even run a diagnostic to assess the ‘health’ of the team and check its progress over time.

Research from the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence reveals that the ability of a team to solve tough problems depends on the relationships and dynamics between team members – not just on the talents of individual team members. Therefore, you need to regularly take time to examine and improve the dynamics in the team.

A successful leadership team can be one of your greatest assets. For it to flourish you need to set strong foundations, regularly invest in renewal and refuelling, and measure its progress as a team over time.

Rob Pyne, author of the #1 bestseller Unlock: Leveraging the Hidden Intelligence in Your Leadership Team, is a leadership coach and facilitator.


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