In recent years, I’ve noticed that enquiries for team development and coaching, invariably start with the statement: “we (or they) need to be a high performing team.” On face value, this strikes me as a reasonable request. However, I’ve learnt that this statement covers a whole range of ills, dysfunctionalities and possibilities. It gets used as a proxy for ‘help us sort out our problems…without risking exploring what these might be’.
In truth, there are no off-the-shelf answers to what constitutes high performance for a leadership team. Every team needs to work it out for themselves. However, we believe that there are important questions that a leadership team needs to ask itself which can act as a starting point of a conversation or development process.
Below are ten questions we think it is important for every leadership team to ask itself:
1. When are you a team and when are you not?
Research on teams argues that they are only effective when people need to work together to complete a task or achieve a goal. Many years ago, colleagues of ours Bill Critchley and David Casey wrote a paper titled: ‘Second Thoughts on Teambuilding’. In it they questioned, the implicit assumption that many leadership teams have that they are a team. In practice, they argued that for much of the time, leadership teams are not a team and do not need to be. At others times, such as when they need to formulate and execute strategy, they do need to be a team.
So, the first question to ask yourselves, is when do we need to be a team and when are we not a team?
2. Are you organised for success?
It’s not uncommon to find leadership teams of between 12 – 15 members or more. Whilst hard rules do not apply, this is usually a clear indicator that the team has a problem with its design. It’s too large!
An effective leadership team includes only those roles necessary to perform its work, and no more (West, 2012). The team also needs to (i) have the necessary authority for executing or running the service or operation for which it is accountable; and (ii) be rewarded and recognised for working as a team.
Does the organisation structure and design support and enable you to be effective?
3. Do you believe in what you need to achieve?
Most models of teams emphasise the importance of teams having a meaningful purpose or direction, shared commitment and specific goals (e.g. Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). In my experience, there is both a rational and emotional side to effective teams. The team has to exercise thoughtful strategic judgement around what they need to and can achieve. However, they also need to care about, believe in and be committed to their aims.
4. Do you have the support of your stakeholders?
All teams exist within a wider socio-political context. The success of senior teams invariably requires legitimacy and political support from individuals and groups outside of the team. For an executive team of a large public or private sector organisation, this might include: the board, ‘the public at large’, regulatory bodies, shareholders, trade unions, the workforce, the senior management, etc. The recent controversies around UBER demonstrate how success is not simply defined in terms of growth and financial performance.
5. Do you have effective and authorised leadership?
Questions of power and authority often lurk beneath the surface in teams, particularly senior ones which mainly include confident individuals with a high need for power. How the leader enacts their authority and engages with the team influences the extent to which the team feels accountable and responsible for its performance. Equally, the leader needs to be authorised, and not resisted, by the team if he or she is to be able to lead the team.
6. Is the climate of the team one of openness, respect and trust?
The quality of communication and interaction within a team is fundamentally related to the level of trust and mutual respect that exists within the team. Trust is in essence the willingness of individuals to be vulnerable with each other (Lencioni, 2005). Generally speaking, the higher the trust in a team the clearer individuals communicate, the more individuals are willing to listen, to challenge each other and to share their ideas, feelings and doubts. High trust environments are characterised by disagreement, the expression of emotion, lively debate, appreciation and humour. When I encounter a team that feels dry and unemotional, more often than not, the team is suffering from an absence of trust. Individuals are holding back from bring their full selves to their work and protecting themselves by suppressing what they really think or feel.
Put simply, do you trust each other?
7. Do you execute critical judgement for key decisions?
The work of leadership teams often centres around decision making both operational and strategic. The research on ‘group think’ and group decision making highlights the importance of teams being willing to question their assumptions, challenge their conclusions and assess the risks of their decisions. Often teams that have enjoyed success (i.e. growth, external recognition etc.) start to believe their own press and lose their critical perspective and moral compass. The stories of Enron, Lehman Brothers and RBS are examples of where the hubris of the executive leadership contributed to the collapse or decline of the organisation.
8. Are you learning and developing as a team?
A differentiator between high and low performing teams is the capacity of the team to reflect on how it goes about its work and its group process. Teams are more effective and innovative when they regularly reflect upon their objectives, strategies, processes and dynamics and make changes accordingly (West, 2012). This capacity is becoming increasingly important given the dynamic and turbulent nature of organisational environments.
How often do you take time as a team to reflect on how you are working together? Do you take time to give each other feedback? When problems arise does the team have a culture of inquiry or defensiveness and blame?
9. Is it healthy and satisfying to be a member of the team?
The longer-term success of a leadership team needs to encompass the health and psychological needs of its members. Sustained anxiety and stress, excessive work hours and a blind and obsessive focus on results leads to burnout, health problems and resignations. Do you feel supported by your peers? Would you describe your team environment as healthy and confident? Is there an invigorating, positive and vibrant team climate?
10. Do you work together to enable the organisation to achieve its aims?
Leadership teams exist to enable a work system to achieve its aims. The ultimate measure therefore of a leadership team’s effectiveness is whether collectively the team works together to develop the organisation’s capacity to be successful in both the short and long term. This requires a balancing of the achievement of operational and strategic goals. How do you balance short term results with longer term development and change of the organisation? How do gather feedback on your impact?
Finally, I would add that truly effective and high performing teams are not commonplace. They are hard to develop and sustain. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good! If you have more ticks than crosses to these questions then recognise and acknowledge what you are doing well. If you have mainly crosses, then now might be time to start a conversation about how you work together.
Lencioni, P. (2005). The five dysfunctions of a team.
Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams: Creating the
West, M.A. (2012). Effective Team Work: Practical Lessons from Organisational Research.