Throughout 2021, we undertook an action research project into the ‘lived’ experience of executive teams.  This revealed how they are increasingly confronted with existential challenges.  These stretch beyond the realm of operational, performance or commercial pressures.  They raise profound questions around the role, values and impact of their organisations, such as:

> How is the organisation responding to the climate emergency and the impact of their operations, products or services on the environment?

> How do they acknowledge and tackle issues of inclusion, social justice and inequality? and

> How will the organisation adapt to wholescale changes in employees’ expectations around the nature of work and how and where work is done?

What’s more, leaders are being scrutinised and challenged by employees, shareholders, politicians or activists on how they are responding to such questions.  For example, one new executive shared with us their experience of a meeting with their department where a group of employees expressed their dismay at the state of the Planet and asked her what the point of their business was in this context.   Rather than avoiding the subject, she acknowledged that she too held concerns about the environment and had no simple answers.  This led to a passionate conversation around the work of the organisation, what it was doing to tackle sustainability, and what more they felt they needed to be doing.

If leaders are to engage with existential challenge they need to confront reality and not avoid the consequences of existing practices.  In other words, not to ‘sleepwalk’ into the future.  This process is necessarily unsettling and anxiety-provoking as they must face their responsibilities and the ethics of what they do. They need to act and, in doing so, take a risk in not following convention or habit.  This requires courageous choices about what they stand for and do (or do not do).

If you would like to read more about what helps executive teams to perform, you can download a copy of our research report – “The Unspoken Life of Executive Teams” at: https://metalogue.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Metalogue_Report-2021_final.pdf

 

 

We all have opinions about our leaders. Be it on what they are doing effectively, ineffectively, or not doing at all. Some of these views are based on first-hand experience and thought-through judgements whilst others reflect projections, prejudices, or unrealistic ideals. How many of us, however, truly understand what it’s like to be part of the executive team for an institution?

Throughout 2021, we enquired into the ‘lived’ experience of executive teams in leading their organisations. Our findings revealed both the unique challenges that leadership teams experienced during the pandemic and more universal experiences that come with the role.

We discovered that executive teams:

• Increasingly face existential questions, in addition to strategic and operational challenges, that require them to think deeply about their organisation’s role, purpose and impact in society
• Face immediate demands on their time and attention that distracts them from taking a longer-term perspective
• Feel scrutinised from all directions and experience demands that at times feel overwhelming
• Grapple with anxieties and doubts when making important decisions
• Experience structural and cultural dynamics that cause them to fragment, making it hard for them to collaborate and work together, and
• Find it hard to (or avoid) exploring their emotional experiences, ambivalences, and anxieties.

For many teams, the demands on them risked exceeding their capacity to cope. When this happened their attention narrowed and they tended to lose their emotional boundaries. This meant that they were less able to access their capabilities as a team. They were therefore less resourced to engage with the big strategic, operational and existential questions facing them and their organisations. They also experienced stress and felt at risk of burnout.

Executive teams that were more resilient and capable in their leadership tended to:

• Take time to clarify their role and desired impact
• Acknowledge and process transitions in their membership
• Reflect together on their work as a team
• Be mindful of where they focus their attention when they are under pressure
• Explore their ambivalences when making decisions
• Take risks to speak openly and directly with each other, and
• Actively build trust and support with their stakeholders and across wider networks.

This is a high-level summary of our findings. If you would like to read more, you can download a copy of our research report at:

Unspoken Life of Executive Teams

The psychologist Carl Jung asserted that one should apply to oneself the same methods that one proposes to use with others, and to do so “with the same relentlessness, consistency and perseverance.”  With this good principle in mind, the Metalogue team recently had a working session on the “Team Dialogue Indicator™”, an approach developed by our friends at The Right Conversation to look at how teams talk.

Their approach starts from a principle that is dear to our hearts – that the quality of conversation in a team affects what that team can achieve. We thought we’d take a look at the quality of our own conversations, with an eye to seeing how the indicator might work for clients who are interested in improving the effectiveness of their own senior team.

The model invited us to look at “core dimensions” of our conversations;

Voicing: how comfortable we are at expressing opinions and challenging each other

Inquiry: how keen we are to understand each other and how skilled we are at listening and productivity

Productivity: how useful and productive our conversations are

And also to examine the” influencing dimensions”

Power: what is the role of power and hierarchy in our typical conversations

Structure: how focused conversations are, and how much scope there is for flexibility

Attentiveness: how attentive and “present” we are

What did we learn?  As for many teams, we discovered that a lot of what we do is just fine, and we have things to be proud of.  We often encourage our clients to start with appreciating what works for them, before succumbing to the temptation to dive into finding and solving problems.  The feeling and nature of a developmental conversation is very different if we start by working out how to amplify the good stuff.

However, just as you might expect, there were also areas where people had rather different experiences of our meetings, and some frustrations. I will draw a veil over these (confidentiality being another important part of our way of working), but the model offered us a very helpful way of surfacing some of these differences, and talking about them frankly and without blame.

We found ourselves in a rich and creative conversation about things we wanted to change, and with a commitment to review the quality of our conversations again once we’ve had a chance to try these experiments out. We think the indicator offers a useful model for teams who are serious about improving the quality of the work they do, but don’t know quite where to start. And we’ll let you know whether our changes stick.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a fresh and appreciative look at your own senior team, we’d love to hear from you.

Consulting beyond the Froth:

A welcome return to ‘home cooking’ … or the scarily ordinary done exceptionally well

During a recent meeting with a prospective client (let’s call him Paul), I was struck by how much he didn’t want us to sell what we did. He seemed to be much more fascinated in how we felt able to “just be ourselves”(his words). At one stage his challenge was “yeah, yeah I know when you are consulting you can do all that. I’m sure you will be good at partnering with us or anyone. What I really want to know is how comfortable you are with each other and then with someone like me and the people I have in mind. So tell me: what does a group of people like you do for a Christmas party?”

Home Cooking

Now some readers at this point might be more interested in how we answered such an unexpected question. But what struck me was that Paul had sought us out purely from his intrigue at how we showed up on our website and then how that matched with how we related to each other. Of even more interest was the fact that he hadn’t quite worked out precisely what he was looking for.

He just wanted something different. Something a little less elaborate than the leadership development that his colleagues had been served up in recent years. “It’s as if we have got far too used to dining out in Michelin-starred restaurants with all their frothed up garnishes. Yet sometimes you just want to eat something straightforward and be back with the people who really know and care about you. Where you are delighted just to eat something basic and wallow in the ordinariness of a typical day at home”.

It reminded me of those moments when I am more than happy to heat up some beans on toast and grate some cheese (if I’m feeling indulgent). As I sit down to eat with my sons, I amuse myself when I proclaim: “cheesy beans: the food of kings and queens!” And I actually mean it too.

Scarily Ordinary

The best articulation that Paul could find was they needed now to focus on what it takes to bring some ordinary management practice back into what they were referring to as leadership. “Part of the problem”, he went on, “is we have got so used to lurching from one drama to the next that we have started to lose sight of what we value closer to home. In other words: the stuff that happens in the everyday. And it is only becoming apparent because it seems we are running out of dramas and the expectation that there is always something lying around the next bend. Indeed we can see much further up the road and, whilst the business is in good shape, it all seems scarily ordinary. For now at least.”

It brought to mind another client conversation (let’s call her Dawn) where we were discussing the challenge of sustaining cultural norms over time. The business in question was well known for its innovative and unique approach to its brand identity. To both consumers and employees the brand has always stood for innovation and quirkiness even 20 years after its well known products were first conceptualised.

I asked Dawn how they had managed to keep their values so fresh and vibrant for such a long time. Her response was illuminating: “well people often assume that we have a unique approach to the way we engage people and how we go about HR stuff. Yet you will find that we have pretty similar policies and processes to most progressive businesses – it’s just that we try to apply them in a super authentic way”.

Looking beyond the Froth

So I wonder, should we be paying more attention to the craft of leading and organising that is exceptional and super authentic in its ordinariness?

If I think of the consulting world or more specifically the world of OD and Change, it reminded me that we are so often seduced into believing that we always need to offer something new. This is why we are never short of fancy language and fancy packaging that disguises something that has usually been borrowed and might even be a little old. Nothing wrong in that if it keeps us away from a cookie cutter approach to our consulting proposals. But are we trying a little too hard to dress up that which often just needs something basic…but served up with exquisite care and attention?

Being Extraordinarily Present

My experience is that what often gets most valued is our ability to hold safe spaces for people to talk to one another and perhaps get heard in a way that they rarely experience. To do this ordinary consulting work well, we have to be extraordinarily present. We see our job as creating the conditions for people and their colleagues to witness what each other has to say about how they feel in their work, how they feel in their relationships to each other and most importantly what they are hoping to get better at. And then of course feeling able to do something about it.

Being really heard can feel quite profound for some people. Yet holding onto our curiosity and with a little less judgement is not something that can be easily bought or sold. So whether you are a leader or change agent, if you look beyond the ‘froth’ you might find the essence of what you really need is something quite straightforward.

You might even want to try some of our Metalogue-starred ‘home cooking’ from time to time.

“It’s a dance, isn’t it?” was how a client recently described the relationship between the Executive Team (ET) of the organisation and the Senior Management Team (SMT). This description seemed to strike a chord with others in the meeting with a number of knowing smiles in the room, including from us as facilitators.

I experience this dance in many organisations. Executive Teams organise and have gatherings together with the next level of the hierarchy, sometimes jointly referred to as the “Senior Management Team”. While these gatherings are a common occurrence in organisations we work in, the style of “the dance” between the two groups varies tremendously. They sometimes dance together confidently, but often they are hesitant and uncertain. Becoming explicit about the nature of this dance seems important as these gatherings are important rituals in the cultural tableau members of the organisation create to make sense of what is important. Sometimes how these interactions happen is highly aligned with the explicit culture of the organisation. In other organisations it may be in direct conflict with the culture organisation leaders have espoused.

Generally an invitation to the meeting (an invitation to “the dance”) is crafted. Sometimes this is done with a lot of thought and crafted together between ET and SMT representatives. In other organisations we experience that the only thing SMT members know about the event is that someone has sent them a meeting invitation with an explict demand that they attend (which isn’t really an invitation at all).

The Dance Styles

We also experience a real range of meeting formats when these meetings take place. We thought it would be helpful (and fun) to use a number of dance styles to describe the variety of style of interactions that can take place in organisations when the executive team meets their senior management team to “dance”. These are offered to help you make sense of your experience of such gatherings in your organisation. Hopefully they might help you to be a little more conscious of whether the nature of the dance supports of undermines the culture you are looking to support.

Paso Doble

Modelled on drama and movement of the Spanish bullfight. “This two-person dance form has the man performing as the bullfighter and the woman as the cape”(1). Based on passionate and short lived session-based exchanges usually around a pressing issue or project, usually in the spotlight with a rather dramatic soundtrack. In such ET/SMT gatherings:

– political factions may “lock horns” or try and score points or get the upper hand
– Executive Team members lead on key agenda items and are supported by their respective SMT members
– conversations are highly male-dominated: men take the lead and women provide support and an artistic flourish
– words like “critical” or “burning platform” may be used with great frequency and team members are invited to create action plans with unfeasibly short timelines

Viennese Waltz

This describes a formal and formulaic process with background music known to all. “The Viennese waltz is a rotary dance where the dancers are constantly turning either toward the leader’s right (natural) or toward the leader’s left (reverse), interspersed with non-rotating change steps to switch between the direction of rotation.” (2).
Your teams dance in this way if:

– you have a very clear tempo or rhythm to your ET/SMT meetings
– meeting agendas and formats (if not agenda items) are predictable
– the leader takes a formally prominent role
– the dance requires training and not knowing the rules can lead to critical comments and whispers of incompetence

Scottish Reel

Highly participative process amongst a group of equals, with many taking part. “Fast tempos, quick music and a lively feel” (3). You will know if you have this dance in your organisation if:

– many are encouraged to take part in ET/SMT “gatherings”
– you are not expected to “know it all” as others will help you out
– you experience the meetings as fun and energising
– there are clear patterns of interaction together with a spirit of co-creation

Contemporary Dance

“Tends to be intricate and physical, and the dancers change levels and directions quickly and seamlessly. Contemporary dance may deal with… images, or emotional extremes. It has a rawness that sets it apart from plot-driven ballets or Broadway jazz.” (4). Executive Team/Senior Management Team meetings with this dance style:

– work a lot with metaphors
– acknowledge and express a full range of emotions
– expect all present to take up different leadership positions regardless of anyone’s position in the formal hierarchy
– are highly dynamic in their meeting formats and subject matter

Military Tattoo

A highly practiced series of music or artistic performances teams in a tightly choreographed and timetabled schedule, usually with a large audience gathered in a ticketed seating area. You will know your ET/SMT meetings resemble a Military Tattoo if:

– your agendas are highly predictable
– everyone knows their place and role in the meetings and all are expected to be perfectly aligned in advance
– you generally have a large number of people who come to observe the meetings, usually in seats set apart from ET & SMT members
– the sessions often involve a series of increasingly attractive but complicated power-point slides presented with key points preceded with drum-rolls and successes with trumpets.

We at Metalogue love dance – we help executive teams improve their technique or change their dance style. So…which dance do you recognise in your own organisation?

References

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasodoble
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viennese_waltz
3. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_country_dance
4. Helen Hayes, Youth Dance Ensemble director, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC, quoted at:
https://www.dancestudiolife.com/how-do-you-define-contemporary-dance/