“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/


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.

References

Lencioni, P. (2005). The five dysfunctions of a team.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams: Creating the
high-performance organization.

West, M.A. (2012). Effective Team Work: Practical Lessons from Organisational Research.