Take the recent financial crisis/credit crunch. Where were the senior executive objectors to toxic off balance sheet assets within the global financial service sectors in the last decade? Or, the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003, where faulty decision making underpinned by too much alignment, not enough challenge, was endemic within the NASA culture.

The aspiration for top team alignment/cohesion is very often publicly stated but unrealised. More often than not, top teams are considered by their employees to be too remote, lacking cohesion and alignment, and collectively ineffective in communication. Indeed, we are often asked to help with the development of executive teams, typically with the clearly articulated aim of ‘building top team alignment’ around strategy, accountability, capability, culture and behaviour.  However, high performing executive teams are made up of independent, ambitious and striving individuals – leaders in their own right. It is their very independence combined with capability, skills, drive and ambition that has got them to where they are, so why should we expect them to be aligned, cohesive and team oriented? And, in this unpredictable world economy, and in our digital age of unprecedented connectivity and access, why would we want them to be?

If they do what they have always done, are they likely to get what they have always got? Challenging times and new technologies require something different. Our aim, at OE Cam is to enable top teams to leverage the different, diverse, dynamic and the difficult. To innovate, challenge and play to each others’ strengths.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I have yet to meet a balanced individual in the board room. However I have come across balanced teams. And by ‘balanced’ I mean a team that can positively leverage the collective capability to survive and flourish in most economic climates. Our role, as expert facilitators, is to help create the environment to enable their combined strengths to emerge, dominate and deliver. Here is an example of what I mean.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I have yet to meet a balanced individual in the board room.

The CEO of a FTSE professional services firm enlisted our help to help maximise the collective effectiveness of his executive team. Business performance was tough, there was pressure on margins and a need to develop new products and identify new markets. This business was the underperformer in the sector. Relationships within his executive were tense, and the lack of cooperation between executive members was cited as a source of underperformance.

The team learned from the diagnostic phase of our intervention, that there were indeed very diverse styles and preferences at play. For example, the CEO combined a preference for strategy with an affinity for detail. A powerful combination. But his Marketing Director, whilst conceptual, communicative and creative, couldn’t or wouldn’t do detail. The consequence was that whilst she had some great ideas about new markets, new products and growing market share, her lack of granularity around project planning and detail infuriated the CEO. The consequence to the business was longer time to make decisions and even longer to implement them, undermining competitive advantage, despite some very innovative business propositions.

We worked with this team in the first quarter of their businesses financial year. By the fourth quarter the region was the highest performing in the group with respect to revenue growth and gross margin.

This enabled them to work more effectively together by leveraging their very useful differences to innovate, deliver and perform”

To be clear, they were aligned on what they had to achieve, the outcomes they sought. As Mark Goodridge writes in his articleOrganisation effectiveness combines the hard and the soft. A shared sense of purpose and direction coupled with individual behaviours to make it a reality”.

But rather than seeking to become cohesive and aligned in their thinking, approaches and perspectives, this team improved its performance by being provided opportunities for self-awareness, for awareness of others, and by an explicit reinforcement of its diverse preferences and capabilities. This enabled them to work more effectively together by  leveraging their very useful differences to innovate, deliver and perform.

martyn.sakol@oecam.com