In developing organisation effectiveness, OE Cam is often asked to facilitate the process of team building; typically with the clearly articulated aim of ‘building top team alignment’ around strategy, accountability, capability, culture and behaviour. The organisation is under-performing; relationships within the Executive are tense and the lack of cooperation between members is causing conflict and mistrust. It seems to make sense. Just get them all aligned, smooth over the tension and the team will start performing. Right?

 

‘Alignment’ is not what these teams need. Executive teams are typically made up of independent, ambitious, strong 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 they be aligned? Indeed, we’ve all seen the consequences of too much alignment… be it lack of objectors to toxic off balance sheet assets or groupthink resulting in stagnant ideas.

No, suppressing individuality and conforming everyone to an aligned way of thinking is not the answer.  Of course, the other citation of under-performance is that members of the top team are all the same and this year’s strategy is simply a repeat of the last one. Some of our clients come to us because they want to consciously recruit ‘different’.

Again, it seems to make sense. Just bring together a diverse set of individuals with multiple perspectives – sparks of innovation will fly and company performance will soar. Right?

Almost. Different is not without its complications. The more diverse the team, the greater the risk that teams recruit someone different only for the individual to be rejected after a few months because they ‘just didn’t get it’. Consciously recruiting a diverse range of individuals with specific character strengths is a powerful strategy in developing leadership teams. But you’ve got to know how to work with different.

A high performing leadership team is one that can positively leverage the different, diverse, dynamic and di$cult, play to its collective strengths and compensate for its weaknesses. They openly value and respect individuality; they are curious about exploring the world from one another’s perspectives – to co-create more innovative solutions to today’s complex problems. As Mark Goodridge’s article suggests, very few adults can truly value difference or work with polarities or dialectics (Kegan, 1994). We all like to think we can, but merely tolerating difference is not optimising it.

So, how do you get these high performing teams to optimise their differences and work e!ectively together? (rather than simply tolerate one another).

We are currently working with a well-known UK based international FMCG business. The CEO contacted OE Cam to help him resolve conflict between his board of directors in a way that would optimise their diverse capabilities. The most pressing challenge was the interface between the Marketing Director and Sales Director.

The presenting problem was that there was a “personality clash” between them, and that this was undermining the board’s collective performance. The CEO valued both individuals’ contribution and their individual performance was excellent.

We explored further. Our diagnostic uncovered that one source of tension was around the extent to which data analysis and use of objective evidence versus subjective, intuitive, experience based insights should inform resource allocation decisions. This was underpinned by the two Directors having fundamentally different mental models or worldviews about how to operate effectively.

In board meetings, the Marketing Director would relish in presenting comprehensive and elaborate data about customer buying behaviour, elicited from Nielsen data, expert panels and focus groups, and the Sales Director would provide opinions from her retail customers, through storytelling, anecdotes and personal insights she had picked up on her travels. This infuriated the Marketing Director – particularly, when her view contradicted his evidence, and vice versa.

Much of the CEO’s time was spent mediating between the two.   How could he get them to work together and optimise these differences? Tolerating one another would be better than conflict, but this is not optimising difference.

Our solution was to surface, present, understand, resolve and then leverage the tensions.

  • We profiled both directors. This revealed very different models of the world and views about how to market and sell product effectively.
  • We asked them to independently come up with a list of “do’s & don’ts” about interfacing with them as individuals, to help others work effectively with them. We then got them to share and discuss these do’s & don’t’s with each other.
  • Their lists were very different. For example, the Marketing Director: “Do present me with comprehensive analytical data. Don’t just give me an opinion without it”.  Sales Director: “Don’t present me with comprehensive analytical data. Do just give me an opinion”
  • We introduced them to a technique called ‘pacing’ – an approach for temporarily modifying your own model of the world so that it matches that of another who has a different model i.e. ‘meeting in the middle’
  • A pacing partnership was established between them, which enabled communication to flow freely, and a successful outcome was generated in a very short time i.e. they ‘met in the middle’.

This meeting in the middle was far from a compromise or smoothing over their differences. They met in the middle with their differences and worked out how to make best use of both perspectives.

Equipping the marketing and sales directors with a tool to ‘meet in the middle’ did two things to the board dynamic.  Firstly, it reduced the tension in the board by explicitly recognising difference as it applied to the issues and enabling acknowledgement of the validity of both perspectives.

And, secondly and more importantly, it enabled the board to combine being agile, open and intuitive, with rigour and analysis – the best of both. Most recently, this has resulted in the successful integration of an acquisition that has been both well informed, logical and planned as well as opportunistic, intuitive and exciting…

Martyn Sakol