Social peptides: crucial for the regulation of complex social behaviour… Without them we wouldn’t bond with other humans or possess the desire to belong to a tribe. We know that as a collective we can achieve so much more than a lone individual. So if we are naturally programmed to be part of a team; why is it sometimes so hard to work with other people?

From hi-tech start-ups, to established FTSE 100 firms, public sector organisations and political parties, teams are at the very heart of sustainable high performing organisations. However, CEOs often report to us that they have an issue with the effectiveness of their top team. They have a highly capable team of directors; individually technically brilliant, experts in their field but who operate in silos and protect their own turf, rather than focusing on whole business first and their own function second. And typically, the rest of the organisation will report that it knows that the leadership team does not really work together as a ‘team’.

Simply bringing a group of highly skilled and diverse individuals together in a team is not sufficient for it to be ‘fit and healthy’. Team members need to be able to work well together in order for the team to successfully achieve its purpose across the short, medium and longer terms.

The notion of a tight-knit team of competent people working together to steer the ship safely towards a clear goal is highly compelling. And we want to believe that a CEO galvanises the top team around vision, values and a shared common purpose; it’s both energising and reassuring. However, the reality is far more complex and despite what everyone says in interviews, it’s a myth that we are all natural-born team players.

The notion of a tight-knit team of competent people working together to steer the ship safely towards a clear goal is highly compelling. And we want to believe that a CEO galvanises the top team around vision, values and a shared common purpose; it’s both energising and reassuring

Health Problem #1: proximity to real performance

In OE Cam’s view, proximity to, and affinity with, actual business performance is one key issue here.

By performance, I mean a leadership team that is close is to its people, customers, suppliers and its competitors will be able to cut to the chase and galvanise its collective focus to quickly deliver the right business outcomes and better business results. The late Arthur Ryan, founder and outstanding Chairman of Primark, was renowned for walking through the stores, picking up and re-hanging merchandise and commenting on the quality of the cloth. Product, stores and customers were in his DNA; a natural role model for his team. Team members who are all close to, and passionate about, product, customer and competitor will focus the raw energy of a leadership team with astonishing singularity.

 

Health Problem #2: the ‘right’ diversity

The second key issue is that a healthy, high performing leadership team is better if it is small, with complementary but diverse skills and working preferences, unambiguously focused on the same common purpose, goals, and ways of working that each individual is signed up to.

Diverse skills and preferences are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for a team to be effective because the differences can create misunderstanding and conflict. For diversity to deliver real business benefit, teams need to learn how to work with constructive tension and appreciate one another’s working styles. For example, I recall a dialogue between the CEO and Marketing Director of a FTSE 100 commodities business during a board effectiveness session. The CEO, James, had a strong preference for detail, tangible outcomes and sound planning. He had always struggled with Mike his Marketing Director, who was highly innovative, future focused and a big picture thinker and articulator. We had worked hard to help James and Mike understand their different preferences and how these could be complementary to each other. At some point the penny dropped. James said to Mike empathetically “Now I understand why you why you don’t give me a detailed plan”. Mike smiled and nodded, thinking he was now understood, and the pressure was off. James then added “but can I just say, that if I ask you for a detailed plan in the future, you’ll give me a ****** detailed plan!”. And of course, James was right. Preferences are not excuses. For a top team to maximise its effectiveness, individual leaders need to adapt, modify and accommodate.

However, the diverse range of complementary skills that a leadership team needs to deliver more holistic customer solutions is most often absent. More often than not, leadership teams are homogeneous rather than diverse, and the competencies around which they are constructed are typically rooted in white, western, male experience. Of course, that doesn’t mean that a leadership team made up of an ethnically, gender, nationality, sexual orientation diverse mix will necessarily be diverse in its working preferences…

We recently worked with the leadership team of a PE backed biomedical business made up of multiple nationalities, mixed gender, ethnicities and sexual orientations. At one level very diverse, however, their working preferences were not. They were all exactly the same as each other: analytical, logical, pragmatic and outcome focused. They all got on very well with each other, but there was no disruption, little innovation and no different perspectives. They were lacking in ideas and struggling to differentiate their products from their competitors. At one level they were truly diverse, and at another, not in the least bit.

 

Health Problem #3: walking the tightrope between death by rigidity and death by incoherence

Successful executive teams work between competing forces. We all want diversity and innovation to drive us forward. This leads to challenges to the status quo, the consensus gets disrupted and the defenders of the status quo shout “chaos”. But we need to build consensus, we want common views, common ways of working and the innovators shout “bureaucracy” and “rigidity”, we need the agility of a start-up. This is not an either or, successful teams need to manage both, the critical question Is how.

 

Health Problem #4: time to build consensus ?

Another often articulated aspiration for top teams is about spending more time together. “If we just spend more time together, we will achieve alignment and consensus…

In reality, most senior leaders if they are reasonably successful, have little time, and if they are busy working hard to being closer to customer, don’t want to spend it building consensus and thinking about values. They instinctively reject consensus-based decision making and know that the easiest decisions they ever make are made individually. Our PE backed biomedical firm (over), was replete with consensus. Despite diversity of ethnicity, gender and nationality, everyone saw their commercial world in the same way, and there was no conflict. By contrast our FTSE 100 commodities firm was full of conflict and eventually adaptation. Really effective leadership teams thrive with conflicting views.

So the traditional construct of high performing leadership teams is probably a myth in today’s environment. At best they are simply groups of individuals working alongside one another. Their neurophysiology/social peptides ensure that in the main they collaborate and cooperate.

 

So, notwithstanding that they are mythical, what are our top tips for a fit and healthy leadership team?

 

Focus the energy

Ensure that team effort is concentrated on high value opportunities that relate to real business performance, and if you have to do a values exercise, make it real, and connected to the aspirations of your leaders. Make sure your organisation and employees know this; as time spent on ‘unreal’ issues will make them cynical about the top team’s efficacy.

 

Make decisions about how you spend time

Is it necessary to spend leadership team time to make decisions? Singular decision making is speedy, efficient, and easy. Maybe we don’t need to meet to discuss this decision? Have the right people with the right level of accountability to make the decisions.

 

Choose a balanced team

Base this on skills and preferences rather than job titles. Understand the psychological profiles and competencies of your top team, and make sure they are sufficiently diverse to enable business performance in the short, medium and longer term.

 

Be agile

Make and implement leadership team decisions quickly, either creative or otherwise. We recently observed incredible team agility at an event hosted by St Andrews University Psychology & Neuroscience Society. My colleague, Toni Marshall from OE Cam was presenting and Anna, Secretary of the society was chairing. Three minutes to go before the presentation…

Minute 1: Anna tells Toni that more than 90 other students had wanted to attend

Minute 2: Toni suggests a webinar. Anna agrees. Toni sets it up.

Minute 3: Anna posts the webinar, meets GDPR requirements and students start logging in.

What did we witness? Proximity to customer, focus on performance, speedy decision making, courage, and diversity of effort. A leadership team? Not really, but definitely individuals working alongside one another in an agile, accountable and focused manner.

What’s not to admire?

by Martyn Sakol