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Thoughts from the Field - February 2017 - Getting Back on Track

By Rick Packer - February 2017

You readThe Five Dysfunctions of a Teamand perhaps held an offsite on the disciplines fromThe Advantage. You had several great conversations, made initial progress, then hit a ceiling and have since stalled. Unfortunately, this happens.

When your team’s development stalls it can be tied to a number of variables. The good news is that there are several aspects of a team, that when addressed, can push the team to its next level of development resulting in a breakthrough. Here are a few to consider:

The Leader Owns It

Your team’s development is directly correlated to how much the leader owns it. Team development cannot be internally sourced to a department or an individual team member. In most cases, you can tell when the team leader is going through the motions – perhaps checking the proverbial “teambuilding” box. I worked with a team and CEO where team members said all the right things about working on team dynamics. I would later find out that the team entered our offsite knowing it was an HR initiative without the CEO’s full support. At the offsite, the CEO was combative and did his best to overtake and sidetrack conversations. As soon as I heard the CEO say, “Stay in your own swim lanes and focus on execution in your area,” I knew this team was done – until a crisis hit months later. There’s more to the story and the team ended up making progress, but not until the CEO assumed ownership of the team’s development.

On a healthy team, the leader must want it, own it, and sacrifice self to make it work.

Macro vs. Micro Language

The words you use in a team setting can prevent a team breakthrough. When I consult for a team, I listen for a specific communication pattern that enhances vulnerability. Are team members using more micro or macro language? Macro language is generic, political, and speculative. For example, when a team member says, “Our problem on this team is that certain people struggle with change,I know this team will have a hard time making progress until they stretch themselves to use a more vulnerable and actionable form of language.

Micro language is specific, straightforward, and makes use of people’s names. For instance, “John and I are struggling with the recent reorg because we lost headcount and influence.” Now we have specifics to validate and solve for. In the absence of these details, team members waste time figuring out what, who, and why.

On a healthy team, team members use specific language.

Board Games

When games are played between the executive team and the board, it prevents the team from a breakthrough. There is not enough room in this newsletter to capture all the potential issues, but here are a few common roadblocks:

  • The board plants an insurgent on the executive team.
  • The CEO is on puppet strings.
  • The CEO and executive team “pitch” the board looking for approval, rather than bringing the board into strategy conversations earlier in the topic life cycle.

These roadblocks lead to the executive team becoming more consumed with managing the board than leading the company.

On a healthy team, there is strategic collaboration with the board.


Think about a topic that is so off-limits you cannot imagine your team discussing it in an open setting. Now imagine how many elephant topics you and your peers could generate. For a team to breakthrough to the next level of development, elephant issues must be openly addressed.

Recently, I was at an executive team meeting when the CEO began debriefing a board meeting. Stunned with what they were hearing and without saying a word, each team member began silently questioning if this topic was open for discussion. Historically it was not. But, I encouraged them to go after this topic. They discussed and lived happily ever after. Not really. But they did build muscle memory to deal with the elephant in the room moving forward.

On a healthy team, there are no off-limit topics.

Commitment Problems

You have likely read about our teachings onteam #1. What’s important for teams that have stalled is acknowledging that committing to team number one happens in two phases. Phase one is an intellectual commitment where team members declare their number one team. But phase two, emotional commitment, is realized when (a) you come to the table as a horizontal leader making decisions in the best interest of the entire organization even to the detriment of your vertical area of responsibility. And (b) when you receive vertical push back you continue to support team number one’s decision.

On a healthy team, all team members have intellectually and emotionally committed to team #1.

Quaility vs. Quantity

A number of ourarticleshave focused on the importance of establishing a meeting cadence. But I’ll leave you with this encouragement – addressing your meeting cadence is the most practical way to achieve a breakthrough.

On a healthy team, the quality of meetings is emphasized more than the quantity of meetings.

Back – Back – Back!

When ESPN’s Chris Berman shouts, “Back-back-back,” it perfectly captures the euphoric moment for the baseball player who hit the home run and for the entire team. If your team has stalled and is not producing runs, you need your own back-back-back moment. When you remove thebackdoor,back-stabbingstops; therefore, you will learn to have each other’sbacks.

Removing the back door is eliminating those private, hallway, and gossip-filled conversations. This is a must because back-door conversations are one of the most damaging and politically charged actions that destroy trust. When the backdoor is eliminated, the figurative backstabbing subsides. Instead of gossiping behind one another’s back, you’ll hear, “We have each other’s backs.” In my 12 years as a Table Group principal consultant, this is always – always – the ultimate breakthrough moment.

On a healthy team, the path to having each other’s backs is removing back door conversations.

None of these breakthrough areas are easy. But neither is being on a team – especially at the executive level. If your team has stalled, addressing the above areas could spark renewed progress.