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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #11- The Peril of Becoming a Cohesive Leadership Team

By David Simpson - July 2012

The Peril of Becoming a Cohesive Leadership Team

One of the most frequent “aha” moments I’ve seen in my experience working with leadership teams is around the importance of being a cohesive team and the impact it has on improving the health of an organization. This foundational principle is front and center in Pat’s latest book, The Advantage, as well as previous books; most notably, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It is fascinating to see the light come on as leaders comprehend the concept of “team number one” and as they realize the importance of committing to being a fully-invested member of the leadership team, above all else. It is not uncommon for leaders to admit that their focus and commitment had previously been to the individual teams they lead, rather than the leadership team of which they are members.

When we first consider “team number one” we often think of it as an “or” proposition, because we are considering which team should take precedent over the other (leadership vs. team you lead). We believe the leadership team does need to take precedence because they align the whole organization and ensure the goals of individual teams aren’t out of sync with the goals of the organization. However, leadership teams need to proceed with caution and integrate what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call the “genius of the and.”

Case Studies
In the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with two leadership teams for whom their success at becoming “team number one” has caused me to pause and ask “can you take this too far?”. Here are their stories, which I think we can all learn from:

The first is a senior team in an academic medical center who, like many others, thought they were a team because they met regularly and shared information. Initially, they were confident that they met the criteria for being a team as we define it. According to Pat, a team is defined as a small group of people that work collectively towards a common goal. But when pressed, this team realized that their goals weren’t aligned and that they weren’t behaving as a true team at all. It was impressive to see how vulnerable they were willing to be in admitting they were not a team. It was even more impressive to see them establish a powerful thematic goal and follow through on their commitment to the goal of becoming a more cohesive team. Fast-forward six months, and the team is truly a team. You can see it in their interactions with one another, in the progress they are making towards the goal, and in the comparison report of the results from their Five Dysfunctions Online Team Assessment. It was fantastic, and the team was pleased with the tangible results, but I could tell there was something taking the edge off of their joy.

The second team is a church leadership team I have worked with for a number of years. Unlike the first team, these folks have consistently been a solid, cohesive team. There is never any question as to what their number one team is and I feel confident their congregation would confirm they are united and speak with one voice. Over the past few years the church has been blessed with consistent and fairly impressive growth that has put a strain on many resources. Throughout, the leadership team has worked long and hard to be proactive and address issues. There is no shortage of passionate debate or “healthy conflict”, as we call it, amongst the leadership. However, once a decision is made they all commit to it, and hold one another accountable. For those of us inspired by the Lencioni teaming model it would seem like all should be well. And, until recently, that was the case.

So what was the problem? The problem in both these cases was one of perception. For both leadership teams, their strong cohesion is being perceived by some as “cliquish.” Taken to extreme, establishing clarity and consistency and speaking with one voice can be turned into a perception of “group think.”

Uncomfortable as it may be, we have to begin with some self-examination, and ask ourselves if the perception does correspond with reality at all and, if it does, we have to acknowledge it and correct it. The “genius of the and” comes into play because it requires leaders to intellectually place the leadership team as a priority but communicate and dialogue with the teams they lead, in a way that is inclusive, human and does not diminish their input.

Cascading Communication
The key to overcoming this issue lies in the third discipline of a healthy organization, “over-communicating organizational clarity.” As leaders, we often focus on the content and delivery of a particular message, which is indeed important. However, what leaders often fail to do is provide adequate opportunity and encouragement for dialogue. We fail to invest in building a relationship. Operating in a technologically advanced environment, we have lost sight of the power of live, personal interactions – often preferring email, instant messaging, texting and other “quick” impersonal tools. Somewhere along the line, we have lost our sense of connection and left the door wide open to misconception. Keeping this personal connection between the team on top and the rest of the organization is essential to reducing the impression of cliques.

There is one tool we recommend that can bridge this gap better than any other and its called “cascading communication.” Cascading communication requires the leader to have a live conversation with his or her team one business day after every leadership team meeting. This way, employees across departments at various levels hear, consistent messaging directly from their leaders and discuss issues in real time. Here are some details of how this works:

  • Get everyone in the room or on the phone for 15 – 20 minutes max
  • Share the 3 or 4 most important points from the leadership meeting (as agreed upon at the end of the leadership team meeting)
  • No script or presentation – casual, informal – be vulnerable
  • Mine for conflict – ask questions – do you think we’re on the right track? What did we miss?
  • Ask for commitment

The power of cascading communication comes from the frequency and discipline of doing it. Creating an environment where people are not just informed but their feedback is welcomed and considered, helps people to buy-in, and builds trust throughout the organization; thereby creating a healthier perception of the leadership team and, ultimately, the organization.

That said, if the team at the top appears to be a clique for all the right reasons (i.e. they are tightly aligned around making the company healthy) and they keep the lines of communication open, then this new-found leadership approach should be accepted and even welcomed.