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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #9 - What is Your First Team?

By Jeff Gibson

What is Your First Team?

Imagine a group of professionals who meet virtually every day to try and resolve the biggest problems our society faces. Now, imagine that same group of people more concerned about the people they represent and their own self–interest than they are about society’s most pressing concerns. This is what often occurs in places like Congress and the United Nations. Officials advocate for their own political interests first and foremost, and the greater good takes a backseat.

Team #1

With the best of intentions, this very same phenomenon occurs within companies. Executive teams are comprised of leaders from various functions – e.g. operations, sales, marketing, technology, human resources, finance – who are often more concerned about what’s going on in their own area than how the executive team as a whole is performing. Surprisingly, this is natural and something we often see in our consulting work.

To explore this idea, I always pose this question to executive team members, “Which team is your first priority, your Team #1?” Unfortunately, the answer is not always easy to admit. But, if you really want to ensure your leadership team is working as cohesively and effectively as possible, the question can’t be ignored or glossed over. Because most members serve on two teams that are both important (the team they lead and the team they are a member of), they need to prioritize their leadership team (Team #1) first, for the good of the organization.

Consider the Five Dysfunctions of a Team model for a moment: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To truly be a cohesive team, members must pay attention to the collective results of the team over anything else, including the results of the groups that they may manage personally. This is often a difficult proposition for many leaders because they see it as being disloyal to their direct reports. Remember, a leader’s direct reports are the people they hired, the people with whom they spend most of their time, and the people they enjoy leading. However, if every member of an executive team is more concerned about how decisions will impact their own group rather than the overall organization, it is inevitable that collective decision–making will suffer.

Collective Versus Siloed Decision–Making

For example, if a leadership team is debating how to best allocate a budget surplus, the perspective of each team member will affect their suggestions and ultimately decision–making. A group who believes the team they lead is their Team #1 will usually engage in debate with a strong departmental focus: engineering needs more developers, marketing needs more advertising budgets, etc. At the end of the day, this jockeying for position and resources can cause frustration and peer resentment.

When a team approaches the same budget question with the leadership team as their first team, the debate completely changes. Instead, the team is evaluating each of the potential investments in light of what would be best for the overall organization, and not just their own group. As obvious as this sounds, clarfying the distinction about Team #1 can make all the difference.

In Pat’s forthcoming book, The Advantage, one of our consulting clients points out the power of Team #1 by saying, “The concept of Team #1 has created a common language and sense of identity for our team. It provides the mindset that individual goals, issues and interests are set aside to focus on what’s best for the organization. I truly believe it is the one thing that keeps us from busting apart at the seams as we deal with the challenging issues of managing in a complex business environment.”

Make it Stick

To ensure that your leadership is adhering to the Team # 1 concept, I recommend reviewing the following with your team:

  • Point out the priority of Team #1 prior to making any key decisions. This will put leaders in the correct frame of mind. When entering an executive meeting, team members need to remove their functional hats, and put on their executive team one.
  • Demand that team members prioritize the executive team over all others. When the executive team is truly cohesive and prioritized appropriately, their ability to face difficult challenges with confidence further bonds the team and models unity to the organization. This requires an absolute, unwavering commitment to Team #1.
  • Explain how the team’s direct reports will be impacted. We all know that if there is any daylight between executive team members, it ultimately results in unwinnable battles that those lower in the organization are left to fight.

Like many of the concepts we consult on, Team #1 is as powerful as it is simple. We have seen highly–educated leaders with vast experience have an “aha” moment about this concept resulting in immediate impact on their team’s cohesion and their organization’s ability to succeed.