When did you last see a project promising a 50% uplift in results?
I’m guessing it wasn’t recently. If you ever have. Imagine the focus, energy and action that would flow immediately into making that project happen. Even before any results flowed it would be a fantastically exciting and motivating prospect. If you’re the Director proposing it, that would be even better still. If you’re in HR, and seen as marginal to the top team, it would be even more amazing.
Every Leadership Team has this opportunity. It’s a big assertion but when we asked leaders and members of teams about the cost of dysfunction in the top team, that was exactly what they told us.
Could do (much) better: every Leadership Team underdelivers. The biggest surprise in our research was the discovery that all Leadership Teams, almost without exception, thought they could and should do far better. Even those who classed their current teams as performing well said they felt the organisation could perform 45 per cent better if the Leadership Team could realise its full potential.
Leaders who said their current Leadership Teams were underperforming told us that if they were working to maximum capacity and effectiveness, they would deliver 90 per cent more.
Even if you discounted these figures by half, developing the team would still be the biggest value opportunity available to most Leadership Teams. And it is certainly the one with the greatest potential to transform their working experience into something much more exciting, motivating and rewarding. Realising this sort of performance gain wouldn’t do any harm to the bonus pot either!
So why aren’t teams acting to seize this opportunity?
Polishing fish. Coaching individuals who are working in an unhelpful team environment, without these others, is like polishing fish. You take your fish out of the muddy, murky water, polish it till it shines and then pop it straight back into the same unhealthy environment, where everything quickly reverts to normal. You need to fix the pool, as well as the poissons. Otherwise, nothing changes. The leaders I speak to know this. Yet few of them, as we have seen, take the action necessary to address the team, rather than just the individuals.
There’s paradox here. If all these highly intelligent and experienced leaders believe that the scale of bottom line benefit from creating a high performing Leadership Team is so large, why aren’t they doing something to realise it?
Six things that get in the way of developing Leadership Teams
In our research, leaders and members of Leadership Teams quote several reasons why their teams fail to address the underlying problems and fulfil their potential.
‘It’s never the right time to start’
Leadership Teams can always find good reasons to put off looking at team development. Because of the fluidity of their membership , they may be waiting for a new member to come on board. Or perhaps a reorganisation is imminent, or team members want to wait for the start of the new financial cycle.
There are also always other tasks and challenges that seem more urgent and that must be attended to straight away. Leadership Team development is one of the many victims of the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. Dealing with the problems facing the Leadership Team is important, yes, but it is often set aside in the face of the huge pressures of grappling with day-to-day challenges.
Yet, by failing to deal with weaknesses in the way they go about their business, Leadership Teams stack up problems for themselves. Delays contribute to a situation in which there will always be ever more urgent matters to address, and the team ends up spending all its time firefighting.
Once this vicious circle is established, addressing the development of the Leadership Team never seems quite urgent enough to prioritise. It never quite gets to the top of the list, and the list just keeps getting longer.
‘We don’t have the support we’d need’
The work that’s needed to develop the effectiveness of a Leadership Team takes time. It becomes a lot easier when external stakeholders are supportive and understand the implications of this work.
But it can sometimes be hard to help them see the link between something as intangible as team effectiveness and financial impact. CEOs and Leadership Teams need to convince their stakeholders that investing time and resources in a sustained effort to develop a powerful team will boost performance in ways that will make a large and measurable difference, even if this may not be immediately reflected in quarterly outputs and results. Often, they need to convince themselves first.
‘We don’t really have a plan’
When it comes to developing a Leadership Team, good planning disciplines and a proper business case are often neglected. Most team development work is based on only a vague understanding of what needs to be done and the bottom line value expected from it. Leadership Team development is seen as being about ‘soft’ skills and unmeasurable results, and it is denied the rigorous planning and scrutiny given to other business initiatives.
Developing a Leadership Team should be treated like any other business task. Planning is vital, but it is hard to know before you begin what the sequence of steps will be. This kind of project needs to be both planned out clearly and also to take an emergent approach to design.
Because the project is competing for resources with other initiatives that do have defined targets, deliverables and timescales, the Leadership Team will need to give as much thought to deliverables, investment and ROI as it would in embarking on any other investment.
‘We don’t have the skills we need’
Members of Leadership Teams all have their own specialist skills and expertise. But they usually have little training and less knowledge when it comes to the skills needed in their roles as members of the unique environment that is a Leadership Team.
They may even not know what skills they lack. Understandably, they assume that everything they already know about teamwork will apply to Leadership Teams. Some of it does. But team members usually have much to learn – and it often touches on factors they may have been completely unaware of.
‘Past awaydays haven’t translated into real change’
When a company becomes aware that it’s Leadership Team is not functioning as well as it could, the reaction is often to organise an awayday.
While these may help – and may even deliver new insights – they are not the answer. More time needs to be invested to create lasting and effective transformations. Sustained effort and focus is needed. Without this, the benefits will quickly decay as soon as team members are thrown back into the melee of their everyday work.
As a result, many team members have become sceptical about renewed attempts to develop the team, as they have seen so many previous efforts that were halfhearted or poorly followed through and have made so little difference.
We need help – but where can we find it?
While there are widely understood methods and approaches for most other forms of investment, this is often not the case with team development. Expert help is usually needed.
The obvious place to look for expertise and support is HR. But many HR professionals aren’t experienced developers of senior teams. Of those who do have this expertise, they are usually too weighed down with the challenges of keeping systems running smoothly and addressing the plethora of other people issues in the organisation to give the necessary focus and attention to the functioning of the top team. They are also, of course, greatly disadvantaged by being members of the team themselves, and by the effect this has on their relationships with others in the team.
It’s not magic
Creating a team that functions well, exploits the amazing strengths each member brings and complements the inevitable weaknesses that every member also has can lead to dramatic improvements. It can transform an organisation’s results, culture and prospects, quickly and permanently.
Many people seem to think successful Leadership Teams are a magical phenomenon – occurring, like the origins of life, only through a rare and unlikely constellation of circumstances. The assumption may be that great teams somehow just happen – that they depend on luck, or, at least, a mystical and elusive personal chemistry.
But the truth is, great Leadership Teams can be created. It doesn’t take magic.
Real changes can be generated surprisingly quickly
Creating an effective Leadership Team requires many changes – in the way each individual behaves, in the ways you interact, in the processes you employ for getting work done and in the way that work is organised – as the team develops and practises new patterns of behaving, talking and relating.
It is perfectly possible to take a normal, uninspired, disparate collection of people and talents and set in motion a process that will help it evolve into a powerful, unified and productive Leadership Team.
You can do it, and it can happen quickly. A complete and sustainable transformation will take time, but the first positive signs of change will be visible, and making a real difference, within weeks. You just need to know how to go about it.
When that new understanding starts to show through in real, practical changes, dramatic results can follow surprisingly fast. These early results add their own energy and momentum, and the pace of change will accelerate as you go through the gears.
Making changes in your team
In my Book, JUMP! I set out in detail how you can build the case, and generate support for, developing your Leadership Team. Over the next few issues, I’ll expand on how HR professionals can apply these ideas to improve the effectiveness of their Leadership Teams and make truly transformational change to the people agenda in their organisation.
For now, you can get your free copy of JUMP! here, either a hard copy or eBook.
I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email
Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme – or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership, which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.