Adult-Only Executive Teams

Delayed adolescents need not apply

Danny Taylor

Too often executive teams are dysfunctional. And when this occurs, everyone knows it: team members; the board; employees!

One reason for dysfunctionality is technical. The team set-up, beyond its people, is inadequate. The work of the team is not clear, job accountabilities are vague, and meeting and decision processes are deficient. Another reason is dynamics. Team members are self-focused, the team engages in scapegoating to deflect blame for problems, and the team creates but can’t resolve conflict. Dysfunctional team dynamics are the focus of this article.

Minimum expectations!

Functioning well in an executive team is not straight-forward. Without realising it, teams can bring out the worst in us; egocentricity, a lack of engagement, giving in to being distracted (checking phones and sending emails in meetings), frustration at things not going fast enough, or at a lack of decisions, seeing everyone else as the problem, and so on.

The result is a lack of civility. But let’s not mistake this for a need to be pleasant. This would be the opposite of what’s outlined above, and would look like a therapy support group. That doesn’t work, because the purpose of an executive team is to identify and solve complex problems, face into resource trade-offs, and mobilise the organisation to action. It means executives need to challenge each other’s ideas, in a time-limited, high pressure context. But they do need to play the issue, and not the person. They need to engage with challenges, not with potential enemies. Surprisingly, this is easier said than done.

We can take guidance here from elsewhere. A movement exists to teach philosophy in schools. The purpose is to educate young people to solve complex ethical problems they confront in everyday life. How do we stop bullying when we see it? How do we include new friends in our group? How do we advocate what’s important to school authorities? etc.

The educational process involves getting people to discuss these issues with peers. Sound familiar!! Guidelines to assist constructive yet successful discussions are a version of the following…

  • Listen to others and try to understand views with which you don’t agree
  • Be prepared to give your views and provide reasons for them, and expect the same of others
  • Look to build on the ideas of others

So let’s start here. If it’s a good enough set of minimum guidelines for school kids, then it’s good enough for executives. In theory, they should be able to do an even better job!!

How do executive teams end up in such a bad place?

Most executives who join an existing team, or become members of a new team, expect a good outcome. They commence with a vision of being a successful individual in a productive team. So why is it the actual experience can be so different? Here are some things that often go wrong, and why:-

Assumptions: We assume we can function as adults in a team, simply because we are chronologically adults. Yet just being old enough doesn’t mean we’ll be constructive and productive in a team. It takes considered effort. And having drinks after work rarely translates to effective teamwork.

LeadershipThe CEO (team leader) doesn’t appreciate the upside and importance of team dynamics, how they can quickly turn bad, and the need to manage them from the start.

Reluctance: Talking about team dynamics often feels weird. This is because it asks executives to talk about their feelings. That makes people feel vulnerable, so they talk tough about why it’s all crap. In reality, it’s crap and weak to not talk about dynamics.

Courage: Managing a team’s dynamics is the business of all team members. Courage is required to “call” bad behaviour when it appears. There is no ‘set and forget’. Success is 60% minimising negative behaviour, and 40% maximising the positive.

Persistence: Managing a team’s dynamics is an ongoing challenge. Function or dysfunction doesn’t emerge overnight. It starts with ignoring one example of bad behaviour, then another, and so on. Over time, bad behaviour becomes pervasive, and all team members complicit.

The road to maturity: from adolescents to adults…

When a team is struggling with its dynamics, or wants to set itself up for success from the start, what are some things it should emphasise?

Commitment: A team will only improve its dynamics if there is commitment to some level of team process. This involves a willingness to operate in defined and particular ways, and monitoring that as part of the ongoing work of the team.

Rules of Thumb: The trick is to make team process interesting. Executives enjoy dynamics when they are framed as “rules of thumb”. If a team continually goes off track, it needs a way to note that, and bring it back ON track. A limited number of rules of thumb allow the dynamics to be managed by the team.

Being Explicit: Team process needs to be clearly visible. Executives will often grudgingly discuss team dynamics, but then push this under the carpet, or into the background. But for a team to avoid falling back toward dysfunction, agreed processes need to be front-of-mind and integrated with the content and problem-solving in meetings.

Leader Guidance: The CEO (team leader) must own and lead this work. Because it can feel awkward at times, unless the leader normalises and role-models the process, it just won’t happen. People would rather avoid this work, which just pushes the problem down the road. The leader as role-model is the single most important predictor of success.

Normalising: Simplistic terms like “high performance teams” should be avoided. Most teams struggle just to be functional. But once they overcome this, the team’s dynamics look after themselves. So the goal is to make the team better than the 90% of low performance teams!!! The team can manage the rest.

Selective Interventions: Problematic issues need to be addressed directly. This may be more appropriate outside the team. If two people have a fractious relationship, it will impact the team. Both parties need to find ways to be mutually civil, for the good of the team. They don’t need to be each other’s friends, but they do need to function as “adults”. This is often best resolved offline. Humiliation in a group setting is not productive.

Back to the future

None of this is easy. Many but not all teams are in negative territory on dynamics. A new team is neutral, because nothing yet exists. So if the goal is to have positive dynamics, existing teams often have more of a stretch than new teams. But even then, setting up a team from scratch involves commitment and effort. It’s the same effort we’ve seen school kids confront when solving challenging problems with important consequences. The goal is to eliminate all bad behaviour.

People prefer to operate in worlds where they get on with other people while meeting challenges together. There is something meaningful about this. You see it in sport, you see it in music, and you see it in business. The overall challenge is more complex than working alone, but the experience of success is more motivating, gratifying, and exhilarating. And the positive impact on the organisation, in terms of business outcomes and cultural improvements, is significantly more dramatic.

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