Developing Leaders and Organizations for Breakthrough Results
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"Setting himself apart from so many in his field, Doug is skilled at moving senior leaders to action with a sense of urgency and clarity. He is able to understand and shift business and cultural dynamics with the immediacy of delivering results 'now'. He guided a collection of disparate yet talented senior executives to a breakthrough in embracing our responsibilities to leverage our talents as a team... "

Eileen Sweeney
HR VP Global Operations

How the Senior Management Team is Different: Implications for Building a High Performance Team

Teams at the top of the organization are not only a feasible means of providing organizational leadership but they are also increasingly necessary as the demands of senior management roles outdistance the capacities of any single leader. It is this dynamic that is motivating a growing number of chief executives to form and build teams to help them lead their enterprises. This organizational practice represents a number of advantages. When a leadership team addresses strategic issues or initiatives that cut across the entire organization, most of the people who will be responsible for implementing those decisions will be in the room. As important is the benefit of drawing on the rich pool of knowledge, talent, experience perspective and creativity of the company's most accomplished leaders in making key organizational decisions.

In my work with senior teams around the world, I have seen the same scenario play out repeatedly. Top leaders assume that increased reliance on a senior team for mission-critical issues will be a natural and painless transition away from the CEO as the dominant decision maker. The "decider" as President Bush referred to himself. These leaders assume they'll just have to lean more heavily on the senior team to get superior, collective results. After all, a group of senior leaders already exists. Isn't that why they're there? Yes and no. While they clearly have responsibilities to be a fully contributing member of the senior team, they also have special leadership responsibilities that keep them working as individuals. In fact, senior management teams have a number of significant differences from other management teams. These differences are exceedingly important because the members of these teams are often unprepared by virtue of their previous experience in teams for the complex dynamics they encounter in the senior team. These differences also pose some unique challenges for the shaping, structuring, managing and building of these teams. Some of the notable differences are these:

  • The importance of the external environment: Although all teams need to deal with an external environment, the senior team is uniquely influenced by external forces that have a major influence on team functioning including customers, competitors, financial markets, directors and shareholders.
  • Complexity of the task: The combination of internal operations management, external relationship management, organizational leadership, and strategic decision making creates a task that has many more interrelated elements and greater uncertainty than the tasks facing most other teams.
  • Intensified political power: The use of power and the presence of politics are much more pronounced and explicit political behavior appears to be more frequent than in other teams.
  • Zero-sum game of succession: In many senior teams the issue of succession to the CEO creates a zero-sum game in terms of who ends up as the next CEO. This creates what some call a "fixed-pie" of rewards with one person wining and others losing the ultimate reward.
  • Increased visibility: As the source of organizational leadership, the senior team has symbolic value for the entire employee population, and therefore the team's actions, values, interactions and dynamics are carefully watched by all. The team becomes a stage upon which dramas are acted out.
  • Composition: Individuals become members of the senior team through a career-long process. In many of the companies I've observed, individuals who make it to the senior team often have relatively high needs for power, influence and achievement. They have histories of distinguishing themselves through individual achievement rather than through work on teams. They have been rewarded for their success in the "rugged individualism" model of management and are less prepared than those at the middle or lower levels of the organization to participate in effective teams.
  • Special meaning of team membership: Although membership and inclusion is an important issue is many teams, membership has special meaning in the senior team. Just being a member of the ultimate team in the company has special symbolism and status attached to it. The questions of who becomes a member, and what it means to lose membership become of much more concern than in other teams.
  • Unique role of the CEO as team leader: A key difference in the senior team is that the team leader is the CEO. This may create more social distance between the leader and the team members than on other team settings.

In light of these factors senior team dynamics are significantly different from those in other teams. In most case this makes senior teams more complex and more difficult to change and to build into a "real team."

Awareness of these dynamics is crucial for the individual who attempts to help senior groups become highly effective teams. As Peter Senge stated in The Fifth Discipline, "without collaboration there is no team and the "essence" of team is found not in names or organizational charts, but in how a group of individuals actually function. If they work collaboratively to achieve a common goal, we call them a team." The world is full teams of talented individuals who share a goal or vision for a short while, yet fail to learn. A great jazz ensemble has a shared vision (even of don't discuss it), but what really matters is that the musicians know how to play together.