Stop Imposing “Real Team” Governance on Executive Work Groups

A prevailing assumption by many is that the group of senior executives who together inhabit the “top team” of their company or business unit will be more effective in achieving their objectives if they consistently embody the characteristics of a “real team” i.e. are open and truthful, have high levels of trust, use consensus decision-making frequently, listen to each other’s ideas and feelings, care for each other’s success, manage conflict well, etc. – you get the drift.  Maybe…but shouldn’t it depend more on the requirements of the situation and task at hand?  A “real team” can be defined as a group that needs each other to act and where members have shared responsibility beyond their own unit accountability.  So what might be the precipitating conditions that might require being a “real team” at the top? Wouldn’t it be when there is a level of complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility and paradox that necessitates several different perspectives, significant exchange and coherent collaboration and communication across multiple functions?

Such things as a shift in strategy, significant growth or retraction requiring cross-functional coordination, big changes in capital or resources or sudden unforeseen and dramatic changes in the markets and competition might rightly be some candidates.  However, such circumstances only arise periodically.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the behaviours noted above and others like them are imminently important for teamwork…when they are required – which for top teams is probably much less time than you think.  In my experience, after a company strategy is established, most of a top team’s time is spent updating each other on their functional or business unit activities, getting feedback, monitoring progress on a key initiative or two (e.g. M&A, entry into a new market, etc.), tracking budgets, and problem-solving some customer or organization issues which are usually relevant for a specific business or function and not affecting everyone.  Certainly it is productive to behave professionally in top team meetings, however it is not essential to go through the unnecessary efforts of exhibiting high levels of trust, candor and caring when interdependency are not required.

What are the implications of this?  I think senior teams who focus on teambuilding sessions to create alignment, positive “esprit de core” and motivation can be a wasted, unnecessary and misguided effort if they don’t really need to be a “real team.”  In fact it might even make them worse as it creates expectations for behaviour that will quickly be discarded as being irrelevant and miss-matched for what is required by their situation, which most of the time is likely individual executives simply delivering on what they are accountable for with their own units in the context of the overall company strategy.

The point here is that the governance model for top teams needs to match what they are required to do for their company.  I would say that, for the most part, top teams only need to be “real teams” about 15% of the time.  Stop imposing a “real team” model where it is not required unless you want frustrated team members and inefficient meetings.

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