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When an organisation has experienced market success for a sustained duration, it is common for CEOs and some executive team members to assume the top team is high functioning.

As Jim Collins said in the book How the Mighty Fall, companies that are at risk of failing attribute their success to their own superior qualities (‘we deserve success because we are so smart’) – so they stop trying. The downside is if they are wrong, the consequences can be significant. Whereas companies that last a long time attribute their success to being lucky – so they keep working hard. The downside is minimal.

There are three typical misperceptions that I see in leadership teams that put you in the "we're so good" camp.  This means that you can easily get blindsided and can miss that your executive team needs improvement.

1. Getting Along Equals High Performance

A common misunderstanding is that engaged, happy teams equate to high performing. Yet, in my experience you will find that low performance teams are just as happy as high performance. The difference is that high performance teams aren’t always contented. That’s because they are more oriented towards solving hard problems. It means they get comfortable with the uncomfortable – confronting the gap between where the team is now and where it needs to be. High performance teams take on ambitious goals, know the competitive landscape, innovate, clear the toughest obstacles and own the idea of building a better future for their firm.

Politeness and camaraderie are often considered a strength of a management team. But cordiality often hides passive-aggressive behaviours that avoid the tough conversations. Over time, innovation drops off, speed to market and business paces slows down reflecting the issues in the senior team that aren’t being addressed. In these circumstances, you’ll often find leaders retreating to the safety of their own function or business units.

The reality is that long-standing and successful leadership teams become so comfortable with each other that groupthink sets in. Groupthink is when the quality of decision-making suffers as a close-knit group becomes insulated from dissenting viewpoints. There is a tendency to overestimate the team’s abilities, justify past decisions and maintain group harmony.

In my work with leadership teams, it is common to find that the majority of team members believe their team is working well. Despite employee engagement results painting an entirely different picture. It is usually one or two people, uncomfortable with the status quo, that push to improve the team’s performance. Often, their views are shunned and resisted.

2. High Individual Performers Equals High Performing Team

CEOs typically spend the majority of their time ensuring that they have the right people in their team based on their functional expertise. There’s not denying that it’s critical to have “the right people on the bus.”

Gathering a bunch of talented high performers and assuming they will make a super star team sounds great in theory. Unfortunately, it rarely works in practice. Leadership team members have diverse backgrounds, different skills and experiences. They also tend to be too focused on their own functional area and it takes time for them to develop an enterprise wide view of the organisation. It creates issues in a leadership team because they’re not on the same page for conversations about the future direction or even solving challenges.

According to Google at Work’s seminal study on what makes a high performance team, it doesn’t matter so much who is on the team, but how they interact together. This all starts with team leaders who model high-trust behaviours.

“Individuals on teams with high trust bring in more revenue, are less likely to leave Google, are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates and are rated as effective twice as often by executives. There is no team without trust.”

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google

Throwing high performing individual leaders together doesn’t translate into a team that will naturally bond. Learning how to work harmoniously together is a skill that needs to be nurtured.

Executives often find it challenging to understand why their peers behave in a particular way or don’t communicate in the same way as they do. One of the main reasons is that they tend to make assumptions about each other based on their own worldview, failing to take into account the other person’s perspective. The result is that they will often get frustrated with each other – butting heads or avoiding each other fearing conflict. Such dysfunctional behaviours reduce the ability to harness the collective intelligence of the team itself and the people below that report to them. Typically, it requires individuals receive coaching to improve team performance.

3. Team Success is about Delivery, Not Overall Growth

Executives spend their career delivering in their area of expertise. Once they get into the leadership team, it is no longer just about how their function is performing, but the organisation overall.

Typically, team success revolves around production metrics – how many widgets produced or how many client projects won. A more progressive lens encompasses success in terms of how the team propels overall growth and how well they make things together. It’s about transitioning to measuring the success of the team based on winning together, not individually.

Building an Effective Executive Team

Everything is in flux. Just because you have a high performance team now, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Executives leave, new ones join and the competitive landscape changes.

The reality is that there is no such thing as a perfect team. In fact, that assumption lies at the heart of what takes a team down the path of dysfunction.

In truth, great leadership teams are never accidental. It takes dedicated effort and planning, led by the CEO, to help the leadership team reach their full potential.

As we head into a new year, now is the time to improve your leadership team functioning, so that you don't have any blind spots.  You can find out more about how I can help in my building trust in leadership teams program.


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