SLT, ELT, ExCo, OpCo, OpExec, THE Exec, THE Board (sometimes real, often not), most organisations have their own collective title or acronym for their groups of senior leaders. The theory goes that these diverse teams of mature, objective and experienced leaders work together without personal agenda to guide the overall organisation and ensure as friction-less experience as possible for customers, colleagues and stakeholders. As ever with theory, the reality is often just a little different…
How much value did you get from the last leadership team meeting you attended? As a member of the team were you overwhelmed by the interest, support and insightful challenge from your colleagues or was the apathy palpable as you gave everyone a thrilling Gantt chart update on project Zeus and its critical milestones? As the leader of a team of leaders did you sit back and watch with pride as the team you’ve consciously constructed collaborated brilliantly to wrestle the issue of the day to the ground or was it essentially a series of one-to-one’s with you and (probably disinterested) spectators?
When I got my first senior leadership job – at an age when I personally should not have been allowed anywhere near a board room – I was convinced that the most important task I needed to undertake when with my peers was to tell them all how very clever I was and how, if only they all did a better job, we (or perhaps I) would be so much more successful. I delivered killer presentations about my genius, withering retorts whenever anyone said anything I thought was foolish and developed a toolbox of body language, sighs and expressions that left no one in any doubt as to my pious opinion. After a few of these fun-fests – where I actually thought I was doing rather well – my boss at the time took me to one side and informed me in no uncertain terms that if I continued in this manner then my presence in the boardroom would only be required for delivering tea! Since I rather liked my job (and my boss) I resolved to address my behaviour and though never perfect the sharpest edges dropped off quickly as I realised my arrogant stupidity.
In the course of my consulting work over the last decade or so I have been privileged to be invited to observe and engage in many leadership meetings all over the world and have discovered three, sadly somewhat rare, components of the most effective teams of leaders.
They really know each other
You think you know your peers but I’m afraid you really don’t. OK then, so for each and every one of your peers – what’s the name of their partner? What was their first ever proper job? Who is their best friend? What is the business challenge that is really worrying them? What is the skill they want to master? So maybe you know these for one or two of your colleagues, but do you know it for all of them? (Obviously nothing special about this particular combination of facts but you get the point). Senior leaders spend lots of time focusing on what they know and too rarely have the vulnerability to admit they don’t know enough. Get to know your peers better. Not by going abseiling/raft-building/cooking or some other such abstract and staged occasional event but instead by taking the personal responsibility to regularly spend time one-to-one with each of your peers and building the empathy that leads to trust. Even the ones who in truth you really don’t like. In fact, especially them…
Then they really support each other
I am truly staggered by the lack of genuinely interested questions that leaders ask of each other at leadership meetings. The boss normally asks a few and there’s sometimes a sly question or two from one adversary to another trying to trip them up in front of their boss and peers, but the attentive, intelligent, thought-provoking question designed to help a trusted colleague make progress with something intractable is occasional at best. The result of this lack of interest is the interminable series of updates designed to convince everyone that everything is OK, even when everyone knows it often is not. Two things are required. First you drop your ‘cloak of invulnerability’ at the door to the meeting and open up about what’s really worrying you – if your boss doesn’t like that then get a new one. Second, when a colleague is speaking not only listen to them but have the courtesy if nothing else to help them along with some questions that demonstrate interest and support.
Then they really challenge each other
Friction is a powerful force but too much and you grind to a halt, too little and things slip. Friction in a senior leadership team is critical but unless the members already invest in the above two behaviours then it’s likely to be destructive, depressing and dangerous to the health of the organisation. Too often the friction is led and controlled by certain extrovert members of the team who consider it their purpose to throw in a grenade every now and again to make a point. Worse still is the spineless behind-the-back friction that occurs when so-called leaders do all their challenging either with other third parties (who they then successfully poison) or over the ever-so-brave medium of email. The actions are simple. Take 1 and 2 above seriously and then respect your cabinet responsibility of speaking constructively critically face-to-face when the door is closed and being a total sponsor of ALL of your colleagues when you are out of the room. If you’re in a team you can’t be publicly loyal to, or a team you can’t be openly critical of when you are privately with them – find a new one!