In my career I’ve been privileged to have been part of several executive teams trying to rapidly grow an organization. We were the most senior leaders, and charged with building out our functions so they would support the needs of the growing organization. We were all smart experts in our functional areas and very committed. We believed those qualities were sufficient for us to be effective, but in retrospect, not quite. What were we missing?
Inevitably, tensions grew because what we were doing was hard, but also because we had never talked about actually being an effective team. It was going to take more than showing up every week to our regular meeting and talking about the issues. It was going to take some dedicated time to figure out how we would work together as a team. Specifically, we needed to develop trust between us, understand our purpose as a team (not just as functional leaders), have a clear understanding of the rules of engagement, communicate effectively, and embrace conflict - all in the service of being able to make effective decisions for the company.
Why is operating as an effective team so hard - especially during constant change? I have witnessed teams coming together time and again, jumping into the work and ignoring the dynamics of the team. Without engaging in defining the structure of how the team will operate, team members often struggle because of inadequate trust, weak conflict management skills, ineffective communication, and lack of clear roles and accountability. One or more of these challenges can handicap a team from being optimally effective. The result is frayed relationships, resentment, burnout and not getting the work done that is critical to the organization’s success. There are ripple effects into the organizations as well. The staff will see leadership dysfunction, and this will sow the seeds of doubt. It will also often drive churn in the work that the staff has to endure, increasing tension and eroding engagement. Ultimately, attrition will start to occur and the organization will be at risk of losing its most important talent.
Why is teaming so hard?
Often teams wonder why they aren’t being effective. Members of the team may think, “we are all smart and committed people… why isn’t this working?” There are two distinct reasons.
First, leadership teams are made up of a group of domain experts. Their expertise is why they were hired. It’s a big part of their identity and it defines the value they believe they bring to an organization. Effective teaming is challenging for experts because leadership and collaboration are very different skills, and require very different roles, from simply applying technical expertise.
Second, team members come with their own styles, preferences, skill sets, and ways of approaching problems. This diversity helps teams to accomplish more and do so creatively – but it also makes it hard for them to create alignment and adapt to a common work style. To be effective in working together, team members must value, adapt to, and leverage diversity in order to create synergy – where the sum is truly greater than the parts.
Does your team just focus on the work, or are you also taking time to focus on the team dynamics? To answer this, ask yourself these questions about the team you’re leading:
Is the team purpose clear and shared? Is the team aligned around why it exists?
Are the roles of team members clear? This isn’t just about titles - but also the boundaries of accountability and responsibility.
Does team communication lead to desired outcomes?
How effective is team decision-making? Are they clear, timely, and do all team member agree on the decisions made?
Are there regular meeting norms and explicit “rules of engagement”? Has the team defined which behaviors are acceptable and which are not? Does the team actively raise unacceptable behavior?
Are there indications that trust is a challenge for team members? Some indications might include lack of reliability, lack of perceived credibility, avoidance of difficult conversations, or too much egocentric behavior?