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The chief executive and the top team

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The chief executive's role in developing a strong top team.

There is no more important task for a chief executive than to build a high performing top team. The difference such a team can make to an organisation and its achievements – and to the life of the chief executive – is enormous. 

The quality of thinking and of the decisions that direct the organisation will be much greater; the implementation of decisions will be more consistent and vigorous; and actions will be coordinated across the organisation.

In smaller organisations where a ‘top team’ is not a possibility, there is still much to gain by developing a team approach among those reporting to and working with the chief executive. The chief executive will have more ideas and perspectives to call on, and there will be a greater sense of ownership of everything the organisation does.

Building a high performing team

An excellent model for thinking about teams has been developed by Patrick Lencioni. He identifies five causes of teams failing to perform at a high level.

  • lack of TRUST
  • avoidance of CONFLICT
  • lack of COMMITMENT
  • absence of ACCOUNTABILITY
  • inattention to RESULTS

This list of negatives represents the elements that are needed in a team: trust, constructive conflict, commitment, accountability and attention to results. Each element depends on the one above it. So if there is insufficient trust, team members won’t engage in the healthy conflict that is needed if issues are to be worked through fully. That in turn means they won’t be fully committed to the decisions that the team makes and so won’t really be willing to be held to account for them. The ultimate effect is that the team won’t be focused on the results of the organisation as a whole; instead they will give priority to their part of the organisation.

More information on Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions model can be found on his website. 

The job of the team leader is therefore to help the team build each of the five elements. In this article I address building trust, because it is the fundamental element on which all the others are built, because the difference it makes is so large and because it is so often lacking. Simply concentrating on building trust in a team will pay back the investment many times over.

Building trust

Lencioni defines trust as confidence that the other team members’ intentions are good – that they want to achieve the same things as you. If that is true, individuals can be open and honest with each other and can address the issues that really need to be tackled.

Building trust takes time and effort. Part of the task is to help individuals to see each other as people they can relate to and empathise with. One simple way to do this is to take time to share each person’s story: how and why they came to be there. Talking about individual interests, in work and outside, also fosters this aspect of trust. Going out for a meal or a drink as a team is a natural way to help relationships grow.

It can also help to recognise that as a team develops there will be difficult patches. Tuckman’s well-known model of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing describes stages in team development and explains why even the best teams are sometimes uncomfortable with each other. It is a useful framework to make sense of periods of friction in a team.    

Formal methods

There are other, more formal approaches to building trust, for example, using personality profiling techniques such as the Myers Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) which can provide a way to help individuals understand the different ways others think and approach their work. 

Another model that helps people understand differences is Belbin’s Team Roles, which specifically looks at the different contributions that people make to a team. One of Belbin’s key insights was the importance of diversity in a team: teams need people who approach tasks in a range of ways. Many people find Belbin’s model intuitively easy to understand, and the roles he identified, such as Resource Investigator, Completer/Finisher and Teamworker, get adopted by many teams as part of their day-to-day language.    

These more formal techniques will usually require the input of external consultants and hence represent a cost. They are not always essential. A great deal can be achieved simply by taking the time to get to know each other better as people.

Source: Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass 2002.

Page last edited Jul 25, 2017

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