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Top Team Effectiveness: a 21st Century Imperative

In pursuit of top team effectiveness

Historically top team effectiveness has been measured by the influence the CEO has on business results. But in an ever-changing 21st century business environment, it takes more than a single heroic chief executive to deliver results.

When the single most important non-financial factor for investors is the top team and the quality of their leadership, it’s concerning to think that the vast majority of organisations are still wrangling with the perfect solution for this critical driver of business success.

Executive teams and Boards are perpetually characterised by repeating frustrations – lack of productivity or progress in meetings, the same issues appearing time and again, getting down into the detail of issues which could be better dealt with outside of the top team, and too much (or not enough) conflict derailing the decision-making process. There’s so much energy spent on so little results. As a board member or Senior Executive, I’ll wager the symptoms will be as familiar as the cures are elusive.

It’s no wonder that top teams rank in the top 10 most covered topics in Harvard Business Review over the last 40 years.

So, what are the missing pieces which will help top teams – already made up of the best-of-the-best a company has – become the high-performing units they need to be? How can you make sure your top team is focused on the right things in order to drive the right results?

Missing pieces

With the new imperatives presented by the 21st century – a more dynamic and unstable business environment than ever, fast-paced technological changes, and distinct shifts in the attitudes of the workforce – drawing on leadership, talent and capability is the only way to get ahead.

Yet despite decades of significant investment in team development we’re still not seeing universal improvements in top team – and therefore business – performance.

At our roundtable we’ll talk through the three major reasons for this lack of traction:

  1. The focus has been on developing the wrong things. Team work is prioritised over task work, but like yin and yang, both need to be in balance to reap results
  2. When the focus is on the right things, it’s often at the wrong time
  3. Leaders get stuck in behavioural patterns which limit individual and team performance

At the heart of it all is one concept – shared leadership.

Marshall Goldsmith said: “No one leader can be good at everything. Shared leadership across a team of leaders will be the way in which excellent companies do business in the future.”

The real power for dealing with rapid change and hyper-competition lies in shared leadership within and across the senior executive team and Board. So, if the age of a single CEO doing most of the heavy lifting is over, how can you fine-tune your executive team and Board to deliver the performance the business deserves?

A new focus

It’s true that an effective team can become more than the sum of its parts, but what does it take to turn that group of great people into a high performance board which can truly deliver for an organisation?

How can you create shared leadership and harness that to enhance results?

At its core, a top team must build strong relationships in service of the organisation, because that’s what it takes to operate effectively. You don’t have to like one another, just figure out a way of communicating and collaborating that drives outcomes.

Research tells us that there are three key aspects of board or top team interactions that will really drive improved performance outcomes:

  1. Influencing the effort that team members put into their contribution to the team’s work
  2. The performance strategies adopted to achieve progress
  3. The knowledge and skills people have

Here we briefly explore what each of these means for your board or senior executive team development.

Influencing effort

Performance strategies – why you need them

Many boards and senior executive teams spend a large amount of time setting the what and where of strategic direction. The really effective ones also agree on the how, defining performance strategies that will ensure delivery of the work that only they can do, resulting in the organisation delivering against its targets.

If you’re using the wrong strategies, how can you expect to deliver the right results?

Knowledge and skills – the power of team

Learning and personal development must not stop because someone reaches the board. And a very real danger is that some of the skills that have supported a rise to board level will work against you, particularly in arresting learning in a misguided belief that those who reach the board are fully-formed and able to take on the challenge without further personal development.

Critical to team performance is not only personal development, but the skills mix the team possesses and how this can be put to optimum use. Do you even have the right people on the team to deliver?

Of course, if it was as simple as cracking these three things then we wouldn’t need an executive roundtable to go into more detail about how to get top teams to perform!

If you’re joining us for one of our upcoming roundtables we’re looking forward to hearing your experiences and views on whether high-performing top teams only really exist in mythology or whether it’s possible to create one in your organisation.

Taking the right first step to future proof your organisation

At our recent invitation-only round table event, Future proof your organisation with 21st century leadership, we discussed many aspects of the current business environment and the challenge it poses. Some of the key points included:

  1. No one person has all of the answers. Adaptive and shared leadership is the only sustainable way forward
  2. Developing a culture which supports enterprise contribution will result in exponentially improved performance
  3. VUCA environments are a threat, but can become an opportunity if you have the skills and techniques to overcome them
  4. Creating the right level of attachment in your culture will set every one of your employees free to thrive and perform at their best, which in turn improves organisational performance
  5. If you’re a leader, change and culture start with you

But if you are leading an organisation which needs to transform, what is the single most important thing for you to do now to future proof your organisation?

A new perspective on the failure of change programmes

The failure of change programmes is usually attributed to poor execution, but based on a four-year study of 62 corporate transformations, an article in the Harvard Business Review, What Everyone Gets Wrong About Change Management, says something different.

The research team cites what might sound like an obvious, but previously overlooked, cause – organisations often pursue the wrong changes. They advocate that, before worrying about how to change, executive teams need to figure out what to change and in particular, what to change first.

What vs how

For decades senior leadership teams have worried about how to undertake change programmes. Various techniques have been in vogue at different points, and many hours have been spent debating one approach versus another at board tables around the world.

But this analysis paralysis took focus away from the most important aspect of change – what exactly is it that needs to be changed? What changes will have the biggest impact on the organisation’s success? And, crucially, what changes will have the biggest benefit to its stakeholders – both its customers and its team?

Understanding your organisation’s answer to what to change first requires a detailed and thoughtful look at a multitude of factors and metrics. An outside perspective is often helpful in uncovering key insight which can guide successful change programmes.

Transformation done poorly can be very painful. All transformation requires some form of disruption, but negative disruption can have disastrous effects on your business. It can, and often does, lead to confusion, wasted energy, time, effort, and money.

However, transformation can also be, well, for lack of a better term, transformational. Done right, it can position your company to take advantage of the challenges it faces, turning what were once challenges into opportunities.

So, what will your next step be? And how do you know it will be the right one?

What does 21st century leadership look like and why does it matter?

They say the only constant is change, consequently, 21st century leadership has never been more relevant than in today’s dynamic business environment.

We’re not yet a quarter of the way into the 21st century, but the difference between 20th and 21st century organisations is already marked by those which are thriving, and those which are merely surviving.

Many organisations are still using the leadership styles and management processes developed for the Industrial Revolution, when the imperatives were about streamlining to create maximum efficiency.

But nearly 200 years later, efficiency doesn’t win the match, it merely buys you a ticket into the game.

Does leadership really matter?

Leaders create the culture for success: 50-70% of the variance in organisation culture can be explained by differences in leadership style.

And according to research by Dave Ulrich, around 30% of the judgments investors make about the intangible value of an organisation rely on their views about the quality of its leadership.

Even if you place no other significance on great leadership (and if you don’t, we really need to talk!), when its quality can directly impact an organisation’s financial value, there’s no escaping its critical role in success.

What is 21st century leadership?

If it isn’t about creating a more efficient organisation, exactly what is 21st century leadership about?

We’ve run 10 round table events on this topic, as well as working with more than 170 organisations to make transformation smoother and more successful. For us, the key to successful 21st century leadership comes down to a fundamental shift.

Leaders can no longer have all of the answers.

The environment is too complex. The challenges are too extensive. The people you are leading are more diverse than ever.

So while individual leaders cannot have all of the answers, collectively your people do. Adaptive leadership – where you set direction and ground rules, but then allow your team to dictate how to reach the end point – allows problem solving at the pace you need. That agility is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Leaders need to be facilitators, not commanders.

As we say in our manifesto: Leadership is not a set of characteristics. Leadership is a responsibility.

We explore these concepts and many more at our round-table events. We look forward to meeting you and hearing your perspective on 21st century leadership.