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Keith McCambridge

Keith McCambridge

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Leadership teams – what goes on at 35,000 feet

I was excited the evening before I met my first Plc Board. I was about to see the pinnacle of commercial insight, strategic thinking and organisational leadership. Surely I would never see the world the same again – my benchmark of team excellence was about to change forever. It did change, but not for the better.  It was like a kindergarten. There was open aggression, personal attacks, political positioning and no evidence of teamwork.

Fortunately, I have worked with some excellent Boards since, but even amongst the best there are persistent top-team problems that merit exploration. Whilst there is a huge volume of research on what makes a high performing team, only a very small proportion concerns how business leadership teams actually work in practice, possibly because of the challenges around gaining access. At Wickland Westcott, we have worked directly with Executive and Board teams for 35 years, and based on these experiences, we (respectfully) make the following observations:

  1. Executive teams rarely solve a problem together - more often they tend simply to meet and communicate
  2. Friendship in teams can reduce performance - it leads to shortcuts
  3. Leaders can sometimes be too strong - this neuters the power of the team and also creates a dependency

One of the main characteristics of Boards and Executive teams is that they tend to be populated by highly successful, intelligent and respected leaders. We all know that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, so it stands to reason that if you populate a team primarily with leaders, you risk introducing behaviours that are sub-optimal to achieving your business goals.

One observation concerns the manner in which many Executive teams tend to interact. Executive meetings offer the opportunity for individual functional or divisional leaders to present their news. Each reports on their own area of operations, often hoping to reassure the CEO and the rest of the team that they are doing what they are supposed to – that they are leading. The result is a communication forum (often stage-managed) and nothing more.

Some of the best Executive teams we have worked with do it differently.  They solve problems and address challenges together, having set aside personal insecurities, ego and competitiveness.  They prize collective achievement above individual success. So, the best CEOs set a climate and an agenda that allows constructive dialogue to flourish. However, such a leadership culture may not be common place - only about 20 per cent of the senior teams we have worked with were able to cite moments within the previous three months when the team had actually worked on a problem collectively. More of this genuine teamwork at the top level is vital to truly capitalise on the formidable brains around the table, and to build a sustainable senior business decision-making  model.

On the issue of familiarity and friendship, many suggest that really high performing teams should contain people who know each other well and like one another. The better you know each other, the argument goes, the better the levels of trust and performance. To be clear, at Wickland Westcott we do believe that most senior teams could benefit by building closer member relations, but they also need to be mindful of those areas of work where familiarity can reduce effectiveness.  There is a good reason why rosters for flight-deck crews purposely pair-up people who don’t know each other very well – in fact, total strangers constitute the perfect pairing. This is because familiarity ushers in risk. For example, the pre-flight checklist is shortened because both parties know the drill, respect each other, and frankly:  “he’s never been wrong so far”.  We believe this danger is equally relevant for Boards, especially in the areas of risk and corporate reputation.  In these contexts, the discipline and rigour with which risk is managed must trump any interpersonal relationships.  Wise Boards err towards over-doing process when it comes to risk.

Finally, a leader can be too strong. It may sound counter-intuitive, but strong leadership can create overpowering authority and this can neuter the contribution and voice of those in an Executive team or a Board. In Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, author Thomas Blass refers to the relationship between the Captain and the First Officer on the flight decks of commercial airlines. The First Officer has the power to take control of an aircraft if it is flown unsafely by the Captain, yet the Captain is more senior and typically has at least three times the flying hours of the First Officer. In practice, although on occasions First Officers observe essentially dangerous flying by their Captains, they rarely feel they have sufficient authority to challenge the Captain, even in the face of clear and present danger.

To be clear, we are not arguing for overly-consultative, super-democratic Board and Executive team leadership. Far from it, the best leaders pick a clear line and go for it. But they also create a boardroom climate around them where challenge is legitimised and encouraged. If someone in the team thinks they may have just spotted a mountainside looming through the cockpit window, their first impulse needs to be to share it, rather than to internally question their own right to speak up. Much of this stems from the CEO’s confidence. People who believe in themselves tend not to mind being challenged.

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