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Keith McCambridge

Keith McCambridge

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The Myth of the Top Team

We have spent many years working closely with a range of Executive Teams and studying their behaviour. This fascinating experience has exposed us to some wonderful talent. But to describe all these groups as ‘teams’ would be less than accurate.

Great teams achieve things together, unified by a common purpose and a desire to think and act co-operatively. However, when we ask - “When was the last time you actually worked together on a problem or issue?” many top teams have not done so for at least the last quarter. Why is this? And what, therefore, are the leaders doing in their meetings?

In our experience, they spend most of the time communicating rather than working directly on a problem or opportunity. Executives present on their individual area and their progress. Meetings tend to review the numbers, spot issues, describe activity and challenges, but often stop short of working through that problem or opportunity. Individual executives are instead expected to keep their own house in order, and are therefore tasked with addressing these challenges separately before coming back to the team to present their plans. Whilst such an approach can be seen as efficient (in terms of division of labour), and demonstrates a readiness of the CEO to delegate, in practice it means that the team does not necessarily harness the full power of its experience and skills.

Often when running executive team events, we put the team to work on an issue. Their lack of practice doing this together often shows through. There tends to be a rush to solve the issue without reflection or discussion about the plan and how they are going to proceed. Typically there is no structure to the approach and as a result they can be frustrated by lack of progress. Critically, the executives may struggle to listen, don’t play each other in, and fail to utilise the different styles and skills of the group to their advantage. The reality is that these are often bright, competent people, but they have little recent practice at genuine teamwork.

Great teams get to know each other. They respect (and equally importantly, they deploy) the diverse opinions, views and styles of their members. They do this through the struggle of shared endeavour – trying, failing, learning, crafting and ultimately perfecting their operating rhythm.

Let us be honest, there are top teams who do not operate in this collegiate way, yet nevertheless build and lead highly successful organisations.  In our view however, executive team performance is almost always enhanced by spending some time together focusing on the thorniest problems, threats or opportunities. Not just identifying and articulating them, but debating ideas, generating solutions and working up implementation plans together.

So if you are a CEO considering how to strengthen the effectiveness of your team, start with your meetings. Most communications and updates can be sent out in advance and pre-read. In the meetings work on challenges together, in the same room and do so repetitively – the more you practice, the better you get. This is what the best teams do.

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