Sunday, December 25, 2011

Can You Have the Perfect Team?

Following on from the 18th December, I found a great article by Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer (2009) where they remind us that “when Doug Conant left his job as president of Nabisco to take on the CEO role at Campbell Soup in 2001, he stepped into the wrong fight. Campbell was one of the world’s poorest performing food companies, and its managers were consumed by infighting over who was to blame. Conant understood that his immediate priority was to manage internal and external tensions the company was facing, while fundamentally rebuilding employee morale. In his first 90 days he set out to create what he called a tapestry of expectations, so everyone in the organisation could know where the company was going,” (p.54).

Interestingly, in an interview with Dianu Coutu, J. Richard Hackman the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University mentions that “most of the time research shows that team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing. If the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that the team will do a good job,” (p.100).

Hackman gives leaders five tips for how to build a team;

1) Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.

2) Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know and agree on what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.

3) Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.

4) Teams need a supportive organisation. The organisation context – including the reward system, the human resource system and the information system – must facilitate teamwork.

5) Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes – especially at the beginning, midpoint and end of a team project.

Part of the problem with team performance is, as I’ve mentioned before, organisations seem to focus on individual performance much more than ‘team’ performance. Individuals are formally appraised, yet few teams get the same formal appraisal. Training and development programmes are developed around individual needs, yet rarely developed around ‘team’ needs. So until teams are appraised and developed as an entity, then one is unlikely to see optimal team performance – which implies suboptimal team decisions.

Richard Hackman highlights that ”the challenge for a leader is to find a balance between individual autonomy and collective action. Either extreme is bad, though we are generally more aware of the downside of individualism in organisations, and we forget that teams can be just as destructive by being so strong and controlling that individual voices and contributions and learning are lost. Where, for example, being a team player can be valued so strongly that individuals self-censor their contributions for fear of disrupting the team harmony” (p.105).

The ‘perfect’ team should be assessed by its output rather than how harmoniously it works together. A team should be looking for constructive input and to be challenged, so that it can consistently come up with the optimum solutions for the organisation. That will mean on occasion there will be strong disagreement about the way forward, not because a group or individual is wrong, but simply that there is often more than one business approach that will give the sought after outcome.

As Joni and Beyer state “it’s time to stop candy-coating what’s taught to executives and their direct reports. It’s time to stop pretending that conflict-free teamwork is the be-all and end-all of organisational life. It’s time to own up to the truth that the right balance of alignment and competition is what pushes individuals and groups to do their best. Let’s be clear; alignment is important, but the purpose of alignment is not harmonious agreement. It is to sustain an organisation’s ability to fight for what really matters, and to pull everyone together again once the fight is over,” (p.50).


Coutu, D and Beschloss, M. (2009). Why Teams DON’T Work. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 5, p.98-105.

Joni, S.A. and Beyer, D. (2009). How to Pick a Good Fight. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 12, p.48-57.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Makes a Great Team Member?

It was 4am when the executive team eventually finished preparing for the group budget presentation that was to take place to the shareholders in only 6 hours’ time. They had started 16 hours earlier at midday – when the CEO had called his executive team together for what was supposed to be a final run through of the budget and the presentation. Yet as with many things in business things didn’t go to plan.
Now the sceptics will criticise an executive team that haven’t got their budget sorted out the day before the presentation to the shareholders – and you’ll be glad to know the executive team would be as critical as you, being very disappointed with their performance.
But this isn’t about the process but the team that I witnessed sticking together till 4am in the morning – 11 executives, 1 business analyst, 4 finance personnel and 2 executive assistants – all working together to get the job done. There was no ‘huffing and puffing’, no sulking, no angry words, just a group of people wanting to get the job done. It was very special to watch. Having woken up at 3am that morning to catch a flight for the meeting – I was definitely the grumpiest person there by 1am.
So what did each of them have that made them great team players that night? One thing that really stood out was the passion and the pride in the task at hand – they could have taken short cuts or simply finished earlier, saying enough was enough – and many teams would have, but they didn’t – they stuck it out. This highlights the need for discipline and patience: Where discipline allows the team member to focus on the task at hand and to see it through, without ‘negative’ distractions.
They clearly respected each other and though there were people there with different ‘pay grades’ that didn’t seem to matter as everyone ‘mucked in’ to get the job done.
The leader stayed calm and focused – not offering an easy way out – and the team followed him out of respect (and knowing that what was eventually presented would also reflect on them).
I’d suggest that it should be the aim of every individual within every organisation to support and develop a winning team culture. Operating in today’s business world, where we find ever increasing complexity and continual change in the competitive landscape, organisations need to rely on their executive, management and other related business teams for effective decision making, continuous improvement and sustainable growth.
It’s said that every winning teams requires;
A common direction; a shared understanding of goals and values;
 Skills of interaction to solve complex and diverse problems;
 The ability to continually challenge themselves and expand their capabilities in response to change;
 Focus on team and organisational performance, above individual performance.
 The commitment and culture to develop a winning team.
But maybe one of the hardest things is to have a team where all the team members are all as dedicated as one another - and can all be relied on, when the times comes, to step up and support each other.
One can’t describe in words what I saw that night – it wouldn’t do justice to the team and all the individual members. But I will never forget get it, as it was a team working in perfect unison towards a required goal, at a time when they were all tired and had other things to do (like sleep). The outcome was a great success and though exhausted they all attended the budget presentation at 10am that morning – it was a five hour meeting, finishing at 3pm (as we’re talking about an organisation owning 60 subsidiaries in 17 countries in Europe). But the conclusion was that the budget was signed-off by the shareholders and the team went home for some well deserved rest…..

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are You Happy to Admit That You Don’t Know, What You Thought You Knew?

I remember some wise words given to me by the head of the South African College of Applied Psychology many years ago, when he told me that “it’s not what we know we know; or what we know we don’t know that causes us problems in life – it’s when we think we know things we don’t actually know, where the problems begin”.

Being able to be honest with ourselves about what we really know and what we think we know should not only a requirement of humility, but a genuine requirement of effective leadership in any role.

In fact most of the major leadership disasters through the centuries have been when the leader was too arrogant to realise that they didn’t really know, what they thought they did – leading them to make incorrect decisions that led to disaster. The worst fact behind the arrogance is even after the disaster – these individuals often wouldn’t admit they made a mistake. This doesn’t just relate to leaders in business, but leaders everywhere, including the role of parents.

To put it all in perspective a good example comes from Donald Rumsfeld who said “reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know” and if that statement is clear enough he also said “Secretary Powell and I agree on every single issue that has ever been before this administration except for those instances where Colin's still learning.” – Absolutely classic and it’s scary to think that this comes from a former Defense Secretary of the USA, yet this shows the true extent of someone being too arrogant to admit what they really don’t know.

It was Confucius who said “real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance” words of wisdom that should be part of everyone’s value set – yet does the pressure to appear successful encourage many people to ‘defend’ their ignorance rather than embrace it and learn from it?

One of the classic examples of leaders thinking that they knew something they didn’t is encapsulated in an 1876, internal memo within Western Union that read “this telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Classic – a real example of arrogant ignorance sending an organisation down the wrong path.

Although this basic principle of being honest about what we only think we might know applies to everyone from teenagers to pensioners – the most important place for people to be honest about what they really know, and what they just think they know, is at the board level of organisations. These are the strategic leaders of the organisation, who should be identifying future opportunities and defining the vision and culture of the organisation. This will never be done effectively if, at this level, the strategic leaders are assuming things that they simply don’t know.

Today’s leaders need to be honest with themselves if they want to really optimise their organisations future growth and set the example for others to follow. The ability to be honest about what we do and do not know is not only a fundamental requirement for effective leadership, but a basic requirement in order to earn the respect of others.

It's a principle we all have the power to adopt immediately - since if we can't be honest with ourselves, who can we be honest with....

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Who Really Wants to be a CEO?

In an interesting article in today’s UK Sunday Times, Eleanor Mills, writes that “it is viewed as the pinnacle of any aspiring executive’s career but, according to a new study a generation of corporate high-flyers are saying no to being the chief executive officer. Instead, say head-hunters, the elite of the business world are deciding to put their families first and walking away from the corporate life,” (p.5).

Eleanor highlights the report, Who Wants to Be a CEO in 2012?, in which MBS interviewed 40 high-profile candidates who had turned down senior executive roles, found that business leaders, despite being trained for the top in our biggest companies, are shunning the posts. The pressure to perform under the glare of the media spotlight is one reason for opting out, but lifestyle choices and a desire to avoid the stultifying demands of corporate bureaucracy – so called M&M’s (meetings and managers) – is another.

Her article goes on to say that “the trend is leaving companies with a problem. On the British high street New Look and Mothercare are on the hunt for a new chief executive. Both have been sounding out candidates for months, with no success,” (p.5).

Yet shouldn’t we ask more questions as to why this ‘migration’ might be taking place. Is it possible that with the current economic crisis and the attention of the media our CEO’s and potential CEO’s have been found wanting, in that they don’t have the overall skills required to be successful in the role. The media have always been there, as have big city business analysts, and a good CEO knows how to handle and work with these ‘partners’ – as not working with them is similar to waving a red flag at a bull.

The fact that our current CEO’s might not like this ‘intrusion’ is an unsatisfactory response especially from the CEO of a public company. In fact I’d go as far as saying they should welcome the attention of the media and city analysts and skillfully ‘use’ this attention to the overall advantage of their organisation.

Exhaustion has overcome many top executives who have either bailed or taken leave to recover – Antonio Horta-Osario, Jeffrey Kindler and Joseph Lombard to name a few. But why didn’t these CEO’s have the right team around them to support them – a CEO with the right talent throughout the organisation should never become totally exhausted and will have as much enjoyment as this new bread of CEO’s who are jumping ship for the ‘smaller’ organisation.

A new report by Lauren Leader-Chive on Generation X, would argue that “the definition of what success looks like is changing for this generation. However much money is on offer, if the price is the sacrifice of home time and prized hobbies – it’s not worth it to them.”

Yet while we have our ‘elite’ feeling the pressure and bailing, we see in the same newspaper just 14 pages further on, an article by Jack Grimston and Rosie Kinchen entitled, ‘graduates pay £100 a day to serve as interns’, where they mention that “university leavers desperate for work experience are being charged up to £100 a day by companies offering them internships,” (p.19).

So here we have the two extremes, supposedly the UK’s elite, feeling the pressure and bailing out of the top jobs and at the other end, our potential future leaders working either unpaid, sometimes for months on end, to gain experience and improve their chances of getting a ‘good’ job, or some making the decision to pay to gain experience.

I wonder what some of these youngsters would like to tell the ‘stressed’ CEO’s about real pressure. What we need is to urgently improve our leadership development, so we develop a pool of ‘potential CEO talent’ – individuals who know how to develop the right team around them to ensure the job gets done.


Grimston, J and Kinchen, R. (2011). Graduates Pay £100 a Day to Serve as Interns. Sunday Times, 04.12.11, p.19.

Mills, E. (2011). City Elite Wheel Away from FTSE Highway. Sunday Times, 04.12.11, p.5.