On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Avoiding a senior leadership team “hot spot”

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

I've worked with many Senior Leadership teams over the years. They face some unique challenges and tend to exhibit a few common teamwork "hot spots" that, if not addressed, can flame up and burn the team. Match on fire

This blog post is triggered by a question I received during a recent webinar on Building a Culture of Collaboration. During the webinar, and in a prior blog post, I described the Seven C's of Teamwork – the key drivers of team effectiveness. These Seven C's manifest themselves a bit differently in Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) than in other teams due to the nature of SLTs.

Let's take a look at one common hot spot. If you work with or are a member of a leadership team, you've almost certainly seen this one before. But by taking the right steps, it can be avoided.

Each member of a senior leadership team is also typically a leader of his or her own team, and often has responsibility for specific business functions or units. While they need to work together for the better of the company, they can easily get hyper-focused on delivering expected results for their own area of responsibility. As a result, they often operate more like a wrestling team (each focused on winning their own match which hopefully adds up to a team win) and less like a football team (understanding each team member's role and coordinating to win as a team).

Lack of role clarity – A senior leadership team hot spot

Here is a troubling but common SLT scenario.

  • Larry will be giving a presentation today to the rest of the SLT on a new initiative he expects to launch next quarter. He thinks the presentation is mainly to update the team on what he is planning. After all, the initiative falls under "his" business area.
  • Bob, one of the other SLT members, saw the agenda and thought, "Why is Larry presenting this? It has nothing to do with my business. It's a waste of our time. I hope he is quick."
  • Francesca, who runs one of the other key business units, assumes that Larry is seeking feedback from the SLT – and she has a lot of ideas to "help" Larry.
  • Meanwhile, Ricardo, the CEO is planning to make a go/no-go decision about the initiative today.

What is likely to happen during this meeting?

Is this scenario a rare event? Based on my experience, it occurs quite frequently and is an example of a classic "Cognition" gap (one of the 7 Cs). Senior leadership teams are prone to a lack of role clarity. In fact, research shows that they often don't even agree about who is on the team! The current scenario involves a lack of decision clarity. Here's what is likely to happen...

  • Bob gets bored and a little annoyed that Francesca is prolonging this unnecessary discussion by asking a lot of questions. He starts checking his email.
  • Larry gets angry with Francesca for "sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. Just wait until it is her turn to present."
  • Francesca is surprised by Larry's defensiveness. "If he didn't want our input, why did he present to us the first place?"
  • Ricardo concludes that Larry and Francesca can't work well together and wonders "why isn't Bob weighing in" on this important initiative. He also wonders why Larry isn't providing enough information for him to make an informed decision.
  • Larry feels blind-sided when Ricardo says he'll decide whether the initiative should proceed after he receives more information about it.

Due to the lack of role clarity associated with this presentation, the reputations of a few team members were tarnished (in the eyes of the CEO) and the level of trust among team members declined. Of course, none of this was stated out loud – just mentally filed away, adversely affecting future collaboration. And research shows that the level of cooperation exhibited within a SLT is likely to permeate the entire organization.

How to put out this "hot spot" before it flames up

It is easy to falsely assume that other team members share a common understanding about roles, in particular about roles associated with decisions. We've found that being more explicit about underlying assumptions can pay big dividends. Here are five tips to help avoid the scenario above:

  1. Triage the issue before the meeting. Triage is a medical term that refers to assessing the relative urgency for treating patients. For a SLT, it can help to triage issues explicitly. How important is this issue, and as a result, how much time should we allocate and how deeply should we discuss this as a team?
  2. Decide if the SLT should be involved. Based on your triage, and your general governance guidelines, decide if this really needs to come to the SLT. Perhaps it is best handled by two SLT members off line, or in a one-on-one discussion with the CEO, or by a single SLT member.
  3. Specify the intent of the presentation. Be crystal clear about the intent of any briefing or discussion. Is it to inform, seek input, or make a decision? Some leadership teams state this explicitly in the meeting agendas. It may also help to communicate ahead of time when (and why) a "deep dive" is merited, so people are mentally prepared.
  4. Be clear about who owns the final decision. For example, is it an SLT member, the team as a whole, or the leader of the team?
  5. Periodically reflect on prior issues that made it to the SLT. Did we triage it effectively? Should it have come to the team or been addressed off line? Were we clear about the intent of the presentation? Were we clear about who would make the decision? In hindsight, should we have done anything differently?

When a Senior Leadership Team works together effectively they make better decisions and send a subtle, positive message about collaboration to the organization. So it's worth spending a little time to clarify roles and decisions to avoid this risky "hot spot."