The Right Role for Top Teams


Leadership (Photo credit: glennharper)

Think of the top teams you’ve known that have had the greatest impact. Did their value come from the meetings they conducted and the decisions they made together? Or did it derive from something else? Analysis of informal networks offers a potent leadership model for the C-suite: Make top teams the hub of the enterprise, and watch performance improve. ( An excerpt from an article by Rob Cross & Jon Kaizenbach from Startegy+Business).

In most companies, the phrase top team is a misnomer. Senior executives throughout the company may clamor for a seat on the leadership committee because that is where the key strategic decisions are supposedly made. But in actuality, the group rarely conducts its work in unison, as a deliberative body or a source of command. Instead, its power comes from its members’ informal and social networks, their determination to make the most of those connections, and their ability to work well in subgroups formed to address specific issues. The most effective top teams are those that recognize this reality and explicitly set themselves up to function as the senior hub of the enterprise.

Organizations that want to improve the effectiveness of their top team — and therefore the performance of the full organization — need to start by recognizing the true source of the top team’s value. They need to develop the kind of team in which each member is a recognized informal representative of larger networks of alliances; in which the top team knits together the collective expertise and accountability of a much broader group of people than the executives in the room; and in which subgroups can resolve issues and make rapid, incisive decisions that gain the commitment of the full senior leadership group, and the organization as a whole.

One source of this insight is social network analysis, the mapping and mathematical study of informal links in an organization, gathered through surveys and logs of meetings, phone calls, and e-mails over time. These analyses consistently show that as much as 90 percent of the information that the most senior executives of a company receive and take action on comes through their informal networks, and not from formal reports or databases.

If you’re interested in shifting the operating model of your company’s top team this way, there are three particularly good places to start:

1. Rather than focusing on improving the senior group’s interactions as a whole, design a group of smaller, more focused subgroups, drawing in others from around the company as needed.

2. Invest in the quality of links between top team members and the rest of the company.

3. Recognize that conflicts among top executives are often driven or exacerbated by broader tensions in the network, and deal with them at the constituent level first.

These three tenets seem simple, but they are hard to put into practice, because they require changing the conventional view of how a top team should operate. Together, however, they can help a top team move to a more balanced and integrated operational model — addressing diverse performance challenges, working together in more effective ways, and making more disciplined choices.

Harnessing the Power of Subgroups

The most effective senior leadership groups, whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not, have a different operational model. Instead of conducting their work as a single, autonomous unit, members of these groups divide into a shifting, relatively free-form, interconnected collection of subgroups, each oriented toward a particular issue, problem, or opportunity. Moreover, the best subgroups function in at least three different modes — as discussion groups, single-leader units, or real teams — switching among them as the circumstances require:

• When the subgroups function as discussion groups, the goal is information sharing. Executives compare notes and update one another on existing accomplishments. In this mode, teams do not make strategic decisions, and thus there is no great need for active leadership; the leader tends to simply “go around the room” and keep the conversation on track.

• In single-leader units, everyone understands that there is a single boss with authority over the subgroup for this task, and the other members all have clear, stable roles with individual accountability to the leader. This is a very useful operating model when speed and efficiency are called for.

Most executives have experienced discussion groups and single-leader units, but real teams are comparatively rare. Being on a real team can be challenging at first for some members, who aren’t used to leadership roles that shift or to having mutual accountability for the team’s results.

As one VP put it, the senior leadership had realized “the degree to which the enemy was actually us.… [We were spending far] too much time finger-pointing.” Instead of “teaming” when team performance was not critical, they now focused on building high-performance subgroups, with the ability to act as real teams when it mattered most.

Making Networking More Productive

Most businesspeople accept the fact that a great deal of time must be spent on inconsequential interactions such as unnecessary e-mail, bureaucratic approvals, time-wasting meetings, and decisions about scheduling and other rote matters. Clearly, you can’t do away with all these interactions. But with a greater awareness of the way your behavior is magnified through more carefully designed informal networking, you can improve your efficiency by 10 or even 20 percent. The CEO and the top team can foster this efficiency by recognizing each member of the top group as the hub of a larger network; making disciplined choices about when and how to get the right people interconnected in the right way; supporting the maintenance of those links; and reinforcing the leadership of those who can maintain productive networks (and lead subgroups as needed).

Defusing the Conflicts of Constituents

When interpersonal tensions or power struggles exist among the members of any senior leadership group, many chief executives respond either by ignoring these conflicts or promoting them as healthy competition. But few look at the reasons conflicts happen in the first place. Typically, even simple disagreements among senior leaders are based on hidden struggles between the constituents of their networks. Even when the top leaders agree on a change or new initiative, the conflicts in the broader organization — where people may have strong historical, political, or emotional reasons for opposition — can continue to fester, with a devastating but invisible performance impact. Therefore, when an effective executive leadership group erupts with a sudden, seemingly inexplicable conflict, the CEO and members can best resolve it by looking at it from a network and subgroup perspective — and raising questions.

Renewal at the Top

Sometimes it takes a crisis to show just how effective the top team is — versus how effective it needs to be.

Not every company has that caliber of teaming at the top. Having a powerful executive team is not just a matter of obtaining cohesive behavior and collaboration among the CEO’s direct reports. It also requires disciplined efforts to interact in ways that can seem counterintuitive at first: to make disciplined choices about when you need subgroups with real-team accountability and focus, and when the clarity and speed of a single-leader unit is better; when a focused network is better than a team; when to build network relationships among the senior executives and the rest of the company instead of fostering conventional team-building and leadership bonding efforts; and when to settle conflicts at the grassroots level rather than within the top team itself. Accomplishing this kind of integration requires great leadership instinct, good intent, and a series of deliberate choices about whom the senior leaders interact with, and how they work together. These factors will allow any executive leader to take the typical top team game to a much higher level.


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About Georges Abi-Aad

CEO, electronic engineer with MBA in marketing. Multicultural; French citizen born in Lebanon working in the Middle East and fluent in French, English and Arabic. I have more than 30 years of proven experience in the Middle East with European know how. I am good in reorganization and in Global strategic management business. I am a dependable leader with an open approach in working with people, forging a strong team of professionals dedicated to the Company and its clientele. Perseverance is my key word. Married to Carole and having 2 children: Joy-Joelle and Antoine (Joyante!).
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