by: John Caddell

I recently related a story for the Mistake Bank about my experience as a senior leader with a medium-sized IT company. It involved a particularly difficult senior team meeting and my nasty reaction to a colleague's questioning a decision I'd made regarding a member of my team. I recalled the story because I was reading "Senior Leadership Teams" by Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss and Richard Hackman, which discusses that peculiar species--the team of leaders.

One of the themes of the book is that senior leaders, left to their own devices, will prioritize their individual work and give little to the team. Another is that senior leaders rise to prominence based on their talents to achieve results with teams that work at their direction, meaning their teamwork skills are rusty at best. A third is that CEOs don't take many of the basic actions required to form a cohesive and productive team--things like explicitly choosing team members, setting explicit standards and norms for behavior, or providing adequate information for teams to act effectively.

My senior team experience bears this out. I focused on my team and my results, and preferred to leave my colleagues to clean up their own sandboxes. And when a colleague got too involved in "my" area, I didn't take kindly to it. I didn't know what the senior team was for, nor what was expected of me and how I should behave. In retrospect, I didn't behave well some of the time--even if I felt I was doing what was best for the company.

Perhaps you see why a book is needed to instruct people in this area. And, thankfully, "Senior Leadership Teams" is an excellent effort. The authors, affiliated with the Hay Group and with Harvard University, studied more than 100 senior teams and tried to understand why many performed poorly, while others--a smaller number--worked well. They found six conditions--three "essentials" and three "enablers"--that excellent teams had in common:

The essentials:

  1. A real team
  2. The right people
  3. A compelling direction

The enablers:

  1. A solid structure
  2. A supportive context
  3. Team coaching

The six conditions might sound simple, but the book is filled with insight as to why these simple things are hard to do, and what's necessary to make them real. As an example of the commonsense yet counterintuitive advice throughout "Senior Leadership Teams," read this section regarding selecting the right people to be on the team:

An executive suite is not a schoolyard. Just because someone wants to play on your team, has always been on the team, or was considered the heavy hitter of a past team does not mean that you are obligated to have him on your team. What's more, just because you have been chosen to lead an established team does not mean you must keep all the players when you take it over. (p.79)

There is wisdom like the above all over the book--on reward systems, team purpose & objectives, and prioritization. And interesting stories of real CEOs and how they made their teams effective.

One minor complaint--the book is addressed to a CEO, and as such gives lots of advice about selecting, coaching and enabling the team, and less advice about being an effective member of the team. Perhaps this is a topic the authors can explore in a future book.

But this is no reason to avoid "Senior Leadership Teams," no matter what your role. If you are an executive, or want to be an executive, read this book--before your next senior team meeting.

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