Top Team Development – For What Business Purpose


Top teams are different. They have the ultimate responsibility for delivering the performance goals of their business and have a pivotal role in managing the expectations of all their stakeholders.

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Top teams also typically comprise functional or divisional leaders with substantial leadership, strategic and operational responsibilities of their own. These teams are often much larger than the ideal thereby increasing the complexity of their work.

However, the impact of an under-performing top team is significant, not only on business performance but also on the organisation as a whole. The words and actions of top team leaders have a powerful impact on “how things get done around here”. But even when underperformance is recognised there is a risk that teams start by tackling the behavioural symptoms of poor team performance rather than its root causes

Business Purpose
Successful teams start by focusing on the business challenges they face and making choices about their priorities and how they need to tackle them together. Reflecting on this work is how the most effective teams learn about what needs to change. Whilst understanding team behaviour or personal style might be important at some stage in a team’s development, in our experience, it can prove to be a distraction when chosen as the starting point. This is particularly the case with top teams which often include a number of strong and independent personalities.

So when acting as an expert guide to top teams we will always encourage team leaders to start by focusing on the organisation critical challenges, the core leadership purpose of the team and what success needs to look and feel like in the future. What is important for their development as a high performance business team then becomes a lot clearer.

Making Choices

Top teams are often good at providing a shared view of their competitive and market environment, they may even be able to quote the “Vision 2020 thing”.  However, when you explore the priorities a different picture often emerges:

  • The total number and range of business priorities appear unrealistic and have numerous critical dependencies
  • The priorities are heavily focused upon their own divisional or functional interests
  • There has been limited agreement to these priorities across the team – other than at a very high level when token agreement is relatively easy
  • The critical technical, people and organisational capability investments that are required to successfully deliver on these business priorities are missing

In our experience successful strategy development for top teams is not about analysis of the competitive environment, unlocking new customer value propositions or identifying new technological opportunities – important though these are. Ultimately, it is about making tough choices about where to invest limited financial, leadership and organisational resources and taking action through a shared implementation plan.

So sometimes top teams need to get into the detail and make decisions about what they need to stop doing and what they need to start doing. They also need to make decisions about how they spend their time together and ensure an appropriate balance between a strategic and operational leadership focus. A preference for operational crisis management is sometimes an indicator of the absence of a roadmap for the future.

Reflecting on these choices can lead to some simple but powerful conclusions for the team and what it needs to do to improve performance.

Rate of Learning

“The rate of learning of an individual or an organisation needs to be at least as fast as the rate of change in the environment” Dr R Lessem

It is not just what individual leaders or teams say but what they do and reinforce that makes the difference. So the leadership style and practice of those at the top has a powerful impact on both the culture and the rate of learning in the rest of the organisation. In turbulent economic or market conditions this become critical to survival and to emerging stronger than competitors.

Top teams have a particular responsibility for stimulating new ideas from the outside and benchmarking business performance – this type of learning needs to challenge orthodox ways of thinking and provide opportunities to reflect and assess the implications. This needs to start with the top team itself and to constructively challenge the impact of functionally driven thinking.

Many of our executive coaching assignments focus on the challenges senior leaders face when they first enter a top team: the transition from a functional or expert mindset to that of a leader with responsibility for the overall performance of the business. This transition demands a broader set of business skills which are externally focused and leadership skills that place a greater emphasis on both influencing and managing complex changes. It also requires some personal courage to move out of the expert comfort zone. For one of our global clients we have built a programme specifically targeted at achieving these objectives.

Teams evolve and their membership changes. High performance teams recognise this and continually seek to integrate new team members and rebuild their shared goals.

Building a Top Team

Top teams are different. Our work and experience in partnering with chief executives and top teams has led us to draw some lessons about how to build high performance top teams:

1. Sponsor and Team Commitment

  • Partner with both the team leader and team to build high levels of trust and rapport with individuals.
  • Build recognition and commitment to the need to improve team performance.
  • Create a sense of “with you”, rather than “to you”.

2. Discovery and Design

  • Conduct a careful and structured review discussion with each team member and focus on the business challenges, critical success factors and priorities for change.
  • The discovery process should inform the team development approach and the detailed design of the next phase – get the team to draw their own conclusions.
  • Top teams in particular resist the “team exercise” approach if it is not anchored in the reality of their work.

3. Team Development:

  • Start by working on agreeing what the real organisation critical challenges and priorities are at an early stage. For example: the strategy development process, prioritising investments, leading a major cross business change, managing performance or influencing external stakeholders.
  • Consider the implications of these challenges on their individual roles and how the executive team are managing their decision making and team working processes.
  • Encourage key players to contribute or lead business priorities outside their normal experience and responsibilities.
  • Build an ethos of “under-promise and over deliver”.
  • Define what successful team development looks like in business and team terms and agree how these should be measured.

4. Accelerated Learning and Review:

  • Encourage leaders to allocate sufficient time for high quality analysis, reflection and implementation planning.
  • Create some simple ways of ensuring that the team follows a visible Plan-Do-Review cycle for themselves.
  • Surface discontent with the current state – channelling it productively is a key to success.
  • Support individual development through feedback, peer or external coaching.So building high performing top teams is about starting with a clear focus on the business purpose of the team and the organisation critical challenges it faces. The key outcome of high performing top teams should include: developing a credible and achievable strategy for the business, building credibility with all the stakeholders (customers, suppliers, regulators, staff and shareholders) and delivering on their performance promises.Geoff Rogers, Director

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