We’ve all likely heard the saying, “there’s no I in team.” Most of us haven’t heard the corollary of, “except when it comes to senior management groups, where the I’s have it.”

There are few environments more hostile to forming something resembling a functional team, than a group of people comprised of senior managers. Whether you are a member of one of these groups or the CEO in charge, it’s healthy to recognize some of the facts and myths of senior management teams and adapt your behaviors and approaches accordingly.

Facts:

  • People who reach the senior levels are typically functional experts. They are smart, driven people who’ve developed solid track records in their areas of expertise.
  • Senior Managers are politically savvy and understand how to play the resource prioritization game.
  • These accomplished individuals are accustomed to and comfortable being the final word in their own worlds.

Myths:

  • Senior managers are comfortable leaving their functional hats at the door. False. It’s a nice thought, but naïve. It’s what they know, it’s where they are most comfortable, and it’s who they are.
  • Senior managers naturally gravitate to teaming with other senior managers. False! In the absence of a clear and compelling purpose other than representing their functional area and functional metrics, there’s little basis for teaming with other senior managers.
  • Senior managers work well with their peers in high-level, organizational decision-making. False again. In practice, this may be the least effective decision-making group in the company. Ironically, it’s the one that everyone else assumes is making all of the decisions.

3 Suggestions If You’re the CEO

  1. Don’t expect your senior managers to naturally link arms and emerge as a functional team. Membership to the senior management group isn’t the basis for team formation. Team development at the senior level requires deliberate effort supported by a clear and compelling purpose and reinforced by shared accountability across the members. 
  2. Don’t expect your senior managers to resolve critical strategic differences of opinion. Accept that ultimate decision-making for high-level strategic calls rests on your shoulders, not the team’s. Your smart, accomplished, driven team-members should be good sources of input, but you and you alone own the final calls.
  3. Do define the clear and compelling purpose for the team in terms that are clear, manageable, measurable and actionable. Bob Frisch in, “Who’s In the Room-How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” encourages CEOs to recognize the 3 critical conversations (and responsibilities) that senior managers are uniquely positioned to pursue and own:
  • Developing a shared view of where the organization needs to go and why.
  • Managing a prioritized set of strategic initiatives designed to get there.
  • Managing dependencies within and among initiatives to ensure their success.
  • These are mission-critical, they cross organizational boundaries and the outcomes are clearly measurable.

(Note: Bob’s book is filled with the wisdom gained in many years leading and guiding senior groups through strategy processes. Whether you are the CEO or a member, it’s worth the read. Check out my Leadership Caffeine podcast with Bob.)

5 Suggestions for Senior Team Members

  1. Do recognize the teaming limitations at the senior level.  Your noble view that this group should emerge as a highly functional “team” is just that … noble. The driven, smart and successful people at the table need a compelling reason to form a team, and in the absence of that reason, it’s a likely collegial forum for sparring and political maneuvering.
  2. Quit trying to leave your functional hat at the door. No one else has checked their hat.  Your functional expertise is what makes you valuable.
  3. Stop pushing a solo agenda. Recognize that unless you can connect your priorities to organization-wide priorities…or at least the key issues of one or more functional areas, you are swimming upstream in these sessions looking for support.
  4. Do attempt to move discussions to the 3 areas suggested by Bob Frisch above. While the CEO owns this, you are capable of framing your issues … or the issues in front of the team in the context of those 3 conversations to drive alignment and action around the organization’s priorities.
  5. Recognize the decision-making limits of the senior management group. Accept that your absolute decision-making authority within your functional boundaries shifts to providing input and opinion in the senior management group environment. The boss owns the decision, and you own your part in implementation.

The Bottom-Line for Now

This is a big topic that transcends this post and my few high-level suggestions. The goal here is to help prompt some ideas and reduce churn a bit. In my own experience working on and with senior level teams, a good deal of valuable cycle time is spent with these capable people spinning their wheels and groping for a tangible purpose to form and function as a team.

As Hackman (and others) suggest  in “Senior Leadership Teams,” it’s not always clear that a “team” is needed at this level. And if it is, the conditions … especially clear and compelling purpose, must be met for a team to emerge. Frisch’s “3 Conversations” provide a great framework for the right type of work to be performed by senior managers with their peers.

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.