In a world of disruption and constant change, where ambiguity is the norm, we actively drive
conversations as thought leaders across multiple industries to generate insights that lead to
pragmatic outcomes.

Leadership Moments

Why Should Anybody Follow You?

June 19, 2019

Is Your Leadership Team Acting Like a True Team or Is ‘Team’​ an Empty Label?

It is one of the most common challenges we see in our work with leadership teams. They call themselves a team, but the leader has never had the explicit discussion with the group about what challenges they’re going to tackle and how they’re going to work together. In our interview, my Merryck & Co. colleague Craig Dunn shared his smart insights about what holds many teams back.

Q. What are the most common themes that come up with the senior executives you advise?

A. Two stand out. The first would be that a number of CEOs I’ve mentored will bring up an issue, and they know in their hearts that they need to make a call and take action, particularly on people who perhaps aren’t performing or aren’t necessarily right for the role, but they seem to hesitate at the last minute.

The other one is the team dynamic — what the leader is trying to achieve with their team, and what they want their team to do and be.

Q. Let’s unpack those. Why do people hesitate on the staffing decisions they know they need to act on? Is it just that they don’t want to deliver bad news?

A. Partly. There’s also a risk that once that person moves on, you’ve got to recruit a replacement, and maybe that replacement won’t be much better. They are tough decisions to make, and sometimes it goes to the human dynamic that these are difficult messages to convey, and they worry how they will they be seen in the organization, particularly if they’re exiting someone who’s been in the organization for a long time. Often these people aren’t being exited because they’ve done anything wrong; they’re just not the right people for a particular role going forward.

Q. A lot of people are in that grey area. They’re not terrible, but they’re not great, either. So what do you advise your clients to do?

A. Start with a clean sheet of paper and say, “If I were looking for the right executive for this role going forward, what experience and leadership capabilities would I be looking for?” Because often what happens is that you have someone who’s been in the same role for a while, and you never really sit back and think, well, has the business changed? Have the needs of that role changed? Is this the right person for the role?

Q. Tell me a bit more about the team challenges.

A. I don’t think leaders always explicitly and consciously think about why their team exists and what the role of the team is and what its dynamic should be. Most people go into a role these days as a senior executive and assume that they want a team, that the people reporting to them should be a team, and that they want a good team dynamic. But people often aren’t as clear or explicit about what the role of the team is.

People often aren’t as clear or explicit about what the role of the team is.

I always encourage the people to write down and share with their team their expectations and their thoughts on the role of the team. If people around a table aren’t really committed to a common goal or aren’t really making decisions on behalf of the group, then people have a collection of direct reports that they call a team, but they’re not really even expected to operate as a team.

Q. How do you see that showing up?

A. Meetings then become information-sharing sessions, almost like one-on-one meetings in front of the rest of the group. And they’re not really deciding anything.

You have to ask yourself, what is the prime responsibility of the people on your team? Is it to the broader success of the business or is their primary responsibility to the delivery of outcomes in their function or business unit? You have to have a view on that, and you have to discuss that with your team.

Q. Isn’t the answer supposed to be both?

A. Absolutely. I think your prime loyalty should be to the broader group, but most of your work’s done in your business unit or function. But I don’t think senior leaders explicitly always think about the balance, or what they want the team dynamic to be, and why.

For teams to work well, there has to be a high level of trust and willingness to challenge each other on a particular issue. Some people are reluctant to do that because they feel that if they challenge someone else, they’re opening up themselves to be challenged, as well.

Q. So how do leaders create that level of trust?

A. As a leader, you have to be very open and up front yourself. If the team leader doesn’t demonstrate that they’re prepared to be challenged and questioned, then it’s very hard for the rest of the team to do the same. If you’ve got a senior leader with appropriate humility who is prepared to put issues on the table and be challenged and questioned, then I think it makes it easier for the rest of the team to do that.

If the team leader doesn’t demonstrate that they’re prepared to be challenged and questioned, then it’s very hard for the rest of the team to do the same.

It also helps to be explicit in team discussions about what, as a leader, you want from the meeting. Have you already made your decision and you just want their input? Or do you want their input to help make a decision? I don’t think leaders are always clear with their team about such things in meetings, and people will generally be accepting if you’re clear with them because they know that, on the really big calls, it’s the CEO’s decision because he or she ultimately is held accountable for the outcome.

Q. What were some important leadership lessons for you personally?

A. The biggest feedback I got about my leadership style early on was around my style of communicating to people on major issues. I would try to get them to see the issue through prompts and communication rather than being very direct. I was probably too empathetic as a leader, and that would get in the way of sometimes giving the direct or clear feedback that people needed to hear.

I was told that I needed at times to be a lot more direct and a lot clearer and less consensus-driven and empathetic. One challenge for leaders is that you sometimes have to move into a style that’s not your natural style. Some people struggle with that because they almost feel like they’re acting – “That’s not who I am. I’m not being real.”

But as a leader, sometimes you have to be different things to different people, and you may need to stretch your style. And that doesn’t mean in any way impacting your integrity or your honesty. But a lot of people struggle with that.

Q. What is your single best job interview question?

A. “What is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make as a leader?” It’s interesting to hear how honest they are with that, because most people have had to make tough calls. And it gives me a good read into the person —the way they think and work through a difficult issue.