4 Principles for Building Great Leadership Teams

Leadership and learning are indispensible to each other. — John F. Kennedy

The pace of change and complexity of today’s global business environment ignited by rapid advances in technology and information access have increased the demands on today’s executive or leadership teams from multiple perspectives — investors, customers, suppliers, regulators, and employees. It is no longer good enough (perhaps it never was) to simply put together a group of talented, experienced executives and assume that they will morph into a high-performing leadership team without at least some focus and effort. In this post we will describe 4 pragmatic principles that we believe are essential for building a great leadership team that can operate effectively in today’s fast-paced and complex environment.

Principle 1: Deploy a Developmental Approach

Building a great leadership team is hard work and requires intense commitment to establish the conditions required for a team to thrive. Team building exercises, training and consulting expertise can all be useful but leadership teams need to do the hard developmental work necessary to tap into their full potential. A developmental, learning-oriented approach enables individuals and teams to learn, practice and build capacity over a period of time.

Much has been written about the failure of expensive leadership training programs and in our opinion the same can be said for programs to train leadership teams. There is no doubt that training on team skills such as meeting management, problem solving and coaching can be helpful. However, training is insufficient for evolving a group of leaders into a cohesive body that capitalizes on the strengths and mitigates the weaknesses of individuals so that they can effectively tackle their organization’s most pressing issues. A developmental approach enables a team and team members to assess their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses and shape specific actions to learn and develop the capabilities necessary for a team to thrive in a specific environment at a specific time.

A developmental approach isn’t code word for a consulting program (although we can be helpful sometimes). Rather, development simply requires the leader and the team to think through and assess the team’s purpose, what gaps exist to reach that purpose, and plan for developing the individual and collective capabilities required to address the gaps. A developmental approach goes way beyond training on generic skills and focuses on building a great team to operate in a specific environment for a specific purpose.

Principle 2: Focus on the Team as a System

Most leadership team development approaches focus on the team as a collection of individual players with different experiences, styles and preferences that have to be understood and adapted for the team to work effectively. To build a great leadership team it is absolutely critical for individuals to gain some level of awareness of their styles and preferences and how these are contributing positively and negatively to each other and to the team as a whole. Assessment instruments such as Strengths Deployment Inventory, DISC, and MBTI are useful instruments for helping individuals understand each other at a deeper level and for identifying and committing to changing specific behaviors. This individual view of developing leadership teams is extremely important and relevant but falls short because it fails to look at the team as a system that has characteristics that go beyond those of any of the individual members.

A leadership team is a dynamic body with its own culture, formal and informal norms, strengths & weaknesses, and temperament. To become a great leadership team the team must understand this systems perspective. We use Team Coaching International’s (TCI’s) validated and proven Team Diagnostic as it is the only vehicle we have found that assesses the team as a dynamic system. TCI’s Team Diagnostic evaluates two dimensions of team performance – (1) what results the team is achieving and (2) how the team is achieving the results.

Principle 3: Balance Structural and Relational Dynamics

The interplay between a leadership team’s structural elements such as defined roles, metrics, and meeting rhythm and its relational elements which are those factors that influence how team members interact is an incredibly important dynamic that unfortunately is often overlooked. When leadership teams are struggling, leaders will often take action to correct one or the other set of elements rather than look at the cause and effect relationship between them. Specifically, there is no doubt that insufficient structure can exacerbate relationships among team members. For example, misaligned incentive structures can inadvertently create competition that naturally puts pressure on relationships. On the other hand, bad relationships among team members can expose poor structural design as exemplified by a team that avoids debate about critical issues despite having well-planned meetings with great agendas.

Principle 2 – Focus on the Team as a System – helps to drive this balance between structural and relational dynamics. By focusing on what results the team is or isn’t achieving and how it is working to achieve those results, light will naturally be shed on the how structure is enabling or hindering relationships and vice versa.

Principle 4: Measure Performance

At the most rudimentary level, an effective team can be defined as one that is a force multiplier that has impact above and beyond the individual contributions of any one team member. This ‘above and beyond impact’ can be measured at multiple levels: Intangible Performance • Structural & Relational Metrics • Business Results.

Intangible Performance is the ‘gut feel’ that results when a team begins to work better together – ‘we are anticipating each others needs’ – ‘everyone is pulling their weight’ – ‘I feel like I can push back without hurting feelings’ – ‘we aren’t wasting each other’s time anymore’ – ‘everyone seems to be addressing the same priorities’. Our experience suggests that these intangible impacts are what really drive teams and team members to want to improve because they not only contribute to more tangible effects they also lead to increased personal reward and satisfaction.

Structural and Relational Metrics: At the heart of our approach to measurement is the use of TCI’s Team Diagnostic that measures what results a team is achieving and how it is achieving them. Using common everyday language, the Team Diagnostic establishes a baseline based on 14 productivity and positivity competencies. More than 1,000 teams of all types and sizes have used the Team Diagnostic with outstanding results. In fact, TCI calculates a 44% aggregate improvement in team performance when comparing the highest performing teams after going through a team development process with average teams before the process.

Improving Business Results is the ultimate objective of forming a team and an intentional effort should always be taken upon formation to identify the specific purpose and business goals of a team. Surprisingly enough this important task is often overlooked. Teams must be challenged to determine the metrics (not just the tasks) it will use to measure short- and long-term success and periodically evaluate the productivity and positivity metrics described above to ensure they are working well as a team system.

In today’s dynamic and complex business environment, great leadership teams can be a competitive advantage. Bringing together experience and talent is very important and it is equally important to leverage this investment by ensuring that appropriate focus and effort is placed on developing the team. Taken together the practical principles described above can serve as enablers to build great leadership teams.