· 2 min read · Features

Take one for the team


Most would accept the effectiveness of an organisation’s leadership team is at least as important as the quality of individual leaders. It is equally common knowledge, however, that most leadership teams lie somewhere between mildly and profoundly dysfunctional. Any success is very hard won and is achieved despite, rather than because of, the top team.

A lot of investment is made in developing individual leaders, but few leadership teams take serious action to improve their effectiveness. Those who have done have widely varying experiences of these efforts and good practice is rare. Why is this - and what can be done about it?

We asked a wide range of directors from the public, private and voluntary sectors to understand:

  • How much value is available to be unlocked by increasing the effectiveness of such teams?
  • What are the key differences between effective and ineffective leadership teams?
  • What are the characteristics of an effective intervention into improving the functioning of leadership teams?

Among underperforming teams, the average estimate of increased performance available if the leadership team functioned to its potential figure is 90%.

Even among teams which respondents felt were performing well, they still thought that there was at least 45% untapped performance available if they could increase their effectiveness.

While it is clear that every leadership team is different and there are many paths to success, our research shows that the factors missing in most underperforming teams are remarkably consistent. There are five key reasons why so much value is 'left on the table' by so many leadership teams:

  • They haven't agreed where they are going. They are working to broad or ambiguous statements of vision or strategy that don't help make decisions or focus the organisation.
  • They fail to properly debate the big issues. Mistrust and weak relationships prevent discussion of the deeper, underlying issues - often because of a fear of the conflict they may involve.
  • Personal and departmental agendas get in the way. Focus on the success of the team and organisation is diluted and obstructed by competition for resources between individuals and functions.
  • Short-term targets cause 'panic planning'. The rush to hit the targets for this month or quarter prevents genuine strategic debate on addressing the underlying reasons for poor performance.
  • Leaders are in information overload. Anxiety, driven by the need to monitor every performance indicator, creates reams of data where no-one knows what is important.

While most teams recognise and are frustrated by these factors, seven in eight teams say that they have not had a coherent programme to increase the team's effectiveness and realise the value. Analysis of the reasons for this shows that, to develop an effective team, you need to:

Get help. Few teams have the time or skills to do all that is needed to develop themselves. Those who succeed overwhelmingly do so by using a facilitator.

Dare to dream. High-performing teams don't settle for the goals in the annual plan. They set and publish ambitious targets they don't know how they will reach.

Plan properly. It is serious investment of time and money, so treat it like any other. Create, agree and hold yourselves accountable for clear timescales and business deliverables.

Address both yin and yang. Success will come only if you address both the human issues (relationships, trust, accountability and behaviour) AND the processes and management practices (goals, targets, management information and planning). Make sure that your facilitation support has the capability and expertise to help you with both dimensions.

Make it 'the means' not 'an end'. Your leaders are already overloaded and wrestling with difficult challenges. To ensure that interest and energy for improvement efforts is maintained, make sure that the team development programme is explicitly focused on addressing the key business issues and improving business results.

Chris Henderson (pictured) is managing director of leadership consultancy OneThirdMore