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Coaching Senior
Leadership Teams (SLT)

Through Formation and/or into Functionality

Herb Stevenson
March 31, 2014

On the surface, you wouldn't think that assembling a functional senior leadership team would pose a significant problem to the typical CEO. After all, senior leaders are an organization's best and brightest. They've progressed through the ranks, demonstrated their abilities, and proven that they get along well with their colleagues and the people who work for them. So why are so many senior leadership teams unproductive and possibly counter-productive?

"You cannot create real teams by convening a set of people and calling them a team."
As coaches, we are being asked to formally assist in the formation and/or to facilitate through extremely difficult tensions amongst senior leadership team members. Over the course of the last several year, it has become clear that many SLTs are dysfunctional at best. Some of the difficulty is related to the lack of awareness of how to work with peers, where authority and positional power are equal and interdependency is a fact of success.

As SLTs are formed, it is surprising how many have never taken the time to define and negotiate a basic charter surrounding authority, responsibility, commitment, and communication. In short, a set of defining boundaries. At a minimum, the CEO, if forming the team, needs to establish a clear purpose for the team; otherwise, it will fragment and be unproductive.

Coaching the CEO

As the CEO decides to form or reformulate the SLT, there should be some coaching on the following:

Coaching Guidance for Measuring Success

CEOs and SLTs find measuring their own effectiveness nearly impossible. Instead, stockholders, customers and employees are in a much better position to evaluate them, since the teams' performance directly affects these constituencies. Nonetheless, the trap can become that so long as all stakeholders are happy, then the CEO and SLT must be effective.

"Most top leaders who avoid developing or leveraging the power of a real top management team do so out of ignorance."
One thing you can coach the CEO how to determine the effectiveness by how well the team members interact and set the stage for future collaboration. Bickering and petty disagreements do not foster productive long-term relationships, but robust discussion does. The team experience should develop the top leaders'; therefore it is the responsibility of the CEO to see the SLT as an opportunity for executive development. At a minimum, the SLT should learn new capabilities, increase their knowledge and gain insight into interpersonal relationships. For example the coach could have the CEO take these three "essential steps" to assemble the team:

  1. Assemble a team whose members can work collaboratively on enterprise issues and who will respect the rules of engagement the CEO defines and negotiates. Where needed, training can be provided in how to create effective collaboration and dialogue.

  2. Establish the team's direction in line with corporate goals. Though frustrating for some SLTs, the rewards are immense when alignment is clearly developed and shared versus the individual perceptions that "we already know" when they don't.

  3. Choose team members based on enterprise perspective and collaborative ability rather than title.

Pitfalls

During the define and negotiate process with the team, there should be some formal mechanism to support the following three processes:

  1. Create a structure that enables team members to focus on strategic initiatives rather than small tactical issues. Pettiness can riddle the best SLT when it is dragged down into the weeds. An assignment to the appropriate SLT member should be for any tactical issues; otherwise, the SLT will get lost in their own pettiness.

  2. "White water", the state of constant turbulence, ensures that team members feel short on time and resources. The CEO should ensure that the SLT has sufficient time for robust debate and have access to the resources they need to do their work. If not, the meeting will focus on those two issues, time and resources, instead of the strategic initiatives.

  3. The coach will need to constantly maintain a vigilance for using the meetings for executive development. The CEO (or coach initially) should provide direct interventions into the team process to help members learn better team strategies over time. Coaching for Success

"It is a fact of group life that members tend to load their negative feelings onto the person who is most different from the majority. If a senior team has only one person of a different race, gender [or] age... that person may come to be viewed as a 'problem member'."
Improving the performance of a senior leadership team can be challenging, yet extremely gratifying. Some teams find that they cannot address their problems without the assistance of a coach. A good coach – whether it's the CEO, a team leader, a team member or an outsider – helps team members recognize behaviors that enhance or hinder teamwork. The coach ensures that team members stay on task, avoid inflammatory language during discussions and respect boundaries.

In fact, coaching can improve even the most self-sufficient team. Almost every team develops a self-correcting capability, and sometimes team members emerge as the most qualified leaders. The wise CEO (and coach) nurtures and takes advantage of the situation by developing their talent.

Coaching is especially helpful throughout the developmental process. At each point, the team needs a different kind of coaching:

Regardless of who coaches the team, the SLT should feel a sense of adventure and excitement when the team first forms. If they're merely going through the motions, they will not produce the cutting-edge thinking that a group of senior leaders ought to provide. CEOs are responsible for instilling a sense of commitment to the team purpose.

Resources:

Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership by Peter Hawkins, 2011. Kogan-Page.

Senior Leadership Teams: What it takes to make them great by Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, J. Richard Hackman 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

The New Global Leaders: Richard Branson, Percy Barnevik, David Simon And the Remaking of International Business by Manfred F.R.Kets de Vries with Elizabeth Florent-Treacy, 1999. Jossey-Bass.

 


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