Bite-size Case Study

Four kinds of leadership teams

Published on March 29, 2020 Originally recorded 2013   5 min
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What I want to talk with you about today is what I mean by a real leadership team and what is real leadership teamwork. One of the things that I found in the research on leadership teams in both contexts, is that really there are four different kinds of leadership teams, and these are all legitimate purposes for using a leadership team. The problem arises when you try to do all four at once with the same group of people. So let me illustrate. I'm going to describe these four different kinds of leadership teams starting from the simplest and least interdependent. So the simplest is what I'll call an information-sharing or alignment team. This is a group of leaders who come together for the purposes of informing each other about things that are going on around the organization, or around the nation, or around the community, so that each individual is better prepared to do their leadership job well. They don't decide anything together, they don't create anything together, they're just exchanging information so that everyone else is better informed. That's actually a very good use of a leadership team, and they actually can be quite large teams when you're thinking about information sharing or alignment. For example, when Lou Gerstner took over as Chief Executive of IBM, he had a group called the senior leadership group that was at one time as large as 250 people. These were carefully identified individuals who collectively had responsibility for the culture transformation of the firm. They had a special set of norms about keeping in touch with each other, and they were nominated by other people in the organization. But their collective purpose was alignment. More complex still, is the consultative leadership team. Now, again, this is a group of leaders who convene not to create anything, not to decide anything together, but to provide advice and counsel to the leaders who are members of the team. So again, what they're going to do is to help the individuals to be smarter and better prepared to make great decisions in their part of the organization, or of the collective enterprise. So for example, in one of the environmentalist groups, there was a leader who was responsible for a public event, she was having a very difficult time getting citizens to volunteer to come to this event, and so she came to the group with a set of ideas about how she could be more effective in her recruitment activities. They provided with her advice, but she made that decision about what to do. Very commonly you see the senior leadership team of an organization used consultatively, when the chief executive, if he or she does this well, says, "I have a strategic decision to make, it is my decision to make, but I want to hear you guys debate the best way to proceed this and I want to hear you build on each other's ideas, so that I feel maximally informed to make this decision well on our behalf." Now, I want to clarify a couple of things about consultative and information sharing teams. In case you are confidently thinking, I already have one of these or I know what this is supposed to look like. What I found is that the vast majority of information sharing teams really are serving only one information sharing purpose, which is, the chief executive is using the meeting to gather information around the organization that is largely irrelevant to everybody else around the table. Now, that is a recipe for people not wanting to come to the meetings. Most of what is happening here is not relevant to me. An effective information sharing team is sharing information that matters to everybody that's there. Secondly, a consultative team. It is not the same to go door to door to each individual and ask their opinion, it is much more effective to actually hear them debate with each other. Things get smarter, more conceptually complex, more refined, when you actually hear people debating these things with each other. Finally, about consultative teams, I want to underscore that these are particularly underutilized in organizations. Yes, the chief executive often invites advice and counsel, but even better are teams in which the members ask for advice and counsel from each other. It can be a powerful effect on the development of a leadership team. What happens over time is that if we consult to each other, we become invested in each other's success. If I provide you with advice, I want to know, was I helpful? That over time can create a bounded leadership team that actually develops in capacity over time. So we're going to go more complicated still, which are the two most interdependent and most complex kinds of leadership teams. The coordinating team, this is an operational group of leaders that shares collective responsibility for the implementation of some important strategic initiative, and making sure all of the pieces fit together, and are sequenced and timed, and well executed. Finally, there's the leadership team that makes decisions together by consensus, agreeing on the strategic priorities, for example, of what it is that we're going to pursue together. Now, all four of these are legitimate uses of a leadership team. Where leadership teams can get into trouble, is when it's not clear which one we are right now, or it's not clear that this group of 24 people is the alignment team, but there is a smaller set of people, four or five, who are going to operate as the decision-making team on behalf of this larger entity.