Globally, the most successful leadership teams are the ones that operate cohesively and at speed.
These top teams are shown to outperform their competitors by a wide margin on profitability, operational resilience, organisational health, and growth.
What sets them apart is that they have transitioned from a team of star performers to a star team.
In our work with leadership teams aiming to get to this aspirational “future-state”, we begin with a robust diagnostic process of understanding and analysing the current context in which the leadership team is operating.
The first question we ask each leader is:
“What makes this leadership team a team?”
Over the years, we’ve asked this question to thousands of leaders across a range of industries, sectors, and geographies.
This seemingly innocuous question is a powerful catalyst for a leadership development process because it sets a benchmark for five important attributes of high-performance leadership teams:
1. Clarity of direction, purpose, and accountabilities
High performance teams are clear about their direction, purpose and accountabilities.
Recently we worked with a global leadership team of a listed company that had an executive who used to play for his country’s national sporting teams.
This was someone who clearly knew how to play on a winning team on the global stage—and those team behaviours show up in his functional role of leading a region of the world.
However, the team behaviours that he was so familiar in other contexts did not carry through into the way he interacted with the global executive team.
The issue was not the absence of a skillset. It was a mindset.
When we asked him the question, “What makes this executive team a team?” his response was, “I’m not sure we are a team!”
When we probed deeper, it was clear that from his perspective there was no agreed-upon “unifying principle” for the team. Without it, in his mind the executive team was a group of individuals who merely came together for the useful sharing of information.
It was only after we had worked with the global executive to develop a “winning ambition” that we were able to unlock a “one team” mindset for the executive—and for the team collectively.
2. Cohesive ways of working
Lack of clarity of direction, purpose or accountabilities is one of the key inhibitors of high-performance at a senior leadership level.
Another blocker is a lack of cohesion. Cohesion is the ability of a team to work together as a co-ordinated whole in the direction of their purpose or winning ambition.
Cohesion is the result of many factors—clear structures and an aligned plan, to name just two, but ultimately the glue that binds any team together is trust.
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni says that trust is essentially about vulnerability: “Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open, even exposed to one another around their failures, weaknesses, even fears.”
Mutual trust shines through in high-performance sporting teams such as the Matildas.
The Australian women’s soccer team is a great example of performance founded in mutual trust.
A six part documentary on Disney Plus that features the Matildas lays bare the vulnerabilities demonstrated by the team. It shows how their collective openness has created an inspiring environment of trust between the players which has helped the team rise to becoming one of the best in the world.
3. Collaboration within and between teams
One of the natural by-products of clarity and cohesion in a team is collaboration.
Collaboration is “the action of working with others to produce something”. For most leadership teams, that “something” is new ideas or approaches that makes a meaningful difference to team or organisational performance.
The issue for some leadership teams is that “collaboration” seems to mean over-indexing on the “working with others” at the expense of “producing something”. One of the outcomes is glacial decision-making.
One of the reasons for the misinterpretation of collaboration is that teams—especially ones that are newly formed—confuse collaboration with consensus. High performance teams understand they don’t all need to all agree to move forward with a good decision.
Instead, they implement approaches such as the 70:100 rule to strike a balance between collaboration and an action-orientation.
The 70:100 rule states that you need 70 per cent agreement to make a decision. However, once the team has reached that 70 per cent threshold there needs to be 100 per cent commitment to that decision from all team members.
4. Courage to act
The most effective leadership teams create an environment in which everyone feels safe to challenge entrenched beliefs, limiting assumptions, unconscious biases, and bad ideas.
They are defined by a robust culture of candour and transparency. Everyone feels safe to speak up and score high on all four dimensions of our assessment on psychological safety:
1. Risk: How does the team respond to real or perceived mistakes?
2. Team Dynamic: What is the impact of speaking up on the team dynamic?
3. Inclusion: To what extent does a team member feel included in the team?
4. Trust: To what extent does a team member feel they are supported?
We have found that to build a culture of constructive challenge in a team requires working with the team as a whole and with each individual to help identify blind spots in behaviours that inadvertently erode trust.
5. Continuous Learning
CEO Satya Nadella’s transformation of Microsoft began with a transformation of the culture. One of his key focuses was to shift from a “know it all” mindset to a “learn it all” perspective.
At a recent leadership offsite, the CEO asked his Chief People Officer to survey his leadership team about where they felt he showed up with a “fixed mindset”, and then he shared the results with the top 200 executives.
He told them “Here’s where I show up with a fixed mindset; here’s what I’m working on. This is a journey, and you have to constantly be starting with yourself and role modelling the behaviour (of a learning mindset)”.
Continuous learning is essential for leadership teams to navigate change, make informed decisions, drive innovation, build resilience, set the pace in their industries, and cultivate a learning culture within their organisations.
When a leadership team is also learning from each other it also creates a guiding principle for the team – and serves as an answer to the question, “What makes this team a team?”:
“We continuously and systematically learn from each other”.
Mehul Joshi – Senior Partner and Head of Leadership Practice, SMG
Mehul is a former award-winning BBC journalist and is a featured writer on leadership for publications such as the Australian Financial Review.
Natalie Iglesias – Senior Consultant
Natalie is a Senior Consultant at SMG with an expertise in Talent and L&D gained from leadership roles in a range of industries across the APAC region.