Ashley Goodall and Marcus Buckingham released a wonderful book in 2019 called Nine Lies About Work. It debunks a lot of long-held concepts about the professional world. One of them is the idea that culture drives employee engagement and satisfaction. In fact, the book asserts, teams actually drive company culture, and that’s what drives employee satisfaction.
I was thinking about that recently in the context of leadership teams, and how many problems a business can have that trace back to that.
Usually if you’re struggling to grow, or to scale, or to have success in any other way you would define it, you can trace that struggle in some way to your leadership team.
Patrick Lencioni has said that trust is the most important characteristic for a good leadership team, so it’s no surprise that a leadership team would function poorly if it’s populated by toxic people who don’t trust each other.
If you want to avoid the problem of a bad leadership team, there are four important principles to apply:
1. Limit the size of the team. This is often difficult because there are so many company executives who seem to belong. You think to yourself that you’ve got to have your CFO, you’ve got to have marketing, and sales, and IT, and legal, and HR . . . and pretty soon you’ve got a leadership team of 12 to 15 people. Big mistake. Keep the leadership team to eight. Beyond that, it becomes very difficult for the leadership team to function well. There are too many voices at the table, and too many relationships. It’s hard to tell some people they’re not going to be on the leadership team, but it’s necessary if you want the team to function efficiently.
2. This will help with Rule 1: Make it clear that membership of the leadership team isn’t permanent for anyone but the leader. That way people understand that if they’re told they’re not on the team this year, it’s not some sort of insult or point of disrespect. Maybe this year the CFO isn’t included because the IT manager needs to be. Establishing this principle will help you manage things.
3. Make sure the team has very well-run meetings, and I’m talking about the mature meetings that Lencioni talks about. It’s not enough that people just get together and talk about whatever they want. The meetings should be focused and designed to accomplish things.
4. Manage the relationships on the leadership team. Everyone doesn’t have to be best friends, but you have to make sure the team is healthy and well-aligned. You have to keep an eye out for undercurrents and challenges. If you don’t, bad actors can remain on the team and poison it.
These are good rules to follow in forming and running a good team. But let’s say you already have a bad one. How do you fix it?
There are some important things to remember. First, be careful of the speed at which you change out people on the team. The best plan is to make only one change every six months. If you absolutely have to, you might be able to make two changes at a time. No more than that, or things become too destabilized. But what if you have three bad members? Well, if you put three bad people on an eight-person leadership team, shame on you. Get rid of the two biggest problems, and maybe the third one won’t be so bad when they’re gone.
Second, when you’re switching people out, be careful about who you add to replace them. Sometimes you can find someone who is too good for your company. (Yes, that is possible.) They might be a superstar executive from a big company, and you thought you had to go big with a hire to replace an underperformer. But make sure the new person actually fits in and works for the team you have.
Third, be intentional about team building. I’m not saying you have to take them for any of that “trust fall in the woods” type stuff, but there are great exercises you can do right in your office. I am a big fan of one called Lifeline, where you take your personal life, your business life and your financial life and map out what’s gone on for the past 40 years. It builds a lot of trust and teamwork.
Finally, here’s a challenge for CEOs who can’t stand their leadership teams and try to avoid meeting with them at all costs. Before you change the whole leadership team, consider: Is it you?
Often bad teams are associated with bad leadership. CEOs usually don’t want to hear this, but maybe you have some significant work of your own to do in your life and in your journey. That’s hard to hear, but the good news is that it’s easier to work on yourself than to try to fix somebody else – and you have the power to do it.
Whatever you can do to fix your leadership team – whether it starts at the top or requires a whole team overhaul – it’s essential to the success of any company. No organization can rise above its leaders.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors, West Michigan Scaling Up Coach