Raising Team Leadership Performance
We helped a management team with practical solutions to longstanding team issues that hindered effectiveness
A recent client used a variety of words to describe what they felt they needed: “discipline”, “focus” and “alignment”. Performance-wise, the company was doing OK, but it would be safe to say that life on that management team wasn’t great— lots of constant frustrations and frictions that would sometimes and unexpectedly boil over into full-blown unpleasantness had become the norm.
We took a three-pronged approach. First, we interviewed each person on the management team to understand the issues that each person was facing—not just with their peers, but within the performance of their own organizations and in their view of the business itself. Not surprisingly, many of the issues among leadership peers were outgrowths of problems they were facing in their respective organizations—resource constraints, talent issues, accountability issues, and prioritization issues. We helped to assess these issues and bring forward an integrated and prioritized set of fixes that would help each executive get support for critical issues that sapped enormous amounts of their bandwidth. At the same time, we worked with the CEO to set some very clear new ground rules around accountability. Working with both with the CEO and individual leaders, we ensured those new expectations were clear, actionable and formalized. Second, we facilitated a set of offsite strategy discussions to resolve what had been longstanding polarizations within the leadership team between different, competing views about how the business should be run. We took what had been largely anecdotal debates and converted them into strong fact-based pitches and enterprise-level forecasts that allowed the team to openly discuss strategic options in a results-focused context— “if we followed this approach, where would this really get us in five years?” Third, we took a highly-tactical approach to improving management collaboration. We clarified decision-making roles, revamped standing meetings, and set new tactical expectations around meeting preparation and management. We set new groundrules for communication between executives that offered practical solutions to key frustrations around under-communication, perceived non-responsiveness, and back-door decision-making. We gave the management new tools that allowed them to communicate status efficiently, manage debate, and circle back an ensure completion of priorities, and for a month, we ran every meeting to the minute, taking feedback so that the end result were a new set of “norms” that felt comfortable and self-designed to the leadership group.
Agility without Fragmentation
Prioritization is as much about deciding what you’re not going to do
Our client faced a common problem in dynamic market environments: every day seemed to result in a new or different priority added onto the management team’s collective plates, and few things ever came off the plate. The whipsaw effect within the organization of mobilizing in one direction, but then another was gradually reducing the organization’s overall capacity—it wasn’t just fatigue, but a “let’s wait first” attitude that started to emerge around new imperatives, so less and less seemed to be getting done. At the same time, some senior leaders felt the organization just needed to be more agile—it just wasn’t reasonable, in their view, to expect priorities in their business to stay constant in a shifting market. Customer issues, new sales leads, end-of-month sales goals, and competitor announcements were often “drop everything you’re doing” events, and, more and more of what people were doing was falling into the category of a “drop everything” event. Members of the leadership team often complained “we have lots of hard-working people, but there never seems to be anyone available to do anything.” The organization didn’t have a shared view of what constitute a reasonable number of priorities, and the balance between agility and the appropriate degree of consistency required to do impactful work.
We helped our client not just to prioritize initiatives, but to take the next step to decide on the specific time and resource expectations appropriate to support both near- and longer-term priorities. We helped individual executives rework the way they communicated imperatives to their teams, and how they chartered projects and set end-product expectation within their groups so their employees could better calibrate urgency, drive to the appropriate end-products, and shift activities when necessary without feeling like a whipsaw. We addressed the company’s project management culture, and streamlined some low-impact institutional practices that tended to slow down projects excessively, and refocused energy on the key practices that drive good, rapid results. We put in place a new staffing tool that gave much higher visibility into what individuals were working on, and when they’d come available for new endeavors. We also helped the team to agree on more standardized, efficient practices for responding to time-critical market opportunities and issues so that those issues did not end up consuming the lion’s share of everyone’s bandwidth, including establishing clear roles, activities and end-products. Those time-critical issues not only became less disruptive, but the leadership team felt that the speed and quality of their responses increased.
Growth was plateauing, the market was shifting, and the company needed to figure out Act Two
Finding a Growth Strategy for Act Two
Our client had reached the plateau in a five-year surge forward. That prior success emerged from the cocktail of a new team with lots of good ideas, an eagerness to implement, and what seemed to be a natural shared vision at the time of where the market landscape was heading. As this talented team looked ahead, they realized that the next phase of growth was going to require something more systematic to generate the next great set of ideas.
The first thing we helped them with was a deep competitive market position assessment. Our approach to competitive market assessment isn’t the “market research” that’s sold by many firms. Most market research greatly oversimplifies competitor strategies and industry trends, making it hard to discern novel strategic opportunities. We helped our client— through a combination of fact-finding and facilitated workshops with the senior team—to develop a new picture of where their industry was heading that provided the same depth of guidance as the strong picture that guided their previous horizon of growth.
The second thing we did was to help the team translate that vision in to a form that would be a persuasive business case for their Board as well as a reframe for a motivated employee group that was tuned for Act One. For this client, one of the most important cultural shifts was going to be moving from what had been a strong “do it ourselves” mindset that had been forged during Act One’s success, to a mindset where groups looked for leverage with strategic partners. We helped the management team agree on the right proofs of concept, and decide which resources to move from current priorities to new ones and when. We worked with each leader—from engineering, to product to marketing and sales—to help them navigate how to reshape priorities within their respective organizations.
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