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Top Teams function differently than Expert Teams – Why teaming up for Senior Executives is difficult

Ten senior executives in one room can unfold a dynamic that is hard to control. Many of our clients know this from painful experience. Although almost every CEO speaks quite naturally of „my management team“, only a few executive teams actually meet the criteria that qualify them as a team. Over the years, many alpha managers have turned into suspicious loners who, in heated discussions, raise the question of „whether we need to work together as a team at all or whether each one of us is better off on his own“.

Today, however, this individualism becomes increasingly dysfunctional in face of the complex requirements of successfully managing a company. Leadership has become a joint task. One major reason for the lack of success of even for failure is the fact that a team of executives functions in a completely different way than a team of experts. Senior teams, especially at the top of organisations are driven by completely different forces, different dynamics, personalities and challenges. We would like to sharpen your perspective on these differences.

Experts vs. Alphas

A team is a small group of people whose skills complement each other and who are committed to a common goal. It is about „complementary skills“ and the „common goal“. In operational teams, for example in product development, the strengths of each individual contributor add up to the collective power of the unit.

At the top of a company we find the exact opposite model: All members of a top team are general managers by claim and background – experienced and highly competent senior executives who master the entire keyboard toolbox to make it to the top. For this reason, you will find in top management teams only rarely people whose abilities complement each other perfectly. On the contrary, individual strengths – such as assertiveness or decisiveness – often collide so heavily that they become a collective weakness. The power formula of successful teams does not apply here: two plus two do not add up to five, but only to three. The potential dynamics of a group of six to twelve alphas is just another part of the challenge.

Top teams are essentially teams of equals: Everyone could take over the position of everyone else or has at least a robust idea of how the team colleague could do his job even better. The division of labour at the top means above all a division of responsibility. It is not primarily based on expert knowledge, but on an assignment of positions. The main risk for top teams therefore lies less in the professional incompetence of individual members than in their personal positioning vis-à-vis team colleagues.

The first step towards more success and quality lies, as so often, in becoming aware of this difference in order not to leave the dynamics of the assembled group of managers unfold freely. All too often, CEOs and supervisory bodies focus exclusively on composition of the group at the top – but not on the development of effective collaboration. No doubt, top team composition is important, but collaboration is critical – and determines success or failure.

Common cause common goals?

The „common goal“ also is a completely different thing in a top team. It is mostly highly abstract and based directly or indirectly on

  • the company purpose („Offer our customers the best: always and everywhere“),
  • the vision („rank among the top five in the industry in five years“) or
  • the implementation of a strategy („Strengthening the core business, growing with innovation“).

There are is an indefinite number of competing ways to implement this supposedly „common goal“. Therefore, they are not suitable for acting as a foundation and starting point for team cohesion at the top. The same applies to joint performance targets, which are highly aggregated in top management – for good reason. Executives almost always live (and suffer) under a hybrid target system that tries to combine the overall goals of the company with the goals of each business area more or less intelligently.

The result: the team members focus all their efforts on achieving their divisional goals. In their area they have a direct influence on their success and contribute, even if only indirectly, to the overall success. This is why the target systems of most companies lead directly or indirectly into divisional egoism. They hardly help to transform a group at the top into a real team.   

The Top Team Paradox

The inner compass of successful managers is often intuitively oriented towards „individual good“ rather than „common good“. In practice, this means that real teams do not emerge naturally. They have to be grown. For every member this means starting with his/ her own self – to do the inner work for outer impact. Because when equal professionals meet, it is almost always the human dimension that causes the difficulties. The critical work for any executive team is to dissolve these dynamics and to clarify one’s own perceptions and biases. But the effort is worth it! Executives who master the top team challenges create that quality of collaboration which makes effective corporate leadership possible. Only then leadership unfolds its full power in the top team and beyond. And makes leadership an extremely rewarding and energizing task!

We wish you a reflective day!

Sincerely yours, Anke Houben + Kai W. Dierke

This Article is based on our book „Gemeinsame Spitze. Wie Führung im Top-Team gelingt“, Campus; Completely Revised English edition forthcoming in 2020: „Executive Rivals. How to Build Great Leadership Teams where Collaboration is Hard.”

Dr. Kai Dierke and Dr. Anke Houben are founders of DierkeHouben Leadership Partners – C-suite Coaches and Advisors with more than 17 years of experience in counseling and developing Top Executives and their teams. In addition to their consulting work they offer open enrollment programmes for Senior Executives. As Adjunct Professors they teach Leadership at HHL Graduate School of Management.

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