How can alpha executives be made into an effective top team? And how can executives at the head of the company avoid dysfunctional behaviour? No top manager can tackle these problems alone. It takes self-critical dialogue with peer executives to recognize and overcome the unproductive behaviour patterns that weaken the top team and the entire organization.
A team of the best performers isn’t necessarily the best team. The patterns of behaviour that have worked for individuals in getting to the top and competing against other alphas are extremely damaging to top teams. But there is another component: Top executives need each other. A successful team of top managers at the head of a company must master a single core skill: reflection in action – to perform on the field and at the same time observe themselves from the stands. This core skill can be acquired through The 7 Disciplines.
“THE 7” Disciplines of Team Success:
What the CEO and his top team need to practise
When is reflective team dialogue critical to success? And which skills must alpha executives develop in order to collectively lead as a team? How can executives at the head of the company avoid and un-learn dysfunctional behaviour? No top manager can tackle these problems alone. It takes self-critical dialogue with peer executives to recognize and overcome the unproductive behavioural patterns that weaken the top team and potentially the entire organization. Successful managers in the team at the top must master a single core skill: reflection in action – to perform “in the game” and at the same time observe themselves ”from the sideline”. There are seven critical situations in which top teams face a particularly high risk of failure. And there are 7 Disciplines to practice and enhance a collective logic of success.
Discipline 1: Understand the real problem
Alpha executives work according to the motto “if in doubt, act”. As proactive doers, they pinpoint problems that they can solve with their routines and their models of success. Often these routines are focused on “technical” fixes such as processes, structures and roles. Yet, collaboration challenges will not be successfully addressed unless the “adaptive” dimension is also recognized and tackled: the basic assumptions, mental models, loyalties and individual patterns of behaviour in the team. Thus, successful leadership and collaboration in the top team begins with a differentiation between a “technical” problem and an “adaptive” challenge – in order to define the appropriate way to cope with it.
Discipline 2: Listen to your inner dialogue
Alpha executives are convinced they act rationally and unemotionally. And yet, just like everybody, they are influenced by what is going on in their individual ”inner theatre”. Interpreting others’ behaviour based on one’s own patterns of thought or inner dialogue and perceiving reality “through tinted glasses” is human. And it is commonplace in top teams, too. In order to lead effectively, executives must learn to go beyond taking their own perspective as the only true reality. They must learn to approach problems from the perspective of all relevant parties involved. And they must be willing to actively use their peers in the team as assets – listening to their feedback – in order to recognize their own personal filters of perception.
Discipline 3: Be aware of your leadership shadow
Despite an inherent overconfidence bias – a tendency to overestimate one’s own strength and impact – alpha executives systematically underestimate the shadow they cast into their organization. Especially the indirect effects of leadership are often ignored or misjudged by alphas in top teams. For it is not only through their explicit leadership impulses they provide but also through their way of collaborating that they function as role models for all other executives throughout the organization. Working with their direct reports and middle managers, alpha executives must be consciously aware of their role model status, reflect on it, and keep the unintentional side effects of their behaviour in mind.
Discipline 4: Focus on the primary task
In situations of crisis and stress, even battle-tested alpha executives fall back in avoidance tactics and defense mechanisms, whether they do this consciously or not. In the process, they lose sight of their primary task at hand: collective and effective leadership. Faced with apparently overwhelming complex challenges, alpha executives tend to go after “symptom solutions”, such as immediate actions (just for the sake of demonstrating decisiveness), retreat to their own department or upward-delegation to the CEO (because “well, someone must know”). The alpha team should understand that the scapegoat mentality is a warning signal, and they should be brave enough to face the question: What is going on here, and what is our part in it?
Discipline 5: Earn your authority
Alpha CEOs overestimate the authority that their position affords them. Authority is nothing more than power in exchange for a service the CEO provides to his team – by providing direction, protection, orientation, structures and norms. Yet, leadership in an alpha team requires boldly pushing the limits of authority, without losing support. Leadership is not just about giving answers, it is also about asking questions, revealing conflict, naming taboos and addressing non-collaborative behaviours. That is the task of every executive in the top team who takes leadership responsibility seriously and sets an example – even in challenging the CEO.
Discipline 6: Leverage productive conflict
Alpha executives tend to avoid open conflict in the top team: No doubt, individual success models and a primary focus on functional units interests could easily clash in strategic trade-off discussions and pose a severe threat to team cohesion. However, if conflicts are escalated up the line only to be delegated back by the top executives, that vicious circle of avoidance can paralyse the entire organization. More than everybody else, the alphas at the top must use their conflicts as a productive force in collective leadership and set a visible example through their constructive approach to conflict.
Discipline 7: Regulate the tension
Alpha executives are at their best in crisis situations. And, they often use crisis mode to solidify their own position of power, even after the acute phase is over. The consequence is that external crises are turned into protracted internal crises. Alphas who are not able to adapt their leadership tone at the top to the business situation at hand lead their organization into unproductive crisis-fatigue. Alphas have to consciously renounce their need for action and heroism – and instead invest in disciplined collaboration at the top: Which level of tension and release is appropriate when? Which alpha colleague is in permanent crisis mode and becomes an incalculable risk?
These 7 Disciplines are not mechanic laws for success nor a simplistic advice, rather, they are individual practices and patterns of behaviour. They are ways to counter the challenges of the Top Team Paradox: As competitive lone fighters, C-suite executives have to master a core task as a team – unlearning their managerial routines and learning collective leadership capabilites at the top.
Boost the Conscious Leader inside you: Performing the 7 Disciplines demands extra effort and self-discipline, but there is a reason for hope: Being an executive at the top, you are bold and prepared to move beyond your comfort zone to achieve lasting success. It only requires a conscious joint decision to invest in “reflective dialogue” as the catalyst for enhanced collaboration performance in the top team.
This is an excerpt of our book, published by Campus in German: Kai W. Dierke/ Anke Houben, Gemeinsame Spitze. Wie Führung im Top Team gelingt.
Updated English version of the book will be published in Autumn 2019! Stay tuned!