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Senior Leadership Teams - Designed to Fail?
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Senior Leadership Teams - Designed to Fail?

26th Nov 2015


Justin Hughes, Managing Director at Mission Excellence

People sit on senior leadership teams (SLTs) ‘wearing 2 hats’ simultaneously.  On the one hand, they are invariably the ‘heads of something’.  Each is the senior person representing a business unit or support function.  However they are simultaneously part of a team with a wider responsibility for the whole business, independently of their own function.  This dual responsibility can (and usually does) pose something of a dilemma.

The SLT members generally spend about 90%+ of their time on the functional responsibility and so less than 10% on their SLT role.  The functional job is often the one which defines what they are measured on, and probably some or all of their bonus.  And by the very nature of having risen to be the head of something, they probably enjoy that role and responsibility and like to be in charge – a team full of people with those sorts of natural behavioural traits would not necessarily the balanced group you would design with a blank sheet of paper.  In summary, they have 1 role which requires leadership and which they are better suited to, spend 90% of the time on and get measured on.  Are they likely to be more effective in that role or the other role which actually requires followership more than leadership?

So what’s the solution?  SLTs need to develop the individual and collective self-awareness to recognise the potential incompatibility, and even conflict, of the 2 roles; individuals also need to develop the ability to choose a behaviour appropriate to role.  The behaviours required to head a function are not necessarily the same required on SLT business.  A successful career progression to that point does not buy immunity from the basics of team development for the top team.  Other than personality clashes, the drivers of effectiveness in teams are fairly agnostic to age, seniority and sector, but ignore them at your peril.

And of course you will get what you reward.  If you measure and incentivise one job or set of behaviours at the expense of another, it’s self-evident which will dominate.  People often hold military and sports teams up as examples of great teamwork however one significant difference between those environments and many commercial teams is that in the military and sport you are only really measured on collective performance.  The team all wins or all loses together.  An outstanding personal performance is largely irrelevant if the team loses.  To reframe the issue of collective responsibility another way, it’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.

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Justin Hughes, Managing Director at Mission Excellence

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