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Leading a Leadership Team Published: Monday, September 7, 2009 6:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Seven decades ago, the great Chester Barnard wrote a book that turned out to be a classic in explaining what executives must do to help organizations succeed.  The title of the book is "The Functions of the Executive".  The impact of Barnard's work on organization theory is well documented (Scott, 1987, Williamson, 1995) and the mentioned book in particular contains within it the seeds of three distinct trends of organizational theory that were to dominate the field for the next three decades.  One was the institutional theory as represented by Philip Selznick, another was the decision-making school as represented by Herbert Simon, and the third was the human relations school.

Barnard's "Functions of the Executive" provides a conceptual scheme of the theory of organization based on the structural concepts of: The individual and Bounded Rationality; Cooperation; Formal Organization; Informal Organization.  On the other hand, the principal dynamic concepts include: Free will; Communication; Consent Theory of Authority; Decision Process; Dynamic Equilibrium, the Inducement Contributions Balance, Leadership, Executive Responsibility and Moral Codes.

Barnard recognized that getting people to work together to pursue organizational objectives depends on getting certain executive functions accomplished.  Among the most important ones are: formulating organizational purpose and objectives, establishing and maintaining a system of communication and securing essential services from other organizational members.  According to him, what counts is what you get done, and not your pedigree or position.

In our interventions in hundreds of organizations along the past twenty years we have benefited from decades of research on the leadership of teams and organizations, as well as from our studies of Leadership Teams.  We find that Barnard's focus on functions has held up remarkably well: success in leading Leadership Teams depends fundamentally on what needs to be done to foster effective performance.  What are those critical functions that need to be fulfilled in making a Leadership Team great? Two general functions dominate: getting the Leadership Team set up right and providing competent real time education and support.

The first leadership function (getting the Leadership team set up right) includes making sure that the team is a real team, with clear membership, genuine interdependence, and reasonable stability over time.  It involves establishing a clear and compelling purpose and direction.  It means choosing for the team the right number of the right members, people who will bring the knowledge, skill, and competencies that are most needed.  It involves creating specific team tasks and norms that are consistent with the team's overall purpose and accountabilities.  Getting these conditions in place sets the stage for great leadership team performance, but it does not guarantee that your team's members will take full advantage of the favorable circumstances you have created.  To accomplish that, the second leadership function must also be fulfilled.   

The second leadership function (providing real time education and support) is what people usually have in mind when they talk about team leadership.  Barnard realized that management's authority rested in its ability to persuade, rather that command.  A Leader must be a teacher.  He/she can not do very much unless he/she can teach people.  Leadership then must go beyond deciding what the right thing to do is, and move onto the job of getting it done.  Supporting and learning together with people is a fundamental role of effective leadership.  You cannot just pick out people and stick them in a job and say go ahead with it.  You have got to state the limitations and co-create the methods.  Leaders need to be more effective than others, both in conveying meanings and intentions and in receiving them with sympathetic understanding.  This second leadership function includes providing real time coaching to team members. 

Fulfilling those two critical functions requires specific competencies in leaders for getting the most from each respective style of team leadership.  Our research shows that team leaders need a set of four main competencies for the function of designing excellent Leadership teams and also a set of four competencies for the function of providing hands-on leadership to a leadership team.

Competencies related to team design are:

  • Organizational Acuity: The best leaders of leadership teams have a high level of organizational astuteness that enables them to quickly understand how to the organization and the business operate and to prioritize the issues that require senior management attention.
  • Conceptual skill: Conceptualizing the work of the teams as an array of inter-dependent functions to accomplish shared purposes, the ability to gather in your mind the multiple relevant facts and ideas and to bring them together in a framework that others can understand and use.
  • Ability to Decide: To make the right call at the right time can be a challenge even for experienced leaders. When decisions need to be made, some leaders take the pressure of moving too quickly whereas others wait too long.  The best leaders thread their way between these two temptations.  On the other hand, a leader's indecisiveness can destroy even a strong team.
  • Political skill: Political activities almost always are essential for getting teams set up and supported well.  Creating the optimal conditions takes careful preparation as well as a finely honed sensitivity to the timing of your actions and no small measure of skill in dealing with others.

Competencies related to providing hands-on leadership to the team are the following:

  • Ability to inspire: It is about having passion for the organization, lofty aspirations for the future and the ability to get other members share those aspirations and get passionate at bringing them to reality.
  • Monitoring skill: The capability to discern and make sense of what is going on within the team, the ability to understand team dynamics.
  • Empathy: interpersonal sensibility, ability to connect to the styles, strengths, diverse styles and feeling of other members, capacity to convince others that it is safe for them to be themselves as the core foundation of trust.
  • Mentorship skill:  Taking interest in people, providing professional support, engaging in a co-creation process of performance improvement, establishing trustworthy relationships with team members.

Leading a leadership team requires a considerable degree of emotional maturity.  Unlike the more cognitive and behavioral competencies previously discussed, becoming more emotionally mature may be better viewed as a long term development task.  Learning involves working on real situations in safe environments with the explicit encouragement and support of others. Only to the extend that you actively seek out such settings are you likely to develop the habit of continuous learning and in doing that, provide a model for members of the leadership team to pursue their own continuous learning.  Once that begins to happen, the team itself becomes a valuable resource for accomplishing key leadership functions.

Copyright 2009 QBS, Inc.
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