Four Rules for Working with Leadership Teams

Lucy Ball
Lucy Ball

Our leadership team clients are facing tough decisions right now. Some are reinventing dying industries, some are grappling with outdated culture, technology and structure, most are faced with the challenge of significant strategic transformation within an environment of extreme cost pressure.  We are being asked to support in several ways – to accelerate performance of newly formed leadership teams, to hold a mirror up to the way leadership behaviour drives culture and to support CEOs and MDs to provide engaging and inspiring leadership.

This blog offers four thoughts that are currently helping me greatly in my work with leadership teams; you might call them ‘mantras’, or ‘anchors’. They are things I tell myself that help keep me grounded in what can feel like the lion’s den of a leadership team development intervention. I have, by no means, got them nailed and the mastery of them feels like enough to keep me busy for an entire career!

Those teachers, mentors and friends who have helped me, and to who I am grateful, will recognise their wisdom below. Thanks for reading.

Do not work without trust

Trust is the foundation of all leadership team (arguably all leadership) work.  First and foremost is the trust between the consultant and the team leader. A leader has most to gain from leadership team development but also most to be anxious about. The possibility of shame – even if not conscious- hangs over the leader like a cloud. And a leader made to feel uncomfortable in front of his/her team can behave like a cornered animal.  Some discomfort is inevitable and desirable for development but it must be contained by a trusting relationship.

Trust with each and every team member is essential too and that is why it does not pay to skimp on preparatory work such as interviews with each team member. Some members will make it feel harder to earn their trust than others. With those, what are sometimes mislabeled,  tricky characters, the least I need to do is acknowledge that trust is what I want and invite them to engage.  Once ‘enough trust’ is established, the work to maintain it is constant – like holding a plank position – all your muscles are working all the time.  If trust is broken at some point in an intervention then it’s important to acknowledge that someone has put you back on probation and to let them know this matters to you.

Be here now

A disappointing’97 Oasis album and a well worn phrase but still the best way to describe the state to aim for when working with leadership teams. Whether in a diagnostic interview or on your feet at an away day, the consultant’s ability to be in the present with the team has huge benefits.  ’Be here now’ is essential to allow for the emergent nature of working with Boards and Executive teams.  In my experience the higher up the organisation you go, the less need there is for a consultant to arrive with a busy agenda to march people through it.  Process-heavy designs haven’t served me well.  A loose structure with a commitment to do the work that presents itself on the day have worked much better.  It’s also possible that the consultant’s ability to be in the present moment and to notice what is happening here and now gives permission to the team to let go for a precious short time of the pressure of the upcoming investor meeting, the repercussions of yesterday’s structure announcement and the giant inbox. With this permission there may be more space for awareness and genuine dialogue.  In many ways this feels like the hardest one to crack because leadership teams offer so many opportunities for the consultant to be triggered.  I have a particular problem with a certain type of (usually male) ‘know it all’ character which can instantly have me playing out old father-daughter battles that do not belong in the present – working with leaders is about working with our demons.

See strengths first

At Ideas Unlimited we have been asked to ‘hold the mirror up’ to many a leader and leadership team. Usually I read between the lines of this request, which often comes from an HR  Director, that they would like someone with less career risk to expose some ‘bad behaviour’. Leadership teams can’t see their bad behaviour because they can’t see themselves operating – none of us can – and it’s a hugely valuable thing to have it reflected back at us.  I am willing to take the challenge and give the bad news as well as the good but I always want to start with strengths.  Seeing and revealing the existing competence of the team has many benefits.  If a leadership team sees its strengths first:

  • The leader’s trust that you are not going to shame him/her builds because they can take credit for the competence that exists in their team
  • There is more resourcefulness to tackle problems using existing strengths
  • There is more appreciation for the diverse talents in the team
  • There is more energy and often an invitation to focus on areas for development – better to be pointing out bad behaviour after someone has begged to hear it.

Be bold

Last but in many ways the most important is boldness.  Inappropriate boldness can be a career derailer especially if it undermines trust.  However, a consultant’s boldness has a huge role to play in leadership team development. With respect for the team leader’s authority, I believe a consultant needs to be a model of brave communication and indeed leadership.  For me being bold in my work with leadership teams is about stepping wholeheartedly into the room without hesitance; about confidently owning my observations and my philosophy and about creating a level of safety in which people can take risks in their conversations with each other. This is another way in which working with leadership teams is essentially about working with our demons.  Fear is present in any leadership team and we do our clients a service if we demonstrate that it’s not going to get in the way of a darn good, grippingly real conversation.