Consider the case of a division of a global industrial products company. Executives from the division had devised a strategy to corner a competitor and realize a sustainable share gain in a highly competitive market. The strategy was creative, ambitious, and relatively challenging to execute, but well worth the effort if it succeeded.
The SMT, consisting of the Division President and his staff of five, unanimously approved the strategy. Everyone agreed it was a brilliant plan and left the meeting in full accord that the team that had proposed it should implement the business case immediately. Speed was of the essence – this was a top priority initiative.
Within weeks, the Division President was getting calls from the group responsible for deploying the strategy. Resources they had been counting on were tied up on other projects. Plant capacity they needed had been absorbed by other product groups. Regional marketing funds built into their business plan had been redeployed elsewhere.
The President was deeply disappointed in his SMT. He was spending hours on the phone keeping a project on track that each of them, sitting at the leadership table, had fully committed to weeks before. Among the five of them, every resource of the organization had been represented. All five had agreed to the project. Yet it was the President who was burning up the phone lines to shake loose resources to get the project back on track. He felt something was clearly wrong – something deep and vital – with his team.
It so happened that the SMT was scheduled to have an offsite within weeks of my meeting with the President. He asked if he should bring in someone to work on teamwork. Or accountability. Or keeping to commitments. All of which are the province of psychologists and team-builders.
If he had turned half his upcoming offsite to team building activities, he might have felt better and the team would probably have learned a few things. But in the long run, would the problem he had just faced have reoccurred? Without question. Because the root cause – what was making his phone ring off the hook – had nothing to do with teamwork, accountability, or commitments. Its roots didn’t actually lie with his team at all.
It was a breakdown of management process – the failure to surface and resolve critical resource dependencies when the plan was first considered – but to him it looked like poor leadership behaviors on the part of his team members.
Team-building usually does no harm. After the psychological consultant has gone, the members of the team may get along better; they may be more empathetic or more open. And for personally difficult members of the team, a leadership consultant may be just the thing. But no matter how much collegiality has been achieved, the same old problems will begin to resurface unless leaders confront the root causes of their team leadership issues. And, more often than not, those root causes lie in failures of structure and process, not in feelings.
Bob Frisch, managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, is the author of "Who’s In the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them" (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).
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