By Dan Brown, PCC

The management team meeting adjourned and my client, the team’s leader, took me aside in the hallway. Visibly disturbed, she asked: “I’m at my wit’s end. What can I do to get these managers to collaborate?! They’re heads-down into their own functional areas and it’s killing us.”

This was my first opportunity to observe the team of seven in action, during their monthly meeting. My client’s observation was spot on. Each of the managers was a seasoned expert in his or her specialty and they all spoke up — but only about what was going on in his or her own branch of the organization. They fought over budget allocations as though it hadn’t occurred to them that their branches connected to the trunk of a tree. A tree starving for proper nutrition.  So in the hallway, my client and I devised a powerful exercise for the next month’s meeting, which started with a provocative, controversial question:

“Which team is your first priority, your Team Number 1?” I asked the group, taking the question directly from the team-consulting guru, Patrick Lencioni. Seven blank faces stared first at me and then turned to their leader with a unified expression of incredulity. What kind of a question is that, anyway? It’s the only question worth serious reflection, if an executive team has any shot of cohering into one capable of strategic action and driving cross-functional collaboration, I answered. You should’ve been there. Or maybe you have, in your own team. Many frowns expressed unspoken truths:

Of course, I’m more loyal to my team of direct reports; I hired most of them….

I don’t want anyone on this management team telling me how to run my shop….

It’s running my day-to-day operation that brings me the most satisfaction….

These are the deep beliefs that drive wedges between managers on executive teams and solidify the walled boundaries around functions that must collaborate, but cannot, because there is no First Team, only fiefdoms. Reluctantly at first, my client and her team agreed to spend two hours exploring the dynamic tension between loyalty to “My Department” & “Loyalty to the Management Team.” In the end, the seven heretofore partisans broke through to realizing this is a tension to be managed with skill and heightened consciousness. The loyalties can indeed co-exist, but not in equal proportion. The weight, they discovered, must be in favor of loyalty to their First Team, the team of managers, for their organization to thrive.

The group broke into four pairs and each had a chance to discuss four propositions:

  1. What’s beneficial about focusing first on your department (functional team)?
  2. What’s the downside (or cost), if that were your sole focus?
  3. What’s beneficial about focusing first on the management team?
  4. What’s the downside (or cost), if that were your sole focus?

 

When the group reconvened to debrief, here’s what they discovered:

(How might this apply to the management or executive-team to which you belong or lead?)

  1. Benefits of focusing on the departmental team, in the words of the managers:
    1. Setting operational plans and executing them. Making sure stuff gets done.
    2. Attending to the development of my direct reports.
    3. Assigning work.
    4. Advocating for the resources my team needs.
    5. Flexibility & speed to adapt to changes in the market (external conditions).
    6. Building esprit de corps.
    7. Developing subject-matter expertise.
    8. Maintaining distraction-free focus.

 

  1. Downside (costs) of focusing solely on my department and neglecting the management team:
    1. No collaboration among the departments. Isolation & silos.
    2. Unhealthy competition among us managers and our direct reports.
    3. Ignorant of what other departments are doing that could help mine.
    4. Gaps in knowledge
    5. Employees sense unfair treatment due to inconsistent application of company policy by different managers.
    6. Inefficient use of time and resources. Nothing gets leveraged.
    7. Loss of vision
    8. Unproductive management-team meetings.

 

  1. Benefits of focusing on the management team:
    1. Collaboration
    2. Coherent, thoughtful strategy, tied to common vision, core purpose and values.
    3. Consistent handling of personnel matters. Fair treatment.
    4. Easier to balance workloads across the departments.
    5. Leveraged use of resources, particularly technology platform.
    6. Fewer “do-over’s” in decision-making.
    7. Better hiring and training programs for all staff.

 

  1. Downside (costs) of focusing solely on the management team, to the neglect of my department:
    1. My direct reports feel I’m detached.
    2. No team spirit among my direct reports.
    3. Nobody fighting for our department.
    4. Work products suffer.
    5. Reduced perspective on team challenges and issues.
    6. Reduced flexibility in dealing with unusual, exceptional personnel issues.
    7. Slower decision-making.
    8. Slower to capitalize on market opportunities.
    9. Less employee mentoring/development.

Looking at these pros and cons in the context of your own management or executive team, what would you add? How would you balance these two, opposing – and completely valid – claims on your time and attention? In this case study, the management team committed to dedicating 70% of its energy to reaping the benefits cited under number 3, above, and 30% on reaping the benefits under number 1. It also developed some early-warning signals to avoid overdoing either focus, to avoid the drawbacks cited under numbers 2 and 4. For example, poor attendance at the management team and not being prepared for it now serve as signals that a manager may be overdoing it with regard to leading his department. Operational deadline slippage was chosen as signal to warn managers that they might be tilting to far in the direction of focusing on management-team issues. This exercise in polarity thinking assisted this group of managers in becoming a First Team. Perhaps it will do likewise for yours. .

 

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For more masterful tips on helping your team set priorities, speak with Dan about your own team’s challenges.