Want to build a better leadership team? Get a coach

In his 2017 TED Talk Want to get great at something? Get a coach, surgeon, author and CEO Atul Gawande tells the story of the Harvard and Yale American-rules football teams: “In 1875 Harvard and Yale played their first game. Yale hired a coach Harvard did not. The results, over the next three decades Harvard won just four times. Harvard hired a coach”. Every high performing sports team has a coach, why doesn’t every leadership team?

This article explores the nascent role of leadership team coaching in high growth businesses: what it is, the (surprisingly common) challenges it helps address, and how you can practically embrace it to support the growth of your company and people. We’ll learn how some of the most successful technology companies in the world, like Google and Apple, have used leadership team coaching to incredible effect, and more about the science and psychology that underpins it.

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Why leadership team coaching?

This Centre for Creative Leadership Whitepaper sets a great foundation:

Good [team] coaching helps a group move toward becoming a real team by bringing the hidden dynamics out so they can be managed. As long as the critical challenges of creating a team remain “not discussable” they cannot be managed. Full team member engagement won’t occur unless each member of the team can trust that the conversation will not result in harm to their objectives or to their future prospects. While some CEOs can do this by the rules they establish for interaction and the way they model transparency, many top leaders recognize that this is not something they want to tackle on their own.

The most common ‘not discussable’ hidden dynamics that we’ll explore are:

  • Lack of alignment
  • Tension in the machine
  • Low psychological safety
  • Team-level psychological biases

Alignment

My clients have often recently raised many millions of pounds in funding and are about to embark on a serious programme of growth. A shared common vision, strategy and understanding of the path forward is critical to success. Yet too often senior teams are plagued by doubts and insecurities just below the surface. Leaders are highly capable, but often inexperienced. The executive team is still not fully formed and is yet to find its feet. Investors are applying leverage. The business may have grown off the back of a powerful idea and business model, but now a lack of unity and focus can lead to paralysis and confusion. These factors combined can derail growth in even the most promising startup.

In group sessions, a leadership team coach facilitates a conversation across the following areas:

  • Does the team have clarity on the strategy? Can the CEO articulate it to the team? Can the team replay it? Is everyone bought in?
  • Who is responsible for what? With roles and responsibilities constantly changing in the early days of growth, can team members articulate theirs? Are there gaps or overlaps? How will they be addressed?
  • Team composition? Given that diverse teams are more effective on practically every measure, do you have the right people on your team?
  • Does the team have the right complimentary skills? What’s missing? Where will the team find the skills it needs; from within, or externally?
  • How does the team make decisions? What are the blockers to good decision making?
  • Is the team prioritising the right things? What is the team not discussing that it should be? What is it spending too much time on that isn’t that important, and vice versa?
  • What does the team disagree about? Is there a healthy amount of disagreement and conflict?
  • What is the leadership culture? What does it mean to be a leader to be in this business? How do you define your leadership culture in the context of the business’s overarching company culture?
  • How do individual team members want to be treated? How will work together in a way that ensures mutual respect? What boundaries are we setting and agreeing to?

How a coach helps

Over the course of a leadership team coaching session, issues are unpacked and team members are really encouraged to listen to what their colleagues have to say. Sessions need enough structure to ensure key themes are identified and discussed but must flow freely enough to allow the team, and each of it’s members, to go where they want to, unrehearsed and dancing in the moment. Perspectives shift, new realisations are made, alignment follows. Sessions are concluded with helpful exercises like asking team members to share individually their one key takeaway, or to commit – to the group – to one action or behaviour change that they will adopt from now on.

Psychological safety

A good team coach will take the team on a journey beyond just the practical challenges of business growth, to a psychologically safe place. Psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon at the heart of which is trust.

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Google Re:work – Guide: Understand team effectiveness

First coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is now recognised as being the most important attribute for high performing teams. In 2012, Google published the findings of Project Aristotle a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?” The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. In order of importance:

Leadership team coaching

Google’s data-driven insights also align with Patrick Lencioni’s model of The Five Dysfunctions of a team. Psychological safety is the solution to two of fundamental dysfunctions of teams identified by Lencioni: lack of trust and fear of conflict.

How a coach helps

Leadership team coaching builds psychological safety by working through the more practical alignment challenges already identified, then exploring the deeper, human factors that are in play for each of the individuals that make up the team. With deep curiosity, empathetic listening and reflection, an experienced leadership team coach can help to create an environment in which individuals will feel that they can open up in a way that they are unlikely to if an external, objective professional wasn’t present.

‘Tension in the machine’

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, written by former Google CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Executives Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle, is a book about a man who helped build some of America’s greatest companies. Bill Campbell coached the likes of Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ben Horowitz and Bill Gurley, to name just a few. But he didn’t only work with individuals, he also worked with whole leadership teams.

Schmidt and his colleagues say that for the next generation of technology-led businesses to succeed “they must continually develop great products, and to do that, they must attract smart creatives and build an environment where these employees can succeed at scale.” But there is “another, equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities, integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company.”

Whilst they may have hit on the formula for success but they’re realistic enough to know that getting teams to act as perfect community is incredibly hard:

“as anyone who has ever been a member of high performance teams can tell you, teams don’t always operate this way. Such teams are by their nature populated with smart, aggressive, ambitious, strong world, opinionated people with large egos. These people may work together, but they can also be rivals, competing for career advancement. Or if they are executives, they are often positioning their divisions or other organizational silos against each other – in status conflicts – to capture more resource and glory. People may want to rise to the next level, and it is awfully tempting to pursue that goal alongside or above the goal of team success. All too often, internal competition takes centre stage and compensation, bonuses, recognition, and even office size and location become the ways to keep score. This is problematic in such an environment, selfish individuals can beat altruistic ones. 

This sort of intragroup conflict in teams will have according to several studies and common sense, negative effects on team outcomes. But teams of people who subordinate individual performance to that of the group will generally outperform teams that don’t. The trick, then, is to corral any such team of rivals into a community and get them aligned in marching toward a common goal. A 2013 paper presents a set of ‘design principles’ for doing this, such as developing strong mechanisms for making decisions and resolving conflicts. But adhering to these principles is hard, and it gets harder when you add in factors such as fast-moving industries , complex business models, technology driven shifts, smart competitors, sky high customer expectations, global expanding, demanding teammates… in other words the reality of managing businesses today.As Patrick Pichette, Google’s former CFO puts it when you have all of these factors in play and a team of ambitious, opinionated, competitive smart people, there there is tremendous ‘tension in the machine’.

How a coach helps

To balance the tension and mould a team into a community you need a coach someone who works not only with individuals but also with the team as a whole to smooth out the constant tension, continuously nurture the community, and make sure it is aligned around a common vision and set of goals. Sometimes this coach may just work with the team leader, the executive in charge. But to be most effective, the coach works with the entire team.

Team-level psychological biases

Groupthink is “a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” The Abilene paradox occurs when “a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group… This differs from groupthink in that the Abilene paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement”. 

The Bikeshed effect, or Parkinson’s law of triviality proffers that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. It’s creator, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

At the individual-group level, “the halo effect is a cognitive bias that affects the way people interpret the information about someone that they have formed a positive gestalt (way people form impressions of others) with.” This can play out in individual leadership team members where they overweight the perceived ability of, say, the CEO or another ranking leader. If such an individual also suffers from imposter syndrome – a very common “psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud'” – it compounds the bias: an individual that is ‘in awe’ of another member of the leadership team whilst at the same time internally disparaging of their own ability, is more likely to remain quiet and not speak out even when their input might be highly advantageous to the group. Because I have conversations with leaders about such issues on a daily basis I can tell you that such dynamics are much more common than you might think.

How a leadership team coach helps

Thinking Fast and Slow (Amazon UK, US), by Daniel Kahneman, is a book all about such biases. Individuals are very prone to cognitive biases, and so too are teams. According to Kahneman, when it comes to biases, “an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” Taking a systemic, objective view, a leadership team coach can sensitively calling out the biases that they are trained to see and help the team navigate through them. A coach will also enquire and ask questions in a way that alleviates response bias in the first place. For example, asking the CEO to share their views last and/or asking individual team members to write down their response to group questions before sharing them has been shown to reduce combat the effects of influence and groupthink. 

There is one bias that can impact positively on a team, as a result of simply engaging a coach. The Pygmalion Effect is “a phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy”. In business, “if a leader thinks an employee is competent, they will treat them as such. The employee then gets more opportunities to develop their competence, and their performance improves in a positive feedback loop”. If the Pygmalion Effect follows, then the very act of engaging a leadership coach will send a powerful message to all members of a leadership team that the business wants, and expects them to improve. The causality of the Effect will help make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stages of leadership team development

Leadership team coaching

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman described 4 stages of team development: 1) Forming, 2) Storming, 3) Norming and 4) Performing. A fifth stage, Adjourning, was later added. Now over 50 years old, the model is not without its critics, who argue that it’s a linear over-simplification. But based on my empirical observations it provides an accurate visualistion of the development journey in many growth stage leadership teams.

According to team coaching expert David Clutterbuck, “team coaches typically come in to help groups that have either never become a team, or teams which have become stale”. But growth businesses are different. Teams have not had the chance to form properly, yet alone become stale. The early days of building a business are scary but novel and exciting. With scale comes a more complex reality. Growth businesses change at a frenetic pace and leadership teams can find themselves rapidly descending into the Storming stage. Alignment and physchological safety decreases (if it ever existed in the first place), ‘tension in the machine’ rises and issues that were once discussable become ‘not discussable’. Tuckman’s original research found that this happens to approximately half of teams.

Want to build a better leadership team? Get a coach

The value of a high-performing team has long been recognized. It’s why savvy investors in startups often value the quality of the team and the interaction of the founding members more than the idea itself. It’s why 90 percent of investors think the quality of the management team is the single most important nonfinancial factor when evaluating an IPO. And it’s why there is a 1.9 times increased likelihood of having above-median financial performance when the top team is working together toward a common vision. “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team,” is the way Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn cofounder, sums it up. Basketball legend Michael Jordan slam dunks the same point: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

High-performing teams: A timeless leadership topic, McKinsey 2017

The characteristics of high performing teams might be well understood, and their competitive advantage clear, but creating and continually nurturing them is hard. I’m sure anyone who is working, or has worked, in a business experiencing rapid growth can relate to some, or all, of the issues discussed here.

Seeing the system when you are part of the system can be hard. So too can admitting that you have a problem. If you are a CEO or people lead in a growth stage business who is grappling with the dynamics discussed here – be that light symptoms, or the risk of a more perilous tilt into the Storming stage – then get in touch.


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Women leaders: How to break the habits holding you back summarises the book How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith and provides advice on how to break them.

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