The Five Dysfunctions of a technology leadership team

Your startup exploded out the blocks. Your metrics rose impressively. You bootstrapped your way to growth, or super-charged it with external funding. You’ve reached 30, 50, maybe even 150 people. The opportunity is still enormous, but your growth rate is slowing and your early agility is showing signs of strain. Scaling laws are taking hold. The team is stressed. True leadership is now needed, but it’s at this point that it so often fails. Written for CEOs and other leaders in high growth technology leadership teams, this article identifies the factors that commonly cause team dysfunction, conflict and other tensions. I offer up some advice about how to avoid them based on my experience helping senior management and executive teams navigate this critical stage of growth.

It borrows from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which quickly become a best seller after it was published in 2002. Although it wasn’t based on robust scientific research, and its recommendations lacked empirical support, it provided a helpful framework for thinking about how to improve leadership team dynamics and performance.

Startup growth is never linear, it’s a rollercoaster, but similar challenges are observable on the ride. The Five Dysfunctions of a high growth technology leadership team that I most often see are:

  1. No clear Vision for what leadership looks like across the business 
  2. Lack of basic management and leadership skills at the individual level
  3. Lack of alignment
  4. Low psychological safety 
  5. ‘Tension in the machine’

Dysfunction 1. No clear Leadership Vision, including Values & Culture

Businesses that have recently raised many millions of pounds in funding are primed to embark on a serious programme of growth. A shared common vision, mission, strategy and plan to navigate the path forward is critical to success. Whilst much work has often been done to formulate this at the business-level, it’s rarely in place at the leadership team level.

In How to develop a leadership culture in your business, I suggest taking time out as a leadership team to discuss the vision, values and culture of leadership that you want to create. Most leaders never call this meeting, an opportunity missed as it’s the most productive few hours you’ll ever spend. If the whole leadership team is aligned, the synergies will flow through your whole organisation. Questions to discuss include:

  • What do we want great leadership to look like?
  • What are our leadership team values and how do we embody them?
  • What is the job of a leader, and what are the associated behaviours?
  • How do we define our leadership culture and weave it in into the business’s overarching company culture?
  • How will we communicate our leadership Vision, Values and Culture?

More advice:

  • Remember, these aren’t the Vision and Values for the business. These are the Vision and Values for how you will lead, both as an individual and as an Executive / Senior Management Team.
  • Remember that leadership culture is not the same thing as overall business culture. According to the Centre for Creative Leadership: “It’s the way things are done — the way people interact, make decisions, and influence others. Leaders’ own conscious and unconscious beliefs drive decisions and behaviors, and repeated behaviors become leadership practices. Eventually these practices become the patterns of leadership culture”.

Dysfunction 2. Lack of basic management and leadership skills

In the corporate world, leadership development is catered to individuals who already have many years of leadership experience. But most new leaders in startup and high growth businesses are new to the experience. In his research into How Top Silicon Valley Companies Accelerate Leadership Development, Nick Petrie identified that technology leaders commonly need to develop basic management skills but “many miss these early on and it can follow them their whole career”.

Not long ago you were part of a small team of people with a big idea that you thought could change the world. Now you are responsible for a rapidly growing team who are looking at you for direction. Your burden of responsibility has increased dramatically and you need to learn to lead quickly.

Leading on the job: advice for new leaders

Here’s what to do:

Dysfunction 3. Lack of leadership team alignment

For all the excitement that comes with the next stage of growth, senior teams are often plagued by doubts and insecurities just below the surface. Leaders are highly capable, but often inexperienced (see Dysfunction 2). The executive and senior management team is still not fully formed and is yet to find its feet. Investors are applying leverage and Board dynamics are equally nebulous. Organisational design is incomplete and reporting lines ambiguous.

The business may have grown off the back of a powerful idea and business model, but a lack of unity and focus can lead to paralysis, confusion, tension and conflict. These factors combined can derail growth in even the most promising business. Here’s a few ways to avoid these dysfunctions:

  • Double down on the first two dysfunctions. Early, open and honest conversations about leadership vision, values & culture will go a long way to improving alignment upfront. Most business do not have these conversations, take this opportunity to have them in yours.
  • Is poor alignment a function of skill gaps? CB Insights discovered that not having the right team was the third most common reason for failure and that a diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to success. The co-founder and CEO of Zirtual, Maren Kate Donovan, forced to lay off 400 employees overnight, admitted that a key mistake was not bringing a CFO onto the board: “If [a board] had actually been in tune, this would have been caught like six months ago… I blame myself on a lot of this, in not hiring more experienced people, but it wasn’t any maliciousness beyond just naivete… In retrospect if we had a senior finance person and a senior ops person it would have been a completely different story.”
  • Consider hiring a senior people lead, who has clear responsibility for overseeing the challenges discussed here, along with developing your people more generally. Ed Batista has a superb post on this: The Truly Strategic People Leader.

Dysfunction 4. Low Psychological Safety

Combining dysfunctions can result in a distinct lack of psychological safety amongst leadership teams.

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

Leadership team coaching

How can you create Psychological Safety amongst a leadership team?

Typically leadership teams in high growth technology businesses have only recently been formed. Like any relationship, it takes time to get to know one another, to understand what makes a colleague tick, or the opposite, to know someone’s boundaries – how far you can push them, and what’s to far. Developing psychological safety means going beyond simple team building exercises to more fundamental considerations about how you will work together, respectfully.

Google have shared the results from their research about How to foster Psychological Safety on your teams in this .pdf and Google Doc, and Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety in her TEDx talk:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

Dysfunction 5. ‘Tension in the machine’

In Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, former Google CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt explains 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.” 

However, getting teams to act as perfect community is incredibly hard, not least because of human’s hardwired Machiavellian tendencies:

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’.

Schmidt and his co-authors make a recommendation that works across all the dysfunctions discussed here, and is discussed in detail in Want to build a better leadership team? Get a coach:

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.

If you enjoyed digging into these leadership team dysfunctions, you might like:

Agents of Purpose by David Norris covers similar challenges related to scaling. David is an experienced COO, with a background in venture and now Chief Growth Officer at Holiday Extras. Big thanks to him for providing comments on this article.

How Vertical Development helps new leaders truly transform explores the difference between horizontal development, which focuses on what you know, and Vertical Development, which concerns how you think.