The Surprisingly Simple Fix for Ineffective Leadership Teams

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

It’s no secret that many leadership teams don’t function as well as they could or should. Leadership teams are the people in your organization who collectively hold the responsibility for just about everything that impacts growth, operations, employee engagement, and productivity. They’re often looked up to and have say and sway regarding how things get done. They often are the more senior or tenured employees and have earned their positions through past successes and ongoing performance in their areas of expertise.

Individually, they might shine. So, why can’t they get along and get stuff done when they’re together?

I see leadership teams up close and personal, facilitating dozens of offsite meetings each year. While the agendas are always customized to the unique, stated problems facing the group, there are invariably underlying issues with trust, respect, communications, and lines of authority. There are difficult relationships and politics. Many maintain a thorough accounting of past wrongs done to them and opportunities missed because of others’ ineptitude. Almost everyone is keeping score.

With interpersonal challenges like these, you’d think the fix would be big and expensive and might even require letting some people go. However, in my experience, leadership team function can be dramatically improved by addressing one simple but important thing—the recurring leadership team meeting.

Leadership team meetings typically are boring, tedious, and ineffective. What’s remarkable is that most organizations hold them every single week.

The leadership team meeting is the standing meeting in which the senior staff get together. The intent is to share what’s going on around the organization and to solve the problems common among them.

The conversation breaks down almost immediately because the session is unstructured and team members are free to dominate or tune out without much consequence. Any expectations to prepare in advance or actively participate are pretty minuscule. Most leadership teams go through the motions each week. Little is discussed, and often people disband feeling like it was yet another wasted hour of precious time. They’re all anxious to get back to their “real work.”

If you’re the one at the head of the table, this Groundhog Day-type experience can be incredibly frustrating. You probably handpicked most of these people and like each individual very much. You wonder why they can’t work more effectively together and get conflicting, biased messages about how to fix it. In side conversations, team members might advocate for reorganizations or budget realignment. They might enumerate their colleague’s failings and the slights they’ve endured.

What’s surprising is that as overwhelming as the leadership team problems might feel, the starting point for resolution is simple. Make the leadership team meeting work for you, instead of against you.

To start, announce that you’ll be changing up the meeting. This move will get people’s attention. They’re used to boring, bland, and ineffective, so they’ll be keen to hear what you have in mind.

Next, toss out your scantily clad, generic agenda and vow to never go ‘round the horn again as a way to fill the time.

Pull out your annual work plan or goals. Identify three or four specific ongoing initiatives that matter to everyone or most everyone. These will be the basis of the discussion going forward.

Remove any requirement to create briefing slides or a weekly status report. High-fives will ensue.

Lastly, set (then rigorously and fairly enforce) these new ground rules.

  • Any business between two divisions should be handled before or after but not during the meetings on everyone else’s time.
  • Only topics with shared strategic, operational, or employee impacts should be discussed. There should be plenty of these to keep the group busy all year. If not, refresh the strategic plan or do an employee satisfaction survey STAT.
  • Keep the discussion for discussion’s sake to the minimum needed to understand the issue. Write down action items. Each action item should have a person responsible and due date identified. Rotate responsibility for creating the list. Nothing fancy is needed and do this in place of minutes.
  • Tell the group that the meeting is their chance to speak up on the topic under discussion. If they don’t say anything, they don’t get to second-guess the agreed-upon direction after the fact. It’s done. Get on board and move on.
  • Any information leaks about personnel decisions or gossip about each other is grounds for removal from the leadership team.
  • Any pre-reads should be just that—read in advance. If anyone turns up unprepared, they will be invited to leave the room and finish the reading. The discussion, however, will not wait.

Just passing time together in a meeting isn’t enough to create an effective leadership team. Just because the group was gathered and talking doesn’t mean that communication has been effective or issues have been resolved.

Creating a more functional leadership team doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, complex task. Restructuring this precious and valuable time together by focusing on important cross-organization initiatives and setting expectations for participation is key to a more productive meeting, and in turn, a more cohesive team.

The post originally appeared in GovExec.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.