Yes, It’s Still About the Team

(And nowhere more importantly than in the C-Suite)

Years ago, I found myself shifting uncomfortably and embarrassed in my chair in a meeting kicking off the start of a new client relationship. A well-meaning mid-level manager on our team was at the front of the room announcing a “new era of partnership” in business. It is all about the team, he said, reducing the notion of our collaboration to a slogan, speaking dramatically, “T-E-A-M…together everyone achieves more.” Could anything be more obvious?

And yet, hard as it is to imagine, in a recent study by Deloitte, 73% of respondents surveyed said that there was little to no regular collaboration among the various chiefs in the CxO functions of their businesses. While simultaneously, more than 85% of respondents said that this is currently a critical need.
T-E-A-M, indeed.

Part of the problem may be in the C-designation itself. C. Chief. We have chiefs of this and chiefs of that, new chiefs and old chiefs, all hewing culturally for the most part to the classic dictionary definition of “chief”: of highest rank in a hierarchy, of greatest importance, or the principal or most important part. A definition that hardly provides a great starting place for open, cross-functional collaboration, sharing, innovation and problem solving.

Obviously, all the blame cannot be laid on titles or on the occupants of the offices holding those titles—indeed the challenge of cross-functional teamwork and collaboration exists at all levels throughout many different organizations. Nevertheless, the need to model a more agile and flexible way of working across disciplines puts even more pressure on senior leaders to get it right.

There are many organizational and functional approaches to solving this problem. Many of these, such as organizing leaders into dyads and golden CxO triangles around critical projects and initiatives are designed to shifting the mindset of the CxO team from a top-down hierarchy to what Deloitte calls the “Symphonic C-Suite.” All valid. Credible. And powerful approaches.

In line with the Deloitte findings, our research at the Institute for Personal Leadership also reveals a number of natural human barriers—and a few organizationally imposed ones—that impede such “symphonic” collaboration, and we have developed principles and techniques to help people tear down these barriers. In our work with teams to help advance their ability to make quick and decisive “High-Impact Decisions,” we have organized one set of these approaches into what we call the IDEAL framework:

IDEAL = Inquire first, foster Dialog, make sure all can Engage, forge Alignment, and always be Learning

Let’s take a quick look at the IDEAL components of a collaborative C-Suite and what they entail:

  • Inquire: As senior leaders, we have often been schooled and trained to be decisive, quick and to be Subject Matter Experts. All of which can manifest in the need, either perceived internally or demanded externally, to have the answer. The Inquire step is a rigorous step away from this “I must have the answer mindset” to one of starting with Inquiry first. What is the other’s perspective, need, want or “answer”? How does that fit with my needs and requirements? What different perspective can I gain by asking questions first, and answering second, if at all?
  • Dialog: If we’re going to honestly inquire of each other, honest candid dialog becomes necessary as well. This step is about making sure that dialog can happen, and that when it does it occurs in the most productive fashion possible. So we work on mastering our own emotions; getting and remaining centered, or quickly returning to “center,” so that we can be open to differing views; learning to detach ourselves from opinions, beliefs and pre-ordained outcomes; and using analysis in place of opinion when emotions are running high.
  • Engage: If we want to bring out the best in ourselves and in others—a key part of how we define great leadership at IPL—we need to create an environment in which others feel they can engage and contribute their best. In which individuals feel they can be individual, with all their attendant experience and at times even contrarian views. To achieve this, we must learn to create a zone of psychological (and professional) safety. We must also make sure people feel a sense of urgency toward the overriding common cause or goal to break people out of apathy and indifference. And we practice and practice and practice the many tools of mastering the art of Difficult Conversations.
  • Align: People have a natural tendency to serve their own interests, and this self-interest can be amplified the higher one is in an organization and the more responsibility one has. To help teams break through this tendency, we introduce proven practices of forging common purpose, developing a concrete desired future vision, getting individuals to understand clearly what they have in common (affiliation) rather than to focus on their differences, and crafting a collaborative group identity. Last but not least we introduce the power of not just appealing to team members’ heads but of stirring their hearts, which multiplies exponentially the effectiveness of all the other practices.
  • Learn: Finally, we work with teams at all levels of an organization to shift the cultural mindset from Knowing to Learning. While there are many specific IPL tools and techniques to make this shift, the transformative change here is to essentially move people from relying on their status as an SME (subject matter expert) and to embrace the new role of SMI (subject matter investigator). Because once any of us realizes the shift from “I know” to “What don’t I know and what can I learn,” the transformation of the organization begins. When we put a premium on learning, with the failures that come with it along the way, we start actually learning, and innovating, and sharing our best with others as they share their best with us.

Must this shift from the non-collaborative framework of business competition to the IDEAL always start at the top of our organizations, in the C-suite? Of course not. The transformative power of inquiry, dialog, engagement, alignment and learning can start anywhere and ideally should permeate our businesses at all levels.

But, imagine this. If those who are already identified and anointed as the experts, those who have climbed to the top of their fields—if the chiefs are acting as though there is always something to learn from each other and others. If we forge alignment at the very top of our org charts. If we demand cultures of inclusion and engagement. If we delight in true dialog, discourse and discovery. And take joy in asking questions first, before jumping to the answer. What if we do all this, as leaders, and do this with full commitment? No, let’s go further: if we don’t just do this, but be this kind of leader, who wouldn’t want to follow?