Going beyond being the kindergarten teacher

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One of the most difficult tasks any senior leader has is to manage the internal dynamics of their senior team.

I have heard countless times, “I’m tired of being the kindergarten teacher — they just don’t play nicely together.” And for business effectiveness, they must. So why do senior leaders have to play the role of peace-maker, arbiter, and mediator?

Matrixed Organizations: Many organizations are matrixed, with the hard line relationships being much easier to manage than the dotted lines, even when those leaders are geographically co-located. When push comes to shove, though, the dotted line leaders can simply say “I don’t report to you; I take my direction from my function/country/business unit leader.” This leads to significant “white space” between the members of the senior team, which involves competing objectives, performance measures, a lack of effective cross-boundary communication, and the resulting mis-alignment.

Siloed Organizations: Even within the matrix, we are also siloed. Projects, tasks, and decisions get thrown over the wall to the next group, often without clear communication. The defense of the silo and its performance objectives often trumps the performance of the overall business.

Hub-and-Spoke Leadership: When the senior leader is positioned in the center of the hub, senior team members will lobby that leader. They will have different levels of influence. The leader may only listen to the last one in the door. Politics and power dynamics rule how decisions get made. The senior leader has put themself in the role of the kindergarten teacher.

To shift from this role of dependence on the senior leader to make all the decisions and broker the relationships, it takes a conscious choice by the senior leader to get out of the middle of the hub. Four things they can do to begin this process of retraining their team members include:

Commitment to a Shared Intent: The senior team is asked to commit to a shared intention for the success of the senior team, and the overall business, and to subordinate their individual interests to the good of the whole. More easily said than done, but this is a starting point that will require holding them accountable.

“You Get the Behavior You Tolerate”: Plato said this many years ago. The senior leader needs to stop tolerating the one-off conversations, and have team members resolve their differences on their own. Senior leaders need to stop being the enabler or rescuer.

Collaborative Working Relationships: Create a set of collaborative operating agreements that everyone on the team agrees to100% true consensus, no reservations. This creates a common set of rules of engagement, takes the leader out of the center of the hub, and puts the onus on team members for how they work together.

Team-Based Performance Measurement: People behave in the direction they are incented. To shift the behavior, we need to move from individual incentive compensation to team-based and company based compensation. Otherwise, we merely perpetuate the same behavior.

There is no silver bullet. To shift from kindergarten teacher to orchestra conductor is hard work. It takes time, patience, and discipline. But the stakes are high, and the senior teams that are the best at leadership, are those who master this transformation.

Edward M. Marshall, Ph.D. is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919.265.9616.