Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Do your Direct Reports Work together like a Real Team? Do they need to?

Business people in circle stacking hands

In today’s companies, groups of direct reports are often called “teams.”  Yet, quite frequently, they either don’t function as true teams, or they don’t engage in the level of teamwork needed to optimize their performance.  Many “teams” might be more accurately called “staffs,” implying a group that serves as an extension of the manager to whom they report.

Does your group of direct reports need to be a team?  If so, what does it take to jell a group into a true team?

The Expert Team Leader Mindset

In an intensive, multi-year research project conducted by ChangeWise for the book, Leadership Agility, we found that approximately 45% of managers view their direct reports with an “Expert” mindset.  This mindset, which is more tactical than strategic, carries the implicit assumption that the job of a leader is to use one’s authority and expertise to solve problems. There’s nothing wrong with having expertise, but when we identify with our expertise, we can miss the bigger picture, including the value that additional perspectives can bring.

The Expert mindset focuses primarily on discrete problems, letting the relationships between different problems fade into the background.  Similarly, this mindset focuses on individual direct reports and does not give much attention to the relationships between them.  With such a mindset, a manager is unlikely to examine the interdependencies between direct reports or to see his or her job as that of developing them into a true team.  Instead, our research found that managers with this mindset spent most of their time with direct reports in one-on-one meetings, while their group meetings tended to focus on vertical information sharing rather than on group problem-solving.

The Achiever Team Leader Mindset

We found that about 35% of managers view their direct reports with an “Achiever” mindset, which includes the ability and inclination to think strategically and to focus not only on the performance of individual direct reports but also on the group as a whole.  In other words, the Achiever mindset sees a group of direct reports as a system. That is, it sees the parts, the relationships between the parts, and the whole.

To determine the extent to which your direct reports need to operate as a team, this is the mindset you need to adopt.  Why?  Because the central question you need to ask to determine whether your management group needs to operate as a team is to ask yourself:  To what extent are the tasks of group members interdependent?  That is, in what areas do they need to coordinate, cooperate, or collaborate with other team members in order to accomplish their individual objectives and those of the group as a whole?

Interdependencies among team members are rarely all or nothing. Most of the time, in spite of the fact that each team member may be responsible for a different function, business unit, division or department, there is also a critical mass of key tasks that are interdependent. I was moved to write this post because I find that many leaders who have an Achiever mindset and may use it to think about organizational strategy, have not stepped back to identify explicitly where the interdependencies lie within their team.  As a result, they may continue to lead their “team” in the “hub-and-spoke” format that is more typically used by Expert-level leaders.

Some interdependencies may exist only among certain sub-sets of your direct reports.  In these cases, you can set up standing meetings of the relevant sub-groups, who can periodically report back to the team as a whole for discussion.  But once you start looking, it’s very likely that you’ll find some significant, ongoing issues that would really benefit from discussions that tap the perspectives of all team members. These ongoing issues are the ones around which a real team can be developed. Once you’ve identified the key interdependencies, you can begin to build a team by structuring group meetings and agenda topics that focus on those issues that would benefit from discussion by the team as a whole.

Achiever team leaders tend to have regular team meetings with agendas that focus primarily on important strategic and operational issues.  These types of meetings are grounded in a mindset that sees the core job of the team leader as one of motivating, challenging and inspiring direct reports to work together as a true team.  It’s a mindset that recognizes that commitment to decisions made is greater when team members buy into the decision, because they’ve had an opportunity to express their views in a forum where there’s a real give-and-take of opinions.

To build a strong, Achiever-level team, here are two additional foundation pieces you need to put in place:

  • A clear team charter/purpose/mission with a set of common team objectives that are aligned with the larger strategic and organizational environment.
  • A clear set of practices to guide group discussion and decision-making. For example, a practice of making clear the intent each item on the agenda:  Is the intent to make a decision, or is it for discussion only?  Another basic practice:  Making explicit whether or not a decision has been made, and what it is, then recording it.

When a manager leads their team in a manner that’s consistent with an Expert mindset (as described above), I say they are operating at the “Expert level of agility,” an early stage of leadership agility that’s really not very agile. When a manager leads their team in a manner that’s consistent with an Achiever mindset, they’re operating at the “Achiever level of agility.”

Interestingly, it’s not just the leaders who operate at different levels of agility, the teams do as well. What does this mean?  It means that a team operating at the Achiever level of agility is demonstrably better at dealing with rapid change and interdependence than is a management group operating at the Expert level.

For an example of the differences between Expert and Achiever team leadership, see the story of “Carlos” (a past client) in Leadership Agility.  Pages 50-52 describe the “before” picture – Carlos as an Expert team leader.  Later, on pages 72-75, we see the “after” picture – where Carlos has evolved into an Achiever team leader and created a real (Achiever-level) team.

The Catalyst Team Leadership

Perhaps you’ve already “been there and done that” with Achiever-level team leadership.  But you sense that there is a higher level of teamwork, agility and performance of which your team might be capable. Or maybe you have already taken decisive steps in this direction.

Our research on leadership agility confirmed that leaders and their teams can evolve further than the Achiever level. The next level is called Catalyst. We found that only about 10% of leaders have developed the Catalyst mindset, and somewhat fewer have fully put this mindset into action in leading their teams.  We found that leaders and teams that can operate at the Catalyst level agility are more consistently effective in dealing with rapid change and interdependence than are those who function at earlier stages of agility.

For reasons of space, I will not describe the Catalyst level of team leadership in this post, but save it for a subsequent one.  In the meantime, you can learn about this level of team leadership by reading pages 102-107 in Leadership Agility, and by reading this story about a management team in a software company.

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is President and resident thought leader of ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @agileleader

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