How to build a strong leadership team

by Gert van der Walt

The American poet, Mattie Stepanek, said "Unity is strength. . . when there are teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved." What wonderful things organisations can achieve when management teams collaborate and pull together.

In a month from now, it will be 6 years since Richard took on the role of CEO at CyberPC. At the time, he was spirited and ready to change the world. The company exceeded expectations and made budget every year since then. In just 10 years, CyberPC grew from its humble beginnings as a family-run business to a 600 strong enterprise. Not the biggest growth in Silicon Valley’s history, but it was consistent and CyberPC managed economic fluctuations well and never had to go through any serious retrenchments. Richard is proud of this company that he helped build and it has been very successful.

Richard sighs. His team members are at it again. Fighting about internal issues. As he observes the chaos, Richard notices some of his managers hiding behind their laptops, peeping over the tops of their shiny company-provided MacBooks. Have they always been this quiet? Richard normally likes a good fight, but in the last few months, things have gone completely awry.

Richard reached out to some of the managers, to try and make sense of what is going on, but he received contradicting answers. Peter says it is the millennials that need more and more recognition. Belinda swears that her teams are fine as long as John Martin’s guys do what they are supposed to do. Karin, the HR Manager, is saying the team leaders don’t know how to discipline their people consistently. It is understandable that everyone doesn’t have to agree on everything, but they don’t seem to “pull together” and good employees are leaving the company. Despite all the effort of leadership training and employing the best candidates, there are clear signs of bad leadership.

This fictitious scenario is probably not too far off from the situation you may be experiencing at your company. Slightly different problems, but the underlying cause of leadership not “pulling together” could have devastating consequences. My opinion is that companies won’t go under due to staff competence, but they could go under because of incompetent leadership. Individual strong leaders are essential, but it is the strength of a whole leadership team that will lead organisations through challenging times. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is true for any team including leadership teams. In modern times this is not an alien concept and most companies have very successful teams providing great value to customers. So why are so many leadership teams not “pulling together”. Why are they not operating as a team?

Whatever the cause, here are 4 principles that can inspire you to get the team to “pull together”.

1. Don’t assume that members of a leadership team (leaders themselves) will automatically become a good team.

Richard, the CEO, would have promoted intelligent and experienced leaders to the leadership team. But don’t assume that these people will automatically function as an effective team. As all other teams, they too need direction and help to work together.

2. Ensure that your leadership team has a strong identity and purpose

What is the team’s identity and purpose? A leadership team may consist of a HR manager, Operations managers, Finance manager etc. Each represents departments with different identities and purposes, but together in the leadership team they will have a new shared common purpose. Having a common purpose for the team creates a pull that will steer the team and the organisation through chaos, uncertainty and any challenge coming their way. Each team member needs to understand their own identity within the group and support the purpose of their team. For example, the purpose of an operational team may be to serve customers with awesome service delivery, but the purpose of a leadership team may be to enable and empower the operations teams to serve the customers.

Tip: Impartial facilitators can play a key role in getting a team to collaboratively identify and draft their own purpose statement. This should serve as an ongoing reminder at every gathering. Be transparent.

3. Ensure team members know the value they contribute towards pursuing the purpose

Now that everyone understands that there is a different shared purpose and everyone has a new identity in the leadership team, it is important to understand what value each team member has to contribute towards this purpose. This is an essential step to ensure the purpose is translated into tangible things everyone can actually do. Neglecting this step may result in everyone being very excited about the shiny new purpose statement, but some secretly still believing that they have nothing new to contribute. They go back to what they were doing before and add no value to the purpose of the team.

Tip: When facilitating, consider using a Sociogram to see how people connect with each other. Combine that with some personal introspection and then an expression of accountability and commitment. Again, be transparent.

4. Don’t set too many goals, rather focus on one strong goal

Lencioni explains in his book, “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars” how politics can divide a company and create individuals working against each other instead of pulling together. The fictitious company he describes had a vision, mission and goals, but the managers in the leadership team were all looking out for themselves and focusing on their own goals. He explains that having multiple goals does not create a collaborative environment as it leads to a leadership team all focusing on their own goals. The answer lies in limiting the number of goals to ONE. A BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Traditionally companies would have one annual strategy building session, revising their vision and mission perhaps, but ultimately create 5 to 10 goals for the whole year ahead. This is where a new way-of-working should be considered. In our modern time, can any respectable business afford to have one strategy session with one strategy for a whole year? Market changes and external factors like the COVID 19 pandemic surely proves the contrary. Consider a strategy session with one BHAG for a shorter period. Everyone focus on one goal for the specific period. When it has been achieved, have another strategy session with a new BHAG. That way everyone in the leadership team, and everyone in the company, can swarm around this one BHAG.

Of course, everyone will still have their day-to-day jobs, delighting customers etc., but strategically this goal is what everyone will focus on. Properly planned and executed, it will deliver not only the desired result, but have a pleasant change in the way the leadership team collaborate, setting the example to the rest of the teams.

My experience taught me that focussing on the above-mentioned factors can ultimately create a much stronger leadership team that will:

  • Lead the company by example

  • Know what their purpose is and how they each add value

  • Create collaboration as everyone focuses on one goal at a time

Don’t underestimate the power of a great leadership team pulling together. “Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.” – Mattie Stepanek


Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors