How to build a truly synergistic management team

to increase competitive advantage and grow profit

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‘Looking after our people is the most important
issue for us right now. As competitive forces
increase the attraction and retention of the best
people is what sustains our competitive edge’
Mallesons Lawyers Conference

“HEARING people describe me as ‘clinical, cold and uncaring’ and preferring to talk with my subordinates was really hard to deal with … I never realised people saw me as some kind of corporate ‘rule enforcer’.”

The CFO of a multinational hi-tech company went on, “All I was trying to do was my job, as efficiently as I could” he said wistfully, “what I learned was I had to communicate without the hard edge, because most people thought I had only ice water flowing through my veins.”

Why Getting along with People is Critical

BUSINESS fails if people can’t get along. And they can’t get along if they can’t communicate – or they communicate poorly. ResearchResearch suggests communication consumes about three quarters of executive time in involves communication of some way,kind and quite a lot of the balance is spent contemplating how to maximisehave maximum ‘impact’.

Communication in today’s modern organisation requires far more than writing and reading emails. To be on the ‘management team’ an executive must communicate – in different ways through different media – with (at least) five groups of people: their supervisors, peers, staff, those in the teams they work with on ad hoc projects and customers (internal and outside).

1. Getting along with Supervisors. In order to get things done managers have to have the support (and approval) of their boss. Yet most executives will, at timessome time, experience mild to or moderate ambivalence toward authority – they both depend on people above them (working down from Shareholders, Board members, Directors, the CEO, Executive Managers, Supervisors, etc downward) for policy, direction and guidance, yet they can resent any overt interference in their actions, or how they go about getting results. Thus “managing up” is about finding that delicate balance between robust discussion and outright conflict. Upward relationships are high on loyalty and trust often quite sensitive and personal (and therefore more painful when things go wrong).

2. Getting along with Peers. This is the most crucial of all the groups because without the support of peers you are simply not on the team! To make the team an executive must be accepted by all members of their peer group. Peer groups are important because they must have the same agenda - and common values – to work co-operatively and harmoniously. Because only then can they accomplish big group goals. The key lies in how well people interact: having disagreements but no conflict, sharing resources without competing, welcoming each other’s suggestions and input, sharing ideas, encouraging co-operation between different groups, etc. Peers intuitively understand how and why others’ work as they do and present their ideas clearly, cogently and with common sense.

3. Getting along with Staff. To pursue their objectives the Leader needs the co-operation and loyalty of staff. A Leader also needs to inspire others and strike the balance between creating a vision and setting difficult-to-attain goals. She must give feedback, encourage participation and resolve differences with skill and sensitivity. She also has to be adaptable and adjust her ’managing’ style to suit different situations. She must ‘read’ – and respond – to the mood of individuals, and meet the right ‘leadership’ needs of the group. This requires sincerity, compassion, and at times toughness.

4. 4. Getting along in a ‘Project’ Team. Teams are formed for many purposes – to do research, introduce change, investigate, deal with technology, competitive initiatives, etc. The capacity to work as part of a team – where the objective is to complete a specific task or project (rather like study groups at University) irrespective of ranking in the organisation – depends on flexibility (you may be team leader for one project and a worker the next), consistent behaviours (even tempered, reliable, no grandstanding) and making a contribution. Work teams, like social groupings, can be somewhat political (those on the fringe drop out) and the glue that holds them together requires a certain amount of ‘chemistry’ in order to get results. The importance of being a good team player shouldn’t be underestimated in today’s modern, flat organisation, where there is often less formal structure.

5. Getting along with Customers. Good customers these days are hard to find and important to keep. The smart person sees a customer as a good friend - who won’t be tricked into liking them. They take care to deliver on promises and make only commitments they can keep. While both naive and savvy executives know the value of a finely-honed, well rehearsed presentation, the difference lies between ‘reciting’ and realising that to be able to serve the customer next year; they must act in their client’s best interests today. Dealing with external customers can be difficult if, for competitive reasons, not everything can be told. The right communication style therefore must embrace honesty and authenticity (as any good communication should), with the right mix of sincerity.

How successful teams communicate

THE BEST management teams appear to seem to work as ‘one’ - they share the dreams, beliefs, hopes and aspirations for the organisation and each other. People on these teams genuinely complement each other. They have a team ‘dynamic’ that istheir goals are vibrant, alive and constantly renewed (by leaders and by the team members themselves). Such teams can take years to form and bond and often share common interests and activities outside work. They have exceptional communication skills which they practice:

1. By listening. Successful executives make the effort to hear the words and sense their meaning - discovering the feeling behind them. Smart executives take great care to fully understand what the other person is saying; for, even if in the end they choose to disagree, they want to be very sure of what it is they are disagreeing with.

2. By speaking. Good verbal skills are reflected in the individual’s capacity to convey a clear, unequivocal and accurate picture of what it is they want to instill into the mind of the recipient by using words, images (and very often body language). Good verbal communication is concise, articulate, clean and unambiguous.

3. By discussing. Virtually every dialogue provides the opportunity to exchange information and build goodwill. Smart executives treat nearly every discussion - including debates, and out-and-out arguments - as conversations. They are careful to listen and collect information and take pains not to alienate the other party.

4. By writing. Writing is thinking. Cluttered or confused thinking leads to jargon-ridden, nonsensical language. Clear thinking results in clear writing. Smart executives know with any written prose there has to be a message (otherwise what’s the point); it must be cogent and brief (short memos often take longer to write than long ones) and the tone must be right. All elements are important of course, but for the smart executive getting the right tone is crucial. Consider for a moment the words chosen by the famed polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, in a London press advertisement for his famed 1914 trans-Antarctica expedition.

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

Of course the sense of adventure had a great deal to do with the “overwhelming” response later described by Shackleton, but so too the power of deadly frankness.

Building a synergistic management team:

It sounds toomay sound glib to say that teams can succeed or fail depending how well theysimply combine the above elements of communication with the individual’s capacity to getgetting along with others in the organisation.. But it is fair to say that if you can’t communicate effectively and/or you don’t get along with others, then you will never truly be part of a great (high performing) management team.

It is a well known thatthan two out of every three competencies (or 67%) deemed essential for effective job performance are emotional competencies*. This holds true for a wide range of positions and occupations. I*,n other words, compared to cognitive skills and technical expertise, emotional competencies (i.e. soft skills such as empathy, self awareness, social interaction, and self regulation, personal motivation, et al) matter twice as much. It stands to reason then that everyone on a successful leadership team has to have both technical and emotional skills.

And if they weren’t endowed with natural abilities as a communicator, or had difficulty getting along with some people - they have been smart enough to identify their weaknesses and work on improving them! Cultivating these skills (and the emotional competencies) then is the key to building a successful, truly synergistic, management team.

To build such a management team five steps need to be taken:

1. Routinely ‘audit’ the of the management team by taking a close look at each individual’s communication and relationship behaviours and how they work within the team. Leadership teams
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* See “Working with Emotional Intelligence” by Dr Daniel Goleman Bloomsbury Press 1998. Chapter 3 – The Hard case for Soft Skills.
aim to harness and build on the strengths of individuals. However some limitations also surface over time. Such weaknesses usually emerge slowly and subtlety and therefore can be accepted as normal. In many cases the subject (and even their boss, if they work closely), can have no idea these exist (and may therefore likely argue the point) even though the weakness may be apparent (and impact on) almost everyone else around them. Apart from your own observations and judgment, you might additionally consider some kind of periodic review - such as an engagement survey, performance review or 360 - but don’t rely on just one or the same tool, every time. And if you are handling it yourself don’t rely on just one or 2 opinions – you might also want to plumb staff and peers as well as the team leaders.

2. Take a hard look at the results. Be very objective and determine if anyone might be impossible to turn around or is misplaced in their present position. Jack Welch (former Chairman of GE) used what he calls a ‘Vitality’ curve to differentiate between the ‘Top 20’, and ‘the Vital 70’ and the ‘Bottom 10’ to lead such discussions - and advocated routinely moving along those in the last category. You might not go that far – but some people can be difficult to ‘retrain’ and become impossible to retain.

3. Give accurate and unbiased feedback to each individual. Pick the right setting, giving feedback can be a sensitive issue, (and keeping emotions on an even keel can be tricky) so you may want to involve a third party (or HR). Most managers will welcome the opportunity to get an honest appraisal (especially delivered confidentially) and the opportunity to develop and improve their skills in this area. Resistance can often be overcome by providing support (through personal development, a mentor or coach if necessary) for managers working on communication skills and interpersonal behaviours.

4. Set a personal development action plan in place with measurable goals. Working on emotional competencies can be difficult, which is why having very specific goals, and an action plan is critically important. Since you will be attempting to change behaviour – and likely be dealing with the habits of a working lifetime – change won’t come easily, or quickly. Every small step forward therefore will be important and a milestone.
The fact is that everyone on the truly synergistic team has great interpersonal skills. And if they weren’t endowed with natural abilities as a communicator – or had difficulty getting along with some people - they have been smart enough to identify their weaknesses and work on improving them!

5. Continue to monitor progress. This sounds obvious enough - and we have touched on it already. There must be frequent review and constant follow up – especially in the first year implementing an action plan. Changing behaviour happens incrementally, but small changes can have a big impact – making it easy to assume the task is done, which also makes it easy for the person to slip back into old habits unless there is some mechanism of constant review.

And, finally, what about the ‘all-business-no-fun’ CFO we mentioned at the outset? Over time he managed to change things around; he survived a corporate takeover and continued to make a more than useful contribution as a CFO. He never quite managed to curb his workaholic tendencies but he did learn to deal more effectively with people. After setting a personal goal to build goodwill with his work colleagues (which he undertook by taking 3-5 minutes every day, for a year, to make a telephone call, or send an email, or make some other contact with someone - without asking for anything in return) he found he rather enjoyed the experience and it became a habit he still continues. Eventually he cultivated enough ‘warmth’ and formed some solid relationships which played no small part in his winning a promotion to COO of a significant regional business.

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