Tips for leaders who lead teams of leaders

Bill Treasurer

People want to follow leaders who know where the hell they’re going. 

If the leadership team looks like a contentious disorganized mess, people throughout the organization will quickly lose confidence. When you and a small group of other leaders are entrusted with creating a better future for those you lead, being unified at the top is the surest way of gaining people’s confidence. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Gaining unity among senior leadership teams is, for a number of reasons, more challenging than at other levels in an organization.

First, leaders are used to leading, not teaming. A leader of a division or business unit is used to directing the team leaders who report to her. Even if the leader’s approach is collaborative, she is where the buck stops – the decider in chief of her domain. Shifting from the leader to just another member of the leadership team involves a diminishment of power that can feel unnatural.

Second, the ego stakes are also higher on top level teams. Leadership, consciously or unconsciously, often involves social and/or intellectual dominance. Senior leadership teams often struggle with dysfunctional competitive dynamics as team members try to out-dominate each other. For everyone looking for direction from the leadership team, it can be an ugly sight when they see big egos clashing with big egos.

So what’s a leadership team to do?

The tips that follow stem from Giant Leap’s experience working with senior executive teams:

  • Unify Around Values: Values are natural unifiers. While leadership team members may differ in style and approach, they can find commonality around values. The first place to start is with the organization’s values. If those haven’t been explicitly codified, have the team craft its own set of core values by asking this question: When we are working at our best, what shows up?
  • Be Behavioral Standard-Bearers: Leaders set the behavioral tone for the rest of the organization. If the leadership team members are petty, domineering, or uncooperative with each other, you can bet people in the rest of the organization will behave that way too. Have the leadership team flipchart their answers to these questions: What is the rest of the organization looking for our team to provide? What kind of leadership team do we need to be, to best serve the people in our organization?
  • Set Shared Goals: During leadership team meetings, pay more attention to shared organizational goals than to divisional or business unit goals. Place more emphasis on where the organization is going directionally than how each division is doing operationally.
  • Create Opportunities to Co-lead: Strategic initiatives are often spawned during senior leadership team meetings. When they are, rather than assigning one person to own or sponsor the initiative, let two or three members act as co-leaders. Doing so will necessitate cross-team collaboration, which can go a long way toward dismantling divisional walls.
  • Formally Schedule Informal Time: Leaders are under constant pressure to perform. Making results happen is always the priority. As such, members on leadership teams don’t often make time for the informal bonding that characterize strong teams. Whoever organizes the senior team meetings should weave occasional get-to-know-you segments into the agenda (it works best at the agenda’s start). Another approach is to task each team member with learning something unique about another member’s outside-of-work self and bringing what they learn back to the entire team. There are plenty of ways to promote informal bonding. Just get creative.

The most successful organizations are led by unified leadership teams.

When everyone else sees leaders who cooperate, collaborate, and team well together, they start to emulate the same behaviors. The benefit to the leadership team itself is just as powerful; enjoyment.

When top team leaders learn to play nice in the sandbox with one another, the team experience becomes more enjoyable. When that happens, the leadership team becomes a safe haven where top team members can support, guide, and encourage each other, becoming leaders helping leaders.

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