Building Better Management Teams

The following is a guest post by John Cotter. Building Better Management Teams first appeared in Wolf in the Workplace, the newsletter of Wolf Management Consultants, LLC.

Designing work for senior management teams starts by identifying the tasks that are unique to the top level of the organization. People accustomed to managing a particular function often think that the outputs of the group that they manage are the same as their own outputs. The challenge is to help them discover what the senior management team as a whole produces. This voyage of discovery starts by developing a shared understanding of how their business fits in the ever-evolving environment. By understanding the business context and the contributions of the management team to the success of the business, expectations evolve about what work is needed and who is best suited to accomplish it. Individual roles are then developed by negotiating these expectations.

Experience suggests the steps to use in developing senior management teams are as follows:

  • Share individual understandings of the current business context and agree about important trends, potential problems and emerging opportunities.
  • Review what the senior managing team currently produces and evaluate its relevance in relation to emerging business developments.
  • Identify any new outputs required from the senior management team to assure that the company will be successful in the future.
  • Examine the processes required to create these outputs and agree about how the management team should work together to support these processes.
  • Redesign and reassign the current roles and responsibilities of senior managers as needed.
  • Define new accountabilities and negotiate new performance and recognition agreements.
  • Provide the management team with the skills, information and guidelines they need to operate successfully.

Senior managers sometimes feel a little foolish creating operating guidelines about how they should work together as a team. Surely, they think, we’re all adults and have years of experience working in groups. That, of course, is the problem. Everyone has practiced dysfunctional behavior for years. Operating guidelines should be explicit, simple, clear and concise. Here are some typical examples:

  • Speak honestly. Make clear and direct requests. Be willing to surface issues or take positions that may result in conflict.
  • Anyone can disagree about anything with anyone, but no one can disagree without stating the reasons why.
  • Listen for peoples’ contributions, rather than editing with assessments, opinions or judgments.
  • Support each other. Operate from the point of view that, “we’re all in this together.”
    It’s not OK to win at someone else’s expense or at the expense of the company.
  • Support people in fulfilling their commitments and hold them accountable for results.
  • Show appreciation by giving, receiving and requesting acknowledgment from others.

Managing at senior levels today involves four fundamental tasks: first, monitoring and influencing the environment to develop new business opportunities: second, articulating, modeling and creating ownership for a vision of what the organization aims to accomplish in the future: third, attracting business leaders, matching them with the right assignments and holding them accountable for results: and fourth, investing, distributing and balancing resources across the organization’s portfolio of businesses.

These are all collective rather than individual tasks. If they’re to be managed effectively, learning acquired from enterprise-level teams needs to be transferred into the executive suite. As AT&T board member Charlie Brown said, “You can’t run the business from memory any more.”


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