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4 unique challenges leadership teams face



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This article is sponsored by Center for Creative Leadership.

Dr. Roland Smith, vice president, APAC and managing director, Center for Creative Leadership, explains solutions to overcome the four major challenges senior executive teams often face.

A top leadership team isn’t just another team. Leadership teams are arguably the most important groups in the organisation – they have the most overt power, and their decisions create larger waves in their company.

The best practices and conventional wisdom of effective teams are not sufficient to create a high-functioning team of C-level executives. Besides being under immense pressure from their co-workers and competition, the roles, responsibilities and dynamics, and realities at the top create unique challenges.

Here are four top challenges that senior executive teams often face when they turn to CCL for help:

1. The game has changed. Something is new and shakes up the team’s equilibrium. It could be a new CEO, a new team member, or new strategic challenges. Whatever the shift, the team struggles with focus, collaboration, and trust.

Conversations circle at a superficial level – without getting into the deeper, more complex issues. The direction for the team (and for the organisation) starts to get unclear. Team members begin to doubt if they have the right people in the group; some speculate they are the ones in question. Many leadership teams with great track records are surprised to find themselves struggling when faced with change.

2. The battle to achieve both functional and enterprise goals has multiple fronts. Each member of the senior executive team is typically required to play dual roles simultaneously of leading their own function or organisation, while being responsible for the high-level goals of the business as a whole.

For instance, each head of a function is expected to maximise effectiveness of their function, while adhering to the enterprise strategy that requires resources be allocated in a justified way to maximise business benefits. This tension is constant, and can easily lead to lack of alignment and political infighting.

Team members may respond with defensiveness — acting in ways that protect themselves and their personal scope. If this tension is not managed, the team will fail to execute enterprise-wide initiatives or collaborate across silos and boundaries.

This complexity should be managed strategically. A scarcity mind set could easily emerge and dominate the hidden dynamics of the team.

3. Conflict is either too intense or underplayed. Common to most teams is the difficulty of establishing a climate that encourages transparency and honesty, while ensuring team collaboration isn’t threatened. Sometimes, egos and disagreements overshadow substance. Alternatively, discussions are “too polite.”

In fact, teams shouldn’t fear conflict; but rather, embrace it – leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. In fact, teams with members that get along with each other, but are yet able to disagree when necessary – are ideal teams because group think is minimised and team effectiveness is maximised. Either way, important conversations happen outside the room, difficult topics are avoided, and decisions don’t stick.

At the senior team level, the ability to be transparent, give constructive feedback, and address team dynamics is crucial for success.

4. A “good enough” team is no longer enough. Many a times, the team has been effective up to now, but they need to up their game because there is untapped potential among them. They might be holding back and choosing to stay comfortable, and not challenging themselves to become a fully functioning, high-performing, best-in-class leadership team. There is a sense (or strong evidence) that something is missing – levels of energy, enthusiasm, and engagement might also be low. 

Maybe they lack innovation, or are hesitant to take risks, or are facing increasing complexity that requires new agility or new mind sets. As a result of a senior executive team that is good, but not great, the organisation is not poised to navigate greater uncertainty or capitalise on new opportunities.

To overcome these challenges, senior executive teams need to invest in their own development. Understanding and improving team dynamics and processes are not secondary priorities to running the business. Without the ability to manage how they work together, top leaders will undermine the direction, alignment, and commitment needed to drive performance and see results.

Additionally, with the cultivation of a greater self-awareness through executive education, there tends to be increased resiliency among top leaders while also improving the ability to communicate and collaborate with teams and subordinates.

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