C-level teams: parachutists form a circle - managementberatung | coaching
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Team Development | Leadership Team Development

WANTED! More High Performance Teams at C-Level

From Sabine Walter, Head of network management consulting | coaching, and Markus Trost, Partner at Odgers Berndtson Executive Search

For national or international teams in professional sport, it is a must if you want to play sustainably at the top: Teamwork. In the top echelons of industry, it sometimes comes up short. But why is it no longer enough at board or executive level to hire a group of competent alpha personalities? Why do we also need a well-functioning high-performance team at C-level?

Lasting economic success requires teamwork

The challenges in our society are becoming increasingly complex. The interdependencies between variable factors are increasing. For example, it is about competitiveness through innovation. This can only be achieved through cooperation. The economic philosopher Anders Indset speaks of coopetition, a mixture of competition and cooperation. According to him, the goal in future is no longer to win or lose, but to play along for as long as possible.

The Corona crisis and the war in Ukraine show us the finite and fragile nature of our society and our economic system. The opportunity we have is to reshape the way we live together at all levels of society. Radical impulses, visions and innovation for this can come from the economy. This calls for true leaders; leaders who are part of a high performance team and who know how to form such teams.

Practice shows that there are companies in which the individual members of the management or the board of directors trust each other so little and view supposedly common goals differently, that meetings of these bodies must be led by a facilitator or mediator to reach decisions and results.

How is a culture of trust to be established in these companies? How is cross-functional cooperation at divisional or team level to be possible without trust? How is it possible to fight for the best solution without trust in the individual and among each other? How should continuous development and lasting economic success be possible?

Not at all.

What distinguishes high performance teams?

High-performance teams are characterised by five elementary factors:

  • There is blind trust among each other.
  • Everyone is passionately dedicated to the common goal and carries it unconditionally.
  • Each individual team member takes 100% responsibility for achieving the team's goals.
  • Individual success is fully subordinated to team success.
  • Conflicts are seen as an opportunity to grow even closer together and to develop. They are therefore proactively addressed and resolved in a way that benefits the team.

How can you develop a group of board members or managing directors into a high performance team?

Team development at C-level

There are several steps to go through in the development of a high performance team. The first and most important step is the selection of the respective potential members.

1. Select leaders with a high EQ

In a conversation with Tom Kolditz, Head of Doerr Institute for New Leaders, ex-professor of leadership at Yale University and former leadership officer at West Point Military Academy with the rank of Brigadier General, he explained at a client forum of Odgers Berndtson in Austin, Texas, that he is convinced that 75% of leadership is due to learned behaviour and only 24%-31% is due to genetic components.

Suitable leaders demonstrate Prof. Kolditz erstens in den kognitiven, zweitens in den Verhaltensvariablen und drittens im EQ entsprechende messbare Werte (letztere z. B. mittels Bar-On Test) auf.

When a brand new team is put together, it is important to recruit the team lead first, i.e. the CEO, who is then involved in the selection of the other team members together with the 2-3 people most important for the cooperation. Everyone who joins the team is a key person in the selection process.

Only if all members of the board or management have a good gut feeling about each other, the cultural and personal fit is right. Odgers Berndtson also ensures this in the selection process by measuring the culture in the business unit concerned and the respective candidates.

Good additional insights are also provided by psychometrically profiling the value system of each candidate. This should be coherent, but not congruent, to allow for different perspectives and controversial conversations in the search for the best solution.

2. Trust, trust, trust

As research has shown, for example, through the Project Aristotle of Alphabet shows, is "Psychological Safety", i.e. a basic trust in the group is the most important prerequisite for a high performance team. This basic trust in the group, i.e. the feeling that each individual can show themselves as they are without diminishing belonging, esteem or security is more likely to be present if each individual was born and raised with an unshakeable confidence.

Stephen M.R. Covey describes in his book "Speed through Confidence" a healthy self-confidence as a prerequisite for healthy relational trust. Healthy self-confidence goes hand in hand with healthy self-esteem, i.e. "I am worth something, no matter what I achieve." This grows in every person in their first years of life, if the family and social environment contributes to it.

As a result, building trust - in each team member in themselves and in the other team members, as well as interacting with each other - is the foundation on which to build. In practice, this is done through a combination of personal coaching and through Team development.

So that this pronounced basis of trust also endures when there are personnel changes in the team, the selection process, the onboarding or integration of new team members, but also the process of leaving are of central importance. Each of these processes takes time and the commitment of the whole team. At the same time, it also demands a very large willingness to change of each individual. This willingness to change, in turn, is easier because there is so much trust in each other and in each individual.

3. Develop a vision for which everyone is on fire

Many board members and managing directors hold strategy workshops on a regular basis. But how often do they really burn for what they are working on? Rarely. In his book "How dreams come true" describes Gerald Hüther the journey from a small group of people who want to take part in RAAM, the world's longest bicycle race across the USA, to a high performance (amateur) team that wins this race. Through this hard process of team building, the departure of valuable members, the integration of new ones, the hard preparation, the hardships over months, the hurdles before the race, the setbacks in the race, the dealing with and resolving of conflicts, the overcoming of personal defeats and disappointments; through all this and much more, the team was carried by their vision, for which everyone was burning, behind which everyone stood and to the achievement of which everything - including their private lives - was subordinated for months.

This goal, besides trust, was the "glue" of the team. And he was so strong that the team fell apart after achieving his goal, after winning the RAAM.

Companies in which the board of directors or managing directors achieve this state can move mountains. Until now, only individual leaders such as Steven Jobs or Elon Musk have had such charisma. As a result, the companies they presided over at least lose creativity, innovation and also economic success after the departure of these "magnets".

4. Clearly define roles and responsibilities

The greatest friction losses and potential for conflict arise from unclear roles and responsibilities. Therefore, it is a central task of the team to define these clearly. Ideally, they are aligned with the strengths of the respective team member. Since it is no longer so much about professional strengths at board or executive level, the focus in a good integration of personal strengths and especially leadership skills into the professional area of responsibility.

In order to exploit the potential that arises when working in a team, the team should define which issues are to be worked out or decided on "in tandem", i.e. with a collegial sparring partner.

The perspective of the actors is also crucial here: occasional and possibly also coincidental case-by-case overlaps should not be understood as an attack by another board member on their own area of responsibility, but as an opportunity to better master a challenge together.

5. Learning to argue

A constructive culture of dispute and conflict is an expression of trust and part of the process for the best solution. 

In a constructive culture of dispute and conflict, everyone has the common goal and the good of the team or the success of the cause in mind. The aim of a constructive debate is to overcome differences and redefine a common denominator.

How can board or management teams improve their dispute culture?

  1. Regularly create a protected space for constructive debate
  2. Define a single debate topic
  3. Define a common goal before the debate begins
  4. Define the rules of the game, e.g. let them finish.
  5. If necessary, use a moderator to guide the debate and ensure that the rules of the game are observed and that the intermediate results are visualised.
  6. Develop their own conflict management skills, e.g. with the help of personal coaching.

Prof. Tom Kolditz recommends two methods to properly "challenge" oneself in a leadership body:

  • Do a pre-mortem instead of a post-mortem! Find the vulnerable parts of your organisation with this approach. Have everyone answer the question "What catastrophic failure could our organisation possibly be vulnerable to?". Collect the ideas, read them out and cluster them into problem areas, which they then prioritise and substantiate with countermeasures.
  • Conduct a "Red Team" process! Sit down with colleagues at the plan created with a pre-mortem process and critically examine: "Where will this plan go wrong? Where are its flaws?". Collect them, evaluate them and correct the plan accordingly!

What are the consequences of not having a real team at C-level?

Our experience in dealing with board members and managing directors shows that there are still too few high-performance teams at C-level. The consequences in and for the companies are complex:

  • Fear culture instead of trust culture
  • Lack of cooperation at middle and lower levels
  • Poor corporate culture leading to fluctuation and internal resignation
  • Diverging goals that cost productivity
  • Lack of innovation and thus dwindling sustainable competitiveness
  • Economic losses 

Conclusion: High-performance teams also required for board members and managing directors

In order to master the social and entrepreneurial challenges ahead in the 21st century and after the Corona crisis, true high-performance teams are needed, especially also at C-level, in which the members trust each other and subordinate their own careers and professional and financial goals to the overall goal and the corporate vision.

Supervisory boards and shareholders are called upon more than ever to pay attention to personal compatibility when appointing board members and management committees and to make active team building a condition. We, at Odgers Berndtson and network management consulting | coaching, accompany such processes.

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Teams work in every company. At least that's how it is written on paper and how it is commonly used: there are teams, project teams, development teams... There are team leaders and team meetings. In our work, however, we notice that more than 90% of the teams are not real teams and certainly not high-performance teams. Rather, they are good working groups. What distinguishes a team from a work group, and what makes a true high performance team? These are the questions addressed in this article. Furthermore, our team Quick-Check will help you to take stock of your own situation and receive impulses for your team development.

Read the full article here.

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We send out our newsletter about once a month, providing tips and information on the topics of leadership and organisational development. You can cancel the subscription and unsubscribe at any time. We use the E-Mail address you provide here exclusively for sending the newsletter and do not pass it on to third parties.

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Constanze Hintze loves working with people every day. She is a wealth management expert and managing director of Svea Kuschel + Kolleginnen financial services for women and also ventures a look into the future of her profession in the entrepreneurial interview with Sabine Walter.
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