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Leader Teams

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

It’s Time for Teams in Leadership:

The Power of a Shared Leader Perspective

Evan Sinar

Mounting pressures—complexity of work such that no one person has all the knowledge needed to solve problems, trends toward multidisciplinary work groups, and the rise of agile project management approaches—are renewing attention on the unique and critical value of team-based work. Our research shows that these expectations aren’t limited to individual contributors, but are also shaping the future of leadership. Based on data from more than 2,500 HR professionals, three of the top six skills viewed as most critical within three years are closely associated with team effectiveness:

  • “360-degree thinking” to act on input coming from multiple sources and perspectives.
  • “Hyper-collaboration” requiring leaders to work cooperatively with others.
  • “Leading virtual and remote teams.”

Collectively, these forces raise the stakes for leaders’ willingness to work as a team, and for companies to respond in kind by enabling a culture of shared leadership.

It’s Time for Teams in Leadership

True Leadership Teams: Still a Rarity

For many organizations, shared leadership is an aspiration, not yet a reality. We found that only a slight majority (55 percent) of leaders feel either that they and their peers are engaged in mutual influence and shared sense-making, or that leaders truly collaborate to enhance the company’s effectiveness (61 percent).

Other signs of cooperative leadership are even weaker. For example, only 11 percent of companies extensively employ coaching from peer leaders as a learning method. Overall, many companies show questionable readiness to adopt and take advantage of a team concept for their leaders.

The Risks of Top-Level Misalignment

It’s important to understand the consequences of a talent approach that doesn’t build commonality across leadership teams and that fails to see leaders as a group needing to be unified by common mindsets and mental models guiding their decisions. At the senior-most company ranks, these risks are particularly severe: They can lead to entire business units drifting away from a core strategy and senior leaders who cascade a discrepant set of operating and leadership principles through their entire reporting structure.

In this research, we looked across data from multiple members of more than 60 senior leadership teams (C-Suite and executive VP-level leaders within the same company) to gauge the impact on leadership and business outcomes of leaders with widely varying responses. We found three areas where a lack of senior team calibration—as shown by more variation across leader responses—was most damaging:

  • Energy and development passion: Vigor and energy on the job; looking for opportunities every day to develop employees. Organizations suffer when senior leaders differ in their willingness to continually push themselves and others to grow.
  • Future-focused leader skills: Identifying and developing future talent, leading through digitization (that is, leveraging technology to manage the workforce more effectively). Companies where senior leaders are inconsistent in such skills see worse talent and business outcomes.
  • Views on company culture: Degree to which the organization is sluggish or agile, whether the company focuses more on current challenges or future vision. When senior leaders aren’t well-grounded on where the company stands now (or where it needs to head) on these key cultural factors, positive outcomes are much rarer.

Organizations with well-calibrated senior leadership teams have higher bench strength (ability to immediately and confidently fill critical leadership roles). They have leaders who react more decisively to change and are better able to act on shifting customer needs and perspectives. These effects of a shared leadership mindset are shown in the graphic.

Alignment Isn’t Constant Agreement

This research isn’t about seeking full agreement and a lack of healthy debate among leadership teams. Some forms of tension certainly can be functional*. However, a lack of seni0r leader alignment on key cornerstones of passion, talent growth, and cultural readiness for the future notably weakens a company’s ability to build a robust leadership pipeline and to respond adeptly and with agility to market and customer challenges.

* Leonard, O., Wiita, N., & Milane, C. (2017, September 18), The Best Senior Teams Thrive on Disagreement, Harvard Business Review.

Where to Start
  • Build shared mental models about leadership. Create and socialize shared frameworks for roles and expectations.
  • Hire and promote for team profiles. Seek valid, reliable data about leader personalities and skills to guide decisions about team composition.
  • Experiment with agile methodologies. Agile project management, once solely used for technology organizations, deeply incorporates and can build momentum for team-based approaches.
  • Address misalignment in critical facets early. Don’t let misalignment in passion, skills, and culture fester until they appear in their most damaging form at senior levels.
  • Target unifying purpose through team chartering. Arm leaders with techniques to ground new teams in a common vision.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Don’t confuse alignment with agreement. Differences in perspective are valuable; differences in fundamental views of oneself or key business challenges are much more destructive for talent and agility outcomes.
  • Use objective diagnostics to discern and act on team-level patterns and dynamics. Go beyond standard org chart or “heat map” views for dynamic, interactive views of how leaders will work together as a team.
  • Develop leaders in cohorts. Cohort-based development builds commonality in how leaders approach their roles as employee growth champions and advocates, and in their skills to identify talent and leverage technology to manage the workforce, providing a safe forum for open discussion of the company’s culture.
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