“I am very aware that I am not getting everything done that needs to be done.” I said to Mike, a CEO in a telecoms business, earlier in my career. Mike replied, “That will always be the case! How do you think it is for me?” Of course, the point was obvious and yet I had a belief that he was very organised and on top of things. He was driving a substantial part of a global business. Surely, he was on top of all the important issues? I was always impressed with how much activity he managed to drive across the business and I recognised this stemmed from his ability to build and draw on his senior team, which I was helping to develop further.
Diverse Leadership Teams are vital in a fast-paced, complex world
The pace and nature of change has accelerated since my discussion with Mike. Now, we have far more data, available 24/7. There are rapid shifts in markets, ever more complex ecosystems to manage and greater demand for transparency about what is happening inside and outside businesses and supply chains. I am sure Mike would have stepped up well to this new, challenging environment. I am also sure he would have re-focused and doubled down on the need for an exceptional leadership team.
No individual leader at the top of an organisation can be alive to all that is happening inside and outside their business. Because of this, great teams of leaders are needed to create touch points across and beyond the business. They should be picking-up insights on what is happening, how people are feeling and where the focus might need to be adjusted. If they share the guiding purpose and vision of the business, they can both align and energise activity as well as listen for emerging risks and opportunities.
When considering complex issues, a diverse team, with different expertise, ways of thinking and acting is likely to generate a better response. We need to trust in teams (and indeed teams of teams) to provide leadership in our fast-paced, uncertain world. Of course, the more diverse the team, the greater its potential and the harder it can be for it work together effectively.
Trust is essential for effective teamwork
Trust is a simple 5 letter word with many levels of meaning. There is the trust that someone will do what they have committed to, that they are reliable. There is the trust in their expertise, their judgement, that they know what they are talking about and have the data needed to substantiate their point of view. Then there is trust in them as a person; that they have positive intent and they will respect the confidentiality of others. There is trust they will offer support when needed or be open to someone sharing half-formed ideas, that they will join in exploring further, rather than moving quickly to judgement.
We all know that building trust can take time and commitment. Some people will instinctively be more open, trusting until they find a cause for mistrust. Others will be more hesitant, especially in trusting someone as a person rather than just their expertise. We also know trust can both be strengthened or shown to be empty at times of real stress and adversity.
It is generally easier to build trust in people where there is a good deal of common ground; shared backgrounds and interests; similar values and ways of thinking. But such teams are vulnerable to narrow thinking and ways of working. For truly effective leadership teams in a complex world we need more diversity not less, so that we can tap into differences in perspective and ways of thinking and acting. This means team members need to listen and pay attention most when hearing things that fly in the face of their own fully formed view or inner instincts. They need to welcome the different perspectives and trust the positive intent of their colleagues, however great the difference in views. Staying open and curious is vital.
So, what does it take to develop trust in teams?
Time and experience together are helpful but not enough.
• It starts with deep self-awareness; an understanding of strengths and biases; triggers and habits. Self-awareness arises most through receiving good quality feedback from others, as well as reflection. I once worked with a leader in Shell who described feedback as just, “friendly facts that fuel our development as leaders”. Feedback offers an insight on how others experience us both individually and in the team. Asking for and offering such feedback on a frequent basis is invaluable for forming great teams. It does not need to be a big team session; it can be through the daily passage of working together. Of course, it extends to the stakeholders beyond the team; their feedback is needed as well. Other things can help to raise self-awareness, such as psychometric instruments that might help clarify our inner patterns of awareness and action. If these are shared and discussed with others in a team, they can also help to build deeper connections, offering insights of different ways of thinking and highlighting patterns across a team.
• The second key is awareness of others; to focus on and have empathy for colleagues in a team. This does not mean seeing the world as you would if you were in their place, but truly coming alongside them to look at the world/issues/opportunities from their perspective. Recognising and cherishing they bring a different perspective that will help to get to a better outcome if it is heard. Listening is essential, and this may mean stopping and checking on our initial reaction. Asking what exactly did I hear? What might be triggering me? It needs to be kept in mind that while difficult in some situations, it is important to trust the intent of the other. People may disagree because they see things differently, but it is usually not personal. Often, I have found people disagreeing solely because they hold differing needs from across the wider system; they represent differeno stakeholder perspectives in the team.
• Finally, people need to take accountability for what is happening in the team. Too often I hear people cede this to the team leader or perhaps the HR person; that somehow only these players are responsible for making the team work well. In fact, everyone is accountable for themselves; how they show up; what they prioritise and whether they voice their concerns and frustrations in a spirit of constructive, collective endeavour. Do they encourage and support others in their work; listen to them fully and value their contribution? Teamwork is a collective endeavour and a continuing one; it never stops. Great teams are not an end point; they will always evolve as the business evolves, and as people leave and join.
Teams are as essential for success in our current turbulent world as they were for Mike, the CEO I worked with all those years ago. There is too much happening, to0 quickly for one person to be driving things. Only by harnessing the power of multiple perspectives and experiences through a team can a business stay aligned, clear on its purpose and respond to emerging opportunities, issues and risks. Leadership Teams are a place for sharing perspectives and collective meaning, from which to initiate action. For teams to play this role they need to build mutual trust. This takes focus, time and attention. The team leader is the orchestrator but the whole team need to take responsibility for the process. Trust has multiple dynamics but at its heart is human connection; our ability to understand ourselves and to connect well with others.