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Shamrock Leadership Teams – using nature to help improve the effectiveness of the top team

I first came across the Shamrock Organisation metaphor in Charles Handy’s seminal book ‘The Age of Unreason’ over 35 years ago. Back then the world of work we take so much for granted today was an emerging phenomenon. Handy suggested that traditional organisations, where people are little cogs in big machines, would soon be extinct and would be replaced by people employed for their knowledge and attitudes. People enabled by technology, who would be able to work wherever and whenever they choose.

Handy predicted that being ‘at work’ would no longer be thought of as a place, or even a time in the day, it would become a state of mind. And so it has become for so many of us today.

The link to the shamrock, Irelands national emblem used by St Patrick to symbolise the Holy Trinity, was borrowed by Handy as a metaphor for the shape of organisations to come. I have modified the idea slightly and use it to challenge leadership teams to re-think their role, purpose and ways of working.

Most leadership teams are being asked to work on three very different things simultaneously. They have to:

  • Strategise and plan the future;
  • Execute and deliver the present; and
  • Change, develop and grow the organisation in the mid-term.

The central stem of any leadership team is the team leader. They have to be strong and capable of supporting the team. Like the stem in the shamrock they act as a conduit providing sustenance to the three leaves and resistance to any external weather threats and they return energy to the main plant, in the case of this metaphor, the organisation.

The leadership team can be designed to have three distinct areas of focus, each with their own distinct ways of working and potentially with different team members. Like a shamrock the three areas or leaves are connected, aligned and supportive of each other.

The Strategy Leaf’ should be pointing to the sky as it needs to have an external and future focus. The team members in this leaf need to be good creative thinkers as they discuss and explore different options for the future, way up risks, consider emerging trends and keep a wary eye on the competition and market place. The pace and frequency of meetings in this part of the plant needs to be slower than that of the other leaves and the environment in which they work conducive to reflective and analytical thinking.

The Deliver Leaf’ by comparison needs to be focused on the ground. The topics discussed need to be rooted in today’s brutal reality, the pace quick, the frequency of meetings often and the focus of discussion on the here, now and immediate future. The team members need to be pragmatists and problem solvers, capable of quick analysis and creative problem solving using data and information to guide their decision making processes.

The ‘Change Leaf’ is a hybrid of the other two. Like the ‘Deliver Leaf’ it  has to take decisions and drive progress and base its work on the here and now. However, like the ‘Strategy Leaf’, it also has to be building for the future, focusing on getting the plant in shape to sustainably grow. Team members need to be rooted in the reality of the way the organisation works now and have an acute understanding of what degree of growth and change is possible without too much stretch.

Using the shamrock metaphor has several advantages for leaders considering how best to improve the effectiveness of their leadership teams. Clustering team members into areas that they can excel at, or can develop into, is a real benefit as it plays directly to their strengths and aspirations, avoiding the boredom that usually kicks in when topics arise in leadership team meetings that are of little interest to some. As the leaf structure creates smaller teams the dynamics of the meetings will also be easier to manage. Finally, structuring the leadership team in this way opens up the possibility of involving high performing senior managers, thereby giving them early exposure to the leadership team and creating a ‘see before you buy’ opportunity in the succession planning process.

As organisations continue to slim, paradoxically the size of leadership teams have had a tendency to grow. Maybe it’s time to take a leaf, or three, out of Charles Handy’s metaphor as it may create a neat solution to the challenge of keeping leadership teams effective. If you would like help on how to improve the effectiveness of your leadership team then please contact me and we can discuss your specific challenges and how best to respond.