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Teams at the Top

Sensei Book Review – Teams at the Top – by Jon R Katzenbach


This is the book that sits at the heart of the Katzenbach approach to Top Teams; published in 1998 and copywrited to McKinsey for whom he was working at the time. A synthesis of research and conversations with Executives and Leadership teams from many global organisations that, by his own admission, does not prove or disprove his thesis. It is a book aimed at believers; people who recognise that real team behaviours in the right place can improve overall performance.

The Proposition

The thesis = ‘an integrated balance of real team, individual, and single-leader working group performance is both possible and desirable at the top.’ In lay men’s speak = Top teams rarely function as a real team even though they are called ‘team’, (nor should they always do so), however, getting a better balance that allows a top team to consciously change their working approach to suit the situation, could deliver significantly better results. Ensuring a better balanced top leadership approach through appropriate use of the right disciplines can increase the performance and leadership capacity of senior groups!

Single leader working group = a group of individuals with complementary skills and experiences under the direction of a single leader, brought together to resolve a particular performance challenge that someone has experience of resolving.

Real team = a group of individuals who come together to form a team (there are 3 litmus tests of true team performance)
o mutual accountability for group results
o collective or joint work products of clear performance value
o a shared and shifting leadership among the members

At the heart of the proposition is that the term ‘team’ is overused; real teams take time and effort to build and deliver; you do not need to strive to create a team for many work situations and actually, when you get to the top of organisations, the style and history of executive leadership (what it takes to get there) makes real team working quite hard. The ‘team at the top’ is rarely a team; it does not often function as a team, apply team basics and therefore deliver the enhanced performance that teams can achieve.

The book suggests that the reader adopt a flexible mindset that is not wedded to team or single leader modes of operating – to remove yourself from two sets of myths:

Strong Leader Myths
 The CEO determines whether a company wins or loses
 The CEO has to be in-charge at all times
 It is a team because they say so!
 The right person in the right job naturally leads to the right team
 The top team’s purpose is the corporate mission

Real Team Myths
 Teamwork at the top will lead to team performance
 Top teams need to spend more time together building consensus
 CEO’s must change their personal styles to obtain team performance
 The senior group should function as a team whenever it is together
 Teams at the top need to “set an example”

Each set of myths are equally constraining (as I am sure you can imagine by looking at them). The mindset required is stated as – “the team at the top should be able to vary its composition, behaviour pattern, and leadership approach to optimise and better integrate individual, team and non-team performance!” His other strong focus throughout the discussions, conclusions and observations centers on his view that discipline is more important than teams at the top. Applying the right discipline in the right places at the right time is more important than trying to become a team. The whole “Top Team” ethos (as experienced through the workshops that I have seen and co-facilitated) is about bringing rigour and discipline to the top team situation to maximise the efficiency of performance! It is a very hard – process perspective – that does not really focus on the behaviour and values that enable that mode of operating to be effective.

Three Major Messages

He concludes the first chapter with the three basic messages that he wishes people to take away from the book:

1. The best senior leadership groups are rarely a true team at the top – although they can and do function as real teams when major unexpected events prompt that behaviour.
2. Most of them can optimise their performance as a group by consciously working to obtain a better balance between their teams and non-team efforts – rather than by trying to become an ongoing single team.
3. The secret to a better balance lies in learning to integrate the discipline required for team performance with the discipline of executive (single leader) behaviour, not in replacing one with the other.

The Line of Argument to support the proposition 

The rest of the book goes on to use case studies and research through conversations with leaders and top teams that bring to life the case for flexible and disciplined Top Team performance. I have to say that I began to lose the will to live through the multiple examples and supporting theories; it seemed to make a mountain out of a reasonably simple mole hill.

Chapter 1 – Real team efforts at the top are in direct conflict with the strong single-leader approaches that exist in organisations of different cultures: it is very difficult to break the pattern of behaviour.
It can take real insight and tenacity on behalf of the CEO or another senior leader for a change in approach and culture; the example sighted; a paper mill company in the US took over 10 years to create the real team culture that could deliver at the top of the organisation.

Chapter 2 – Non-teams prevail in these situations for two basic reasons: (1) the single-leader mode of behaviour works well most of the time, and (2) the prevailing mindset among senior leaders makes it virtually impossible for real teams to form. This is partly due to the fact that mutual accountability is much more threatening to career executives concerned about personal performance and its impacts; and also it takes longer to get results with a team than through traditional single leader units.

Chapter 3 – Unexpected and near-crisis events occasionally produce real team efforts at the top, but they occur far too infrequently to exploit the potential for team, as well as non-team performance at the top.
Where real teams really come into their own is when they face a situation that nobody in the group has faced before – therefore nobody is in a position to define the single direction that needs to be taken – therefore creativity and matching diversity of skills and experience comes into its own. Crisis events are one of the examples of situations that create this unique opportunity. The example used is the merger of Smith Kline Beecham; the senior leadership team came together to drive out the business plan and align the organisation behind it; a real team opportunity with real team results.

Chapter 4 – Integrating two distinct disciplines that are normally in direct conflict – team and executive leadership – rather than compromising one for the other, is key to greater leadership capacity within groups that run things at all levels. Both disciplines have a rigorous set of rules that must be followed if the performance / delivery are to be achieved; however, the rules overlap and contradict each other. The proposed solution has 3 elements:

1. Recognise that the conflict persists regardless of the environment
2. Understand the contrasts and recognise the sources of conflict
3. Seek integration rather than compromise or domination of one set over the other

Example areas of conflict:
Team = Create a meaningful purpose; strive for the right skill mix
Single Leader Unit (SLU) = Create and maintain urgency; strive for the best talent

Chapter 5 – Proactively identifying collective work products and unifying themes or initiatives can provide important catalysts for senior leadership groups that seek a better balance of team performance.
Your man defines collective work products as – “the tangible result of several members of a group applying different skills to produce a performance improvement not achievable by any one member alone.” His key conclusion is not to leave the identification of working on collective work products to chance; it is hard enough for a top team to strive for “real team” performance as it is, finding the right work is fundamental to allowing the chance for dramatic results and consequential momentum.

Chapter 6 – The capability to shift into and out of different modes of behaviour and membership configurations is essential to increasing team performance at the top. The key to making the decisions as to which mode is the right mode is centred on a series of trade-offs that need to be made.
1. The time trade-off: performance versus speed; it takes longer to determine a team solution but the solution will probably be more powerful/valuable.
2. The capability trade-off: do you focus on having the right skills in the group / team to complete the task OR do you stick with the “positional influence”; people are ‘in’ because their job dictates they have a say.
3. The capacity trade-off (diversity versus clarity): do you build leadership capacity by shifting the leader role across the group (more capability across the group to lead and deliver) OR do you stick with the greater clarity that a single leader brings.
Groups may not always make the right decision to move between the different approaches, but by being conscious of the options and implications they are more likely to make an impact when they do switch.

Chapter 7 – CEO’s who can play multiple roles are more likely to achieve an optimal balance between team and non-team performance within their top leadership group; however, they seldom need to change their basic individual leadership styles. Jon provides a number of examples of the sorts of roles that CEO’s may like/be able to play:
 Team opportunity spotter – spotting the opportunities for real team work and facilitating that happening.
 Monitor of team discipline – effective teams follow a clearly defined set if rules, the CEO can look out for these and make sure they are followed.
 Political neutraliser – the C suite hierarchy will be awash with politics, unless the politics are neutralised team performance is unlikely.
 Theme and initiative shaper – focusing the group on the things that matter.
 Conflict integrator – integrating conflicting perspectives without compromise.
 Skill mix monitor – ensuring that real team opportunities are not missed because the focus was on people’s position rather than the right skills.
 Pecking order killer – in order for the leadership to shift and real teaming to take place, the natural pecking order will need to be challenged and broken up.

All of these are different roles but can be undertaken in the CEO’s own style – be yourself but do different jobs seems to be the conclusion!

Chapter 8 – These lessons for “teams at the top” apply to teams that run things at virtually any level in the organisation.
Whilst the rest of the book, and indeed the premise of the proposition, focus on the fact that this only applies to “teams at the top”; this chapter explores an example (from Texas instruments) of “a real team” coming out of nowhere (further down the organisation) to deliver real business performance improvement. Facing huge internal and external pressures a particular group of Managers got together on a Friday afternoon to contemplate the enormity of their challenges. However, by having such a huge set of obstacles to overcome and having nowhere else to go, a group of people began a journey of “real team discovery” and ultimate successful performance. Some key conclusions:
 Difficult obstacles build commitment
 Shifting roles becomes natural
 Relentless incremental improvements can deliver real results
 Mixing and matching the skills and leadership approaches delivered results

These in turn gave rise to a set of ‘rules of the game’:
1. Pick your team shots wisely – work as a real team only when you really need to
2. Consider each of your options carefully – think through the various approaches
3. Make the critical trade-offs consciously
4. Apply the discipline that fits – having made the choice, follow the discipline / rules
5. Learn different leadership roles – create personal and group flexibility, do not stick to favourites
6. Set aside open-ended times for working together – real teams take time to deliver the goods.

Chapter 9 – A balanced leadership approach at the top must be able to combine the essential individual leadership activities with the substantive collective work required for team performance.
This final chapter concludes with the three central themes that are core to the proposition.
1. Discipline – use and combine the appropriate disciplines to stimulate and energise rather than stifle and control.
2. Alignment – leadership style is not the only organisational mechanism that can be used to drive performance and align behaviours and decisions of people in the organisation; you must use the others too. These are Formal Structures (organisational boxes and lines); Management processes; Forums and Small groups; and Informal Networks.
3. Balance – creating an organisation that has everything in balance (see diagram below)

Richard Ferguson May 2012