How to turn a leadership group into a leadership team

Do you have a group or a team? Decide, because they’re very different!

So the word ‘team’ is used a lot. In fact, it’s our primary currency at work – we talk about the team or teams we’re part of and which teams the people we know are part of. There are project teams, sports teams, news teams and so on and so on.

But often, and especially when it comes to leadership, what we see in our work is that while a team may be called a team, more often than not, without doing the work, they’re probably better described as a group. So what’s the difference?

Well one way of thinking about it is the level of mutual interest the members of a group or team share. In a group, typically goals, accountability and success or failure exist at the individual level. A group becomes a team when goals are shared, when individual and mutual accountability co-habit and when successes and failures are collective.

When you think of it like that, a lot lot lot of leadership teams can be described better as groups than as teams.  Because they’re often a collection of Directors or Heads of or Managers who don’t really have the goals or interests of the rest of their colleagues as a priority, but more their own.  And that’s a function of how they’re incentivised, how they’re performance managed and how the culture of the organisation has shaped their behaviour and expectations.

But how often do you hear the term leadership group?  Rarely, and when you do, it will be when describing a cohort of leaders on a development programme or some kind of discussion forum or committee.  So if you’re part of, or you know of, a leadership team actually running a function, department or whole organisation that right now is more group than team, then this blog is for you because my focus today is on turning a leadership group into a leadership team.

The journey from group to team

So the game here is moving senior leadership teams from a collective of people reporting results to an active community developing strategy and working with and for each other.  Here are some top tips to achieve it. It will take work, but it will be worth it…

  1. Have a team purpose that is relevant and compelling

I put it to the jury that a team can’t be a team without having a purpose that is relevant, compelling and separate from a leader’s operational responsibilities. Otherwise, their focus will always go back to protecting their individual and their operational team’s interests over those of the leadership team and that can lead to non-teamy behaviours all over the place.

The team’s purpose can be described as the reason that the team exists – what it is there to do. For leadership teams, this might include elements like developing and executing the organisation’s strategy, providing good governance, keeping the organisation on a financially secure footing, ensuring that the organisation is run responsibly and with integrity or providing a return for shareholders. It depends on the context of the organisation as to what goes in and what stays out but the main thing is to keep it short, relevant and compelling.

A great exercise that we use when exploring team purpose with any team is to get a sheet of flipchart paper and to ask each member of the team to write down what they think is the purpose of the team at the top of the sheet, then fold over the sheet on top of what they’ve written so that their words aren’t visible and ask the next team member to write down their version. Go on doing this until everyone in the team has had a go. Then open the sheet and explore the similarities and differences in people’s answers. The ensuing debate should get the team somewhere towards (a) understanding to what degree they have a common purpose right now and (b) if they were to have one, what it might be.

  1. Understanding strengths and risks individually and what you can do with each

Next up I would recommend a strengths share – this is part of building trust as a team and cuts across individual operational responsibilities that each colleague will bring to the team by building a common language. This language is about who you are as a human and ultimately, how you may be able to bring value to the team as a whole, and to individual colleagues who lack in areas where you have strength.

To bring this to life and to make it relevant, ask each member of the team to list their top 3 strengths and why they are important to them, how they intend to bring their strengths to the team and then ask the rest of the team which of those strengths they’d like to borrow in the next 1-2 weeks, making a specific commitment to approach a colleague for that help and support.

The next level of disclosure around strengths sees each team members revealing a risk – either a strength in overdrive or an area that drains them – that they would like their colleagues’ help with. Either to call them out on it or to suggest ways they could overcome their risks. By the way, this activity can come later if it feels too soon at this stage.

  1. Team strengths and building a brand

The logical build on individual strengths and one that be a great ‘reveal’ moment for a team is to see their individual strengths as a composite for how their strengths distribute as a team.  Now this composite can reveal to them how the team could be, and be seen to be, at its best. As well as where any risks of overdone strengths or draining areas may be.

It’s important to know though that a composite view of individual strengths without a conversation and actions to get the most from those strengths at a team level will only ever result in individuals continuing to use their strengths as individuals rather than as a collective. So better get discussing how to get the most from the greatest team strengths and how to avoid them running into overdrive.

The next stage in this discussion is to think about the broader team brand. What are the team’s values that provide the bedrock to its purpose and to what it delivers and how it delivers it?  What value do the team’s strengths bring to the organisation, to customers and to other stakeholders? Capturing all of that can help the team create a defined brand that they can then work to communicate and build a reputation around.

  1. Beyond strengths – what else do you need to know to build trust?

Strengths provide a really helpful starter for conversations in a team about personal contribution and identity. But what more can a team’s members reveal in order for a deeper level of trust to be built?  Well it depends on the team, the culture it works within and expectations around disclosure, the level of psychological safety in the team and the extent diverse views are genuinely sought and valued.

But in an ideal world, to build that deeper foundation of trust that people need in order to really feel they belong, the team would be prepared to share more about their background, experiences, what matters to them personally, their values and perhaps ‘moments of truth’ or life lessons they have gleaned up to now.

  1. Having a plan for constructive team conflict – it’s nothing to be scared of

‘Nice team syndrome’ is a big deal. And literally every group of co-workers, in its journey to becoming a team, will go through nice team syndrome. Everyone at this stage is super supportive, extremely polite, appreciative, readily praising colleagues and receiving positive feedback with appropriate humility and good grace.

And at the same time, everyone is petrified of conflict, of upsetting someone else, of disrupting the delicate balance of the team’s developmental journey. And worrying about protecting their position, potentially working behand the scenes to shore up their role, and to keep colleagues out of their business.

But conflict is nothing to be scared of. In fact, it’s an inevitability on the path to high performance. People have to be prepared to speak their truth, to disagree, to give each other tough feedback if they’ve upset or angered a colleague, whether unintentionally or not. That way lies teamship. Without it, you’ll be paddling about in a puddle of sticky niceness forever, unwilling to push beyond the comfortable and shift towards a more honest and open team culture and with it, a higher level of performance.

What is a team charter and how can you build one?

Complete those earlier activities and you’ve done a lot of the work needed to move from group to team. You’re now reaching a place when developing a team charter is a genuinely viable option. So what is a team charter? I tend to see it as a statement of intent. It should contain the team’s purpose and its objectives. But it needs to go beyond that. A team charter speaks to the ‘how’ of the team’s functioning day-to-day and in particular, what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of behaviour.

The idea is that the charter is developed together, through necessarily crunchy and honest discussion and that once agreed, each individual in the team signs up to the charter. De facto then, each colleague also accepts that their co-workers can call them out if they transgress and move outside of the acceptable in terms of their behaviour.

In conclusion – moving from group to team isn’t easy but it’s worth it

All that work is significant. Once complete, you’ll have developed a shared team purpose, you’ll understand your own and your colleagues’ strengths and risks at the individual and team levels and you’ll have built out an aspirational team brand that will define the direction of travel for the team’s reputation. You’ll be party to extra information that is personal to each team member that they have chosen to share as being important to them. You’ll be prepared to face into tension and conflict as a welcome step in the journey to good teamship. And you’ll all be following a behavioural team charter that will provide the team with a clear survival guide.  Phew, it’s a lot. But that’s what it takes to make a group a team. You there yet? Then best get to it. You know what you have to do. Till next time, stay strong.