Jump to content

22 March 2024

Ambitious leadership teams must think differently to flourish

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

Do popular beliefs about team excellence mislead an ambitious leadership team on how it reaches its full potential? 

For example, in my corporate career, I often found that what we did held us back from succeeding as much as we could have done. Why was this, and what should we have done differently?

I have been a coach for over 12 years now. My focus is on leaders who are capable and ambitious. The popular beliefs about team excellence manifest in, for instance, how leadership teams conduct meetings.

In my previous corporate career, some of my bosses asked me to help prepare meetings for their leadership teams, of which I was also a member. I had been a management consultant, and my bosses wanted my help to structure their meetings in order to make effective decisions and agree on actions. 

When all the stars were aligned, our meetings would be carefully choreographed performances, executed with timely precision. That made me proud at the time.

Engineered leadership meetings

My bosses and I followed an approach that was already used by many leaders, and an approach that most leadership teams in well-oiled corporations continue to use today. It entails curating and optimizing an agenda using simple questions: 

  • What are the most important topics? 
  • Which team member owns each topic? 
  • How much time is needed for each topic?

We applied a responsibility assignment model, of which the most common version is RACI. In RACI, 

  • R stands for “responsibility” and specifies who will complete a task. 
  • A is “accountability” and identifies the person answerable for the work.
  • C is “consulted” and covers those who have a say.
  • I is “informed”, involving everyone else who should know.

Are you also looking for blessing nods? 

For each agenda item, a team member would be the accountable A. Someone in A’s organization would be the responsible R, and would prepare a presentation for the team. Typically, the R would be invited to attend only the part of the meeting covering their topic, which they would present.

The rest of the team, or at least some of us, would be Cs, whom the Rs and As consulted during their time slot. We could ask questions and make suggestions. If the discussion blew up, our boss would step in. Our boss was the ultimate decision-maker, whom the Rs and As would look to for blessing nods during the presentation.

When we concluded on a topic, someone on the team committed to informing everyone affected by the decisions. These people were the “Is” for that topic.

The Rs would then leave and be replaced by new Rs, as we took on a new agenda item.

We were like a machine.

What does more ambitious look like?

While useful, the method outlined in the preceding paragraph ultimately fell short of enabling our team to fulfill our most ambitious goals. These aspirations exceeded the limitations of our established framework.

The approach described in the paragraph above did not allow the team to achieve our most challenging aspirations, which kept not fitting into our frames.

Today, I’m helping ambitious clients go beyond the straightforward. 

Let’s look at a carefully disguised client organization—I’ll call it Rosencrantz—as an example. Rosencrantz is an innovative technology company. Its biggest strategic priority is growing the business by transitioning from selling clearly defined standard services to creating customized solutions for its customers. 

So many companies have been on a similar journey since Lou Gerstner famously took over as CEO of the computer company IBM in 1993 and transformed the entire corporation. His autobiography, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, is still in demand. 

Many well-respected companies continue to struggle to follow IBM’s path and make their customized solutions outgrow their standard products. While Gerstner succeeded with his transformation, new innovative competitors like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP have since bypassed IBM with their vibrant solutions.

My client Bill, the CEO of Rosencrantz, was concerned. His leadership team had adopted the language of solutions but struggled to change the way the organization worked. A lot needed to happen.

The Flower and the Cogwheel

One epiphany that helped the team pull itself together was the metaphor of the flower and the cogwheel. 

They knew how to work as a cogwheel, breaking down problems, separating the components, delegating tasks, and tracking each other’s progress.

But they couldn’t take the same approach to customized solutions, due to the interdependencies between each customer and the internal departments involved. Every time they fixed a problem in one place, other problems occurred elsewhere.

A flower grows in unpredictable weather and adapts to evolving conditions. Gardeners can nurture a flower, but never fully control it the way machinists do with their equipment.

The flower and cogwheel metaphor came up during a one-day offsite gathering that Bill and I had designed and organized with his leadership team.

In the afternoon, I asked each member to share what they considered Rosencrantz’s most attractive possibilities for progressing the solution business and their biggest doubt about the transition. Each team member would share their answers while the others listened. We were not working against the clock—people could take as much time as they needed.

The atmosphere intensified immediately. 

Like everyone, Bill listened when others spoke. His eyes lit up frequently, revealing his appreciation of various perspectives. He empathized with most of the concerns. Occasionally, people’s faces revealed surprise at what others had to say. 

After the sharing, I facilitated the team as it explored the patterns in what had been said. What was similar? What stood out as outliers? Had something not been said that they expected to hear?

I got the team to identify themes they were curious about entertaining further, including areas where they were keen to act and see what would happen.

There was a companionate spirit in the room. A few people ganged up to investigate one possibility. Various colleagues offered their support. Others joined forces on another idea. Someone emphasized that solution sales were vital and the entire leadership team should stay involved along the way.

Bill and I had been generous in allocating time to the various parts of the day. Yet, time passed more quickly than we expected, and we had to adjust the program a couple of times.

What makes ambitious leadership teams bloom?

Anything involving cogwheels enables clear instructions. Meanwhile, you can get plenty of guidance on how to grow flowers, but flowers are living organisms with unique lives—every situation will dictate what is best.

Several tangible techniques exist for dealing with uncertainty and complexity and learning from mistakes and friction. These techniques can be helpful in tough weather. Yet, achieving full bloom depends on organic factors as well.

Three practices are particularly helpful when a leadership team has identified a significant opportunity or challenge that requires it to grow and flourish like a flower:

  • Create space and time for the entire team to explore with curiosity. While some team members are closer to the specific challenge than others, everyone on the team has an obligation to help each other nurture fresh thinking.
  • Notice who shows courage and help that permeate the team by addressing doubts head-on and not only celebrating ideas. A team cannot avoid facing up to fears in an ambitious endeavor. When doing so, its members should be alert and learn, not suppressive.
  • Allow human connections to form among the team members to help them relate one by one and become a united team. Human connections grow organically and adapt to their environment. Whatever ambitious people do, they do with others in mind. Team members cannot overcome the worst obstacles without working with and for each other.

Curiosity, courage, and connection are all vital, but the greatest of these is connection. Connection is a prerequisite for curiosity and courage and grows with them. The origins of these words reveal these relationships. Curiosity originates from the Latin word “cura,” which means care. Courage comes from “cor,” the Latin word for heart. Meanwhile, the term connection comes from “connectere” which in Latin means to bind.

The leaders in a team can be individually ambitious. But to fully bloom as an ambitious team, they must sooner or later become connected as a team.

A final thought

The popular beliefs about team excellence manifest in simple frameworks. The responsibility assignment model RACI is only a single example. The implicit assumption is that an excellent team works like a cogwheel. 

Anyone can get much practical stuff done by working like a machine. A truly ambitious leadership team must go far beyond that. The team members must jointly acknowledge that their aspirations require them to flourish together and be extraordinary, like any beautiful flower.

If you find some of these ideas helpful, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional briefs below.

Sign up for the free brief by Nicolai


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.