These days, everybody knows that management is a team sport. Collaboration, cooperation and the performance of the group rather than that of the individual are all given great importance by leaders and their advisers alike. And yet, while the idea has generally been adopted, there is one area that seems less keen on it: the top of organizations. The obvious evidence for this is the fact that – for all the talk of collegiality – chief executives are still seen to be much more valuable in salary terms than their colleagues in the executive suites. But there are also signs that senior executives are less inclined to be team players than those below them.
For example, the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles has studied data on the dynamics and performance of more than 2,000 teams across a wide variety of organizations in different geographies and industries and found that senior teams tend to be the least likely to be categorized as “accelerating” (that is, able to build and change momentum to get results more quickly than its competitors). “Indeed, junior teams were 1.6 times more likely to be accelerating than were teams composed of director-level members and above. In addition, we found that senior teams rate their team lower on 13 of the 15 tests of brilliant teams than do the members of junior teams,” says the firm, which also advises clients on leadership. This finding aligns with previous Heidrick & Struggles research, which in a survey of 60 top human resources executives from Fortune 500 companies found that only 6% of respondents reported that “the executives in our c-suite are a well-integrated team.”
So why is the situation worse at the top of the organization, which after all should be setting the tone and has the greatest potential to have an impact on performance? Heidrick & Struggles puts it down to old-fashioned interpersonal conflicts over such issues as influence and importance in the hierarchy. “While junior teams are generally organized by geography, department or product line, teams at the top of the organization are by definition doing quite different things: one person runs marketing, another runs manufacturing, another runs finance and so forth,” says the report “Accelerating Performance in Teams.”
“At the senior level, the challenge is to integrate a portfolio of activities into a coherent whole, and we think the explanation behind the data is that too much of the energy at this level is consumed in dealing with ego problems driven by instincts for self-protection: “I want more power than you,” or “I will agree with your proposal only if you agree with my proposal,” or “I’ll stay off your turf if you stay off mine.” Furthermore, senior team members have invested a lot in their careers by the time they’ve risen to the top of an organization, and by virtue of being visible and exposed, they are vulnerable. If they fail, they have a much longer way to fall. Those factors exacerbate the ego problem.”
Another issue is highlighted by Jill Jenkinson, chief executive of the t-three group, a management consultancy focused on leadership development based in Cambridge, England. “For quite a lot of people in top teams there’s not a lot in it for them to act as a team,” she says. After all, they might feel that they have got to where they are by looking out for their own interests and therefore there is no reason to change such behavior once they have reached the top.
Even if the top executives do cooperate and behave as a team high performance does not necessarily follow. For that to happen it is key, as Jenkinson says, for the relationship between the members of the top team and the managers in the level below to be strong. It is even better if the interests of the top team are closely aligned with those of people even further down the organization. There has to be a real holding to account of those at the top and an ability to tell them the truth about the enterprise, Jenkinson adds. Unsurprisingly, neither is especially commonplace.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the U.K. operations of Toyota made a conscious decision to confront the problem when working out how to deal with the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008-09. Robin Giles, now director for HR and corporate operations at Toyota GB, explains how the business developed with the t-three group a program for making those running it more effective and responsive in the more challenging environment that resulted from the crisis. After a while, he says, “everybody had the realization that there were some members [of the executive leadership team] who thought, why do we need to do it?”
While not suggesting that this was an easy situation to deal with, Giles, who as the former general manager for HR had been responsible for introducing the program, says that key people who were seen to be holding back progress were eventually moved to different roles or left the business. Now, several years after the initiative began, all the senior people have changed and there has been a fundamental change in the way business is conducted. “Across the top three levels of management we are much more open, less critical and we are much more working as a team,” adds Giles. “Before, we were confusing, we were sending mixed signals and we were reacting differently in different circumstances.”
A key factor in the transformation has been a determination to lift the U.K. business from its generally accepted status as a good company to a great one. “The new team realised that to be a great business and to deliver great service – we could only do that with highly engaged employees,” says Giles. Part of bringing this about has involved creating a “one-team group” within the business to enable the senior management team to get together on a regular basis and talk about organizational development. The company has also launched a “management deal,” which involves the managers thinking about what they can do to help the staff meet the corporate goals. So far, Giles and his colleagues have seen good levels of engagement and a corresponding improvement in business performance.
The need for organizations to ensure that their top people are able to “walk the talk” on working in teams is starting to affect how they go about hiring them. According to David Boehmer, global managing partner, financial services, at Heidrick & Struggles, a good CV or resume, while important, is “just a ticket to get to the show.” Executive search firms and their clients are increasingly looking at other aspects, such as how candidates do things and the breadth of their experience. But this is making it harder to find the right applicants. In the past, broader experience was acquired because banks typically sent their best people overseas. Since the financial crisis, however, a reduced willingness to spend in this way and the demands of greater regulation have led to less movement of this type – with a corresponding reduction in the number of future leaders who are “rounded” in the sense of having experience across a range of roles as well as technical expertise.
As well as seeking people who are horizontally as well as vertically experienced, recruiters are also increasingly looking for senior executives who are agile enough to move from one set of challenging circumstances to another. They want people who are “both able to quickly come up to speed and proactively act about things coming around the corner,” says Boehmer. “Technical depth is important, but the ability to work with different people is also important.”
He adds that some businesses are looking for people with the right mix of management skills regardless of their background. Obviously, that is easier for some industries than others. But, whatever their specialty or chosen industry, candidates should be aware that they should expect a lot more questioning about their team-working skills and such issues as how they get on with others.
This blog originally appeared on Forbes