Most leadership development work focuses on the individual. And indeed the leadership skills that individuals bring to the table are fundamental to the success of any endevour. Nevertheless the real music takes place in the ensemble of how individuals work together. We all know from watching professional sports that having the best talent on a team does not guarantee a first place finish.
As a workshop facilitator I have often run activities where the results of teams are compared with the results of individuals. One rather sophisticated activity is a case study on change management. A company on the verge of bankruptcy needs to change quickly. Both individuals and teams can choose what should be done from a menu of options. Almost invariably the team comes up with the better solution.
These activities interestingly enough are really aimed at individual leadership development not at team development. The point of such exercises is to help individuals become aware of the qualitative difference.
However if the music is in the ensemble, why aren’t there more leadership development efforts aimed at teams?
I find the lack of attention to team leadership troubling, particularly at the top executive level. I did work for an automobile part manufacturer where the so called executive “team” only met twice a year. In another case for a very large non-profit, the “team” which operated in various locations globally did not actually know each other personally. In a third case – for a reknown truck manufacturer – the executive team would on principle never get together for any longer than two hours.
Such “team” constellations are in my opinion not really teams but fiefdoms. The heads of the various clans come together only to make decisions that they could not otherwise make alone. Perhaps each of the individuals is a great leader – but what image are they projecting about leadership through their team interactions? Can such a constellation at the top truly inspire great teamwork throughout the organization? A critical dimension of leadership appears to be neglected.
Breakthrough research was conducted by Dr. Meredith Belbin in the 1970s on teams. Over 9 years teams were asked to participate in simulations. During these simulations the different kinds of contribution from team members were observed, recorded and categorized. The results were illuminating. The best teams were not those with the greatest intellectual capacity, but those teams that demonstrated the best balance in the types of contributions that were being made. From this research sprung the conceptual model of team roles. In his book Management Teams – why they succeed or fail Belbin highlights 8 various roles (later expanded to 9 roles) that teams need to be successful. The Financial Times selected this book as one of the top 50 business titles ever.
Each of the segments in the above circle represents one of the 9 essential team roles. Each of the individuals on the team have been placed into the different segments twice (represented by their initials) – for their top two contributions to the team. There are two roles which are not represented in the team – both roles which are part of the social category. The implications of this finding are that there could be a substantial risk to team cohesion.
Presenting this type of information to a top executive team can be very insightful. The non-profit organization I spoke of earlier had 3 roles underrepresented which highlighted many of the issues that the organization was facing. In addition to the overall team report, individuals also get an overview of where there could be “chemistry” issues between certain members as shown in the sample report below.
Leadership is three dimensional. Development occurs at the individual, team and organizational levels. Investment in individual leadership capability is not enough.
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” —Michael Jordan