In a recent conversation with a new University leader, I was asked, “How do you build a stellar senior team?” The question is a powerful and important one, because only the institute leader can build a great senior team. It is not a delegated task. It takes discipline, time and attention, all in short supply in the life of a University president. The question prompted me to think about the many senior teams and cabinets I have worked with over the past 25 years. Only a few stick out as being exceptional; many were smart and hard-working, but few have ever become great.
Everyone on a campus realizes how well the senior team functions. When they are seen as a collaborative, high-performing team, the positive impact is powerful. People throughout the institution work together cooperatively in service of the vision, mission and goals of the organization, because it is modeled by the top leadership. When they function only as individuals, the silos on campus rear their ugly heads, and work across boundaries is difficult and challengingThe following are “practices,” not theories, that I have witnessed exceptional teams in higher education live every day. All doable but difficult to carry out. It will take discipline and courage to actually live them, but the payoff is worth it. 1. They live the 65/35 rule. Stellar senior teams (SST) spend 65 percent of their time and effort on the task at hand. They focus their energy on the results or outcomes they are charged with delivering (e.g., constructing a building; setting up a system wide technology platform; agreeing to a branding campaign, capital campaign, etc.). What sets an SST apart from other teams is that its members also spend 35 percent of their time on the “process” side of how they complete their tasks and goals. By the “process” side of things I mean: how team members listen to each other; show respect; give credit and show appreciation for other team member contributions; include others in decision-making; solicit input from team members; provide constructive feedback. It is the attention to both the task and the process that enables an SST to achieve great things. Unfortunately, most teams spend 90-95 percent of their time on the task side of what they do and very little time on the process side of things. They do so at their peril. In over 25 years of working with teams, I have never been brought in because a poor-performing team didn’t know how to do their tasks well. I have always been brought in because the process side or the relational side has broken down (e.g., when people don’t feel heard, feel disrespected, unable to deal with team conflict, not listening to each other.) Leaders need to pay careful attention to the process side because that is what will kill a team’s effectiveness and performance. Regular check-ins are essential. The team leader can’t wait for bad news to get to them. If they pay attention to several of the differentiators described in this article (e.g., having team ground rules; no triangulation;) they will improve the process side of their team’s functioning. 2. They conduct highly effective meetings. Many senior leaders spend a great deal of their time in meetings. Unfortunately, a majority of these meetings are colossal wastes of time. SSTs have powerful, engaging and effective meetings. When you observe one, you experience something very different than most meetings on campus. Some of the elements of an SST meeting: The purposes of an SST meeting are always clear. Team members know what they are here to do and clearly understand and articulate that different agenda items often have different purposes. For example: Are we here to make a decision? Solve a problem? Build a sense of community and connection with each other? Resolve a conflict? Share information and get everyone on the same page? Each one of these is a different purpose and has a different intended outcome. Everyone understands where they are on the agenda, what they are trying to accomplish and what’s expected of them. SST meetings tend to be highly interactive and engaging. Members readily participate, share ideas, get involved in the discussion. There is high-energy (not loudness) and focus. It feels different than most meetings people have attended. They tend to have well-organized meetings. This does not mean linear, tightly managed meetings with tight timelines and a false sense of urgency, for example: 9:00 – Organizational Climate Study, discussion 9:15 – Course Registration Process Review, 9:35 – Upcoming Reward and Recognition Events 9:45 – Customer Satisfaction discussion 10:05 – Branding campaign They create a reasonable, not overly ambitious agenda, and spend the right amount of time on each agenda item. They always prioritize their agenda and deal with the most important important items first. They avoid “loose ends” in their meetings. Many meetings run out of time and several agenda items get crushed at the very end of the meeting. People often leave with a feeling of unfinished business and some confusion about who does what. SST meetings create the time at the end of the meeting to review commitments, next steps and accountable actions. Everyone leaves with a clear understanding of their responsibilities and commitments. What distinguishes SST meetings from others is the following practice: They periodically and anonymously evaluate the effectiveness of their meetings. They realize meetings are important and expensive events in the life of the team and want the investment to pay off. They ask the following 5 questions:
- On a scale of 1-10 (10 being excellent, 5 average, 1 poor), how effective was our meeting?
- How involved did you feel (1-10) (same criteria as above item?
- What did you like most about our meeting?
- What did you like least and why?
- Advice, comments, suggestions.
- One person talks at a time in our team meetings (this avoids sidebars and interruptions).
- Everyone comes prepared to our team meetings (e.g., if there is any pre-work prior to the meeting — reports, an article, creating a presentation) everyone is committed to be completely ready for our team meetings.
- Use active listening (where you reflect back what you are hearing) when there is any conflict between team members.
- Periodically, we will anonymously evaluate the effectiveness of our team meetings.
- No back-door politicking when a decision is made, nobody lobbies for a change behind closed doors.
- We expect full participation at our meetings (although stellar teams don’t “force” participation but there is a clear expectation that each member will share ideas, provide opinions and participate in discussions).
- What was our intended result with these key decisions?
- How did we do?
- What went well? What didn’t go well?
- Could we have done something differently (e.g., used more information; gotten an external perspective; listened more carefully to different opinions; brought an expert in to inform our decision)?
- What do we need to do/keep in mind in the future when we our make decisions?