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Three Levels of Agility when Leading Management Teams

In today’s companies, at the senior and middle management levels, groups of direct reports are often called “teams.” Yet, quite frequently, they either don’t function as true teams, or they don’t engage in the level of teamwork needed to optimize their performance. 

While there are a number of factors that influence the quality of teamwork, the intensive, multi-year research project conducted for our book, Leadership Agility, revealed that it is closely linked to the "level of agility" of the team's leader. In our work with leaders and their teams, understanding a team leader's agility level and how to help them raise it has proven enormously useful.

What are the three levels of team leadership agility?

The Expert Team Leader Mindset

We found that approximately 45% of managers view their direct reports with an “Expert” mindset. This mindset, which is more tactical than strategic, carries the implicit assumption that the job of a leader is to use one’s authority and expertise to solve problems. There’s nothing wrong with having expertise or solving problems, but when leaders identify with their expertise, they can miss the bigger picture, including the value that additional perspectives can bring.

Those who lead teams from the Expert level focus primarily on discrete problems, letting the relationships between different problems fade into the background. This mindset also focuses on individual direct reports and does not give much attention to the improving the relationships between them. With thismindset, a manager is unlikely to examine the interdependencies between direct reports or to see their job as that of developing them into a true team. Instead, managers with this mindset spend most of their time with direct reports in one-on-one meetings, while their group meetings tended to focus on vertical information sharing rather than on group problem-solving.

The Achiever Team Leader Mindset

We found that about 35% of managers view their direct reports with an “Achiever” mindset, which includes the ability and inclination to think strategically and to focus not only on the performance of individual direct reports but also on the group as a whole. In other words, the Achiever mindset sees a group of direct reports as a system. That is, it sees the parts, the relationships between the parts, and the whole.

The central question a leader needs to ask to determine whether their management group needs to operate as a team is to ask: To what extent are the tasks of group members interdependent? That is, in what areas do they need to coordinate, cooperate, or collaborate with other team members in order to accomplish their individual objectives and those of the group as a whole?

Interdependencies among team members are rarely all or nothing. Most of the time, in spite of the fact that each team member may be responsible for a different function, business unit, division or department, there is also a critical mass of key tasks that are interdependent. I was moved to write this post because I find that many leaders who have an Achiever mindset and may use this mindset to think about organizational strategy, have not stepped back to identify explicitly where the interdependencies lie within their team. As a result, they may continue to lead their “team” in the “hub-and-spoke” format that is more typically used by Expert-level leaders.

Some interdependencies may exist only among certain sub-sets of your direct reports. In these cases, leaders can set up standing meetings of the relevant sub-groups, who can periodically report back to the team as a whole for discussion. But upon closer examination, it’s very likely that there are some significant, ongoing issues that would really benefit from discussions that tap the perspectives of all team members. These are the issues around which a real team can be developed. Once a leader has identified the key interdependencies, they can begin to build a team by structuring group meetings and agenda topics that focus on those issues that would benefit from discussion by the team as a whole.

Achiever team leaders tend to have regular team meetings with agendas that focus primarily on important strategic and operational issues. These types of meetings are grounded in a mindset that sees the core job of the team leader as one of motivating, challenging and inspiring direct reports to work together as a true team. It’s a mindset that recognizes that commitment to decisions made is greater when team members buy into the decision, because they’ve had an opportunity to express their views in a forum where there’s a real give-and-take of opinions.

To build a strong, Achiever-level team, here are two additional foundation pieces leaders need to put in place:

  • A clear team charter/purpose/mission with a set of common team objectives that are aligned with the larger strategic and organizational environment.
  • A clear set of practices to guide group discussion and decision-making. For example, a practice of making clear the intent each item on the agenda: Is the intent to make a decision, or is it for discussion only? Another basic practice: Making explicit whether or not a decision has been made, what it is, who will do what as a result, and then recording it.

Interestingly, it’s not just team leaders who operate at different levels of agility, the teams do as well. A team operating at the Achiever level of agility is demonstrably better at dealing with rapid change and interdependence than is a management group operating at the Expert level.

For an example of the differences between Expert and Achiever team leadership, see the story of “Carlos” (a past client) in Leadership Agility.  Pages 50-52 describe the “before” picture – Carlos as an Expert team leader. Later, on pages 72-75, we see the “after” picture – where Carlos has evolved into an Achiever team leader and created a real (Achiever-level) team.

The Catalyst Team Leadership

Perhaps you’ve already “been there and done that” with Achiever-level team leadership. But you sense that there is a higher level of teamwork, agility, and performance of which your team might be capable. Or maybe you have already taken decisive steps in this direction.

Our research on leadership agility confirmed that leaders and their teams can evolve further than the Achiever level. The next level is called Catalyst. We found that only about 10% of leaders have developed the Catalyst mindset, and somewhat fewer have fully put this mindset into action in leading their teams. We found that leaders and teams that can operate at the Catalyst level agility are more consistently effective in dealing with rapid change and interdependence than are those who function at earlier stages of agility.

You can learn about this level of team leadership by reading the story on pages 102-107 in Leadership Agility.


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