IN TOUCH: What’s the role of senior management?

Oddly – that’s question senior management teams themselves don’t have much of grip on. And it doesn’t help that those new to the top team role lack any formal induction into it.
These are among findings from some groundbreaking research into the workings of top teams at 13 New Zealand firms carried out by organisational behaviour specialists Winsborough. Its recently published Benchmark Report 2007 reveals lack of clarity around roles and accountabilities that impacts on the effectiveness of senior teams.
At best, says the report, the lack of formal role description for the team and clear measures of success is “careless” from governance and compliance point of view. It also does little to “reduce frustrations about balancing day-to-day and strategic objectives, and increases the possibility of misalignment and discord”.
Participating companies included both private and public service organisations ranging in size from Barnardos to Inland Revenue and, in terms of industry sector, from IBM to Golden Bay Cement. Of the 117 executives interviewed for this research, 31 percent believe their team is ineffective – finding that didn’t really surprise consultancy principal Dave Winsborough.
“We were more disappointed than surprised – partly because I think chief executives should always be demanding more of their teams. What distressed us most was that there is no clear sense of what they need to do to make the team more effective. And that relates to very few of those teams having an understanding of what actually makes for an effective senior team.”
None of the teams included in the research had formal induction for new members when they were promoted to the top table or when they joined from another organisation – discipline that CEOs should perform as “matter of course”, suggests Winsborough.
Performance criteria are neither articulated or measured and instead of taking holistic view of what’s good for their company, team members tend to get caught up in short-term issues or fall back on their specific functional expertise. That leads to patch protection, lack of cooperation across the organisation and failure to buy into collective decisions.
Executives were surprisingly unanimous in listing hurdles to improved effectiveness: these included performance issues with colleagues, demands of functional delivery at the expense of organisation-wide work, lack of clear focus or objective, poor decision-making processes and personality clashes, politicking, and lack of trust amongst team members.
“It all comes back to not understanding what you have to do to contribute at this [senior] level and being defensive about either admitting mistakes or coughing up resource – or being as radical as criticising someone else around the table,” says Winsborough.
Setting goals and providing clarity around roles are the most basic of team disciplines and Winsborough suggests that, under CEO direction, teams should answer two simple questions: What is the unique role of the team distinct from members’ functional roles? How will we know we’ve been successful in 18 months?
Winsborough warns that measuring success purely by company performance doesn’t quite cut it – there’s dangerous complacency in assuming, because the figures stack up now, that this is either sustainable or represents good measure of overall organisational health.
The report identifies five ways teams should measure their effectiveness:
1The attainment of defined medium term goals that link directly to mission or strategy.
2Structured annual ratings by the team and by consumers of its work (ie, third tier executives and boards).
3Bi-annual ratings by CEOs.
4Applying measures that reflect the health of organisational capability.
5Defined external measures controlled by the team – eg, productivity measures.
Winsborough also identified five simple factors that best predict team effectiveness. These are:
1Task focus: united in pursuing goals, similar standards for performance and prepared to help others to achieve team goals.
2Development: consciously considering team performance and investing time in improvement.
3Norms and decision making: formal process for decisions, no hidden agendas, use of consensus.
4Trust and safety: trust colleagues, surface conflict and admit to mistakes easily.
5Contribution to team: colleagues who participate, hold up their end and add value.
These five things, says Dave Winsborough, reliably differentiated the top performers from those at the bottom.
The research also revealed some differences in values between New Zealand managers and their counterparts in the US and Australia (Kiwis tend to be lower key, more fun loving and have higher tolerance for change) and between public and private sector managers. Perhaps surprisingly, private sector leaders are more oriented to working in teams and to value collegial environment as well as being more concerned with achievement and results while public executives are far more analytical, aesthetic and quality oriented. Finally, private sector leaders are more inclined to build workplace cultures that emphasise enjoyment.
Winsborough is planning to repeat its research on an international basis next year.

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