What makes teams of leaders leadable? [Wageman and Hackman]

Senior leadership teams: what it takes to make them great by Ruth Wageman

What makes teams of leaders leadable? by Ruth Wagerman and Richard Hackman

Definition of leadership team

A leadership team is a group of individuals, each of whom has personal responsibility for leading some part of an organization, who are inter-dependent for the purpose of providing overall leadership to a larger enterprise… members of such team also have a collective responsibility for aligning the various parts of the organization into a coherent whole and fostering its overall effectiveness.

The 4 types of leadership teams

  1.  Information sharing (alignment) teams — these teams exchange information about various organizational matters and bring together in one place external intelligence that may be useful to other parts of the organization or to the enterprise as a whole. They also hear about direction and initiatives from the team leader, which helps make the individual leaders on the team better informed, better aligned and more able to do their individual jobs well.
  2. Consultative teams — aim to make the team leader better informed and better able to make his or her own decisions. In contrast to informational teams, consultative teams actively debate key issues, giving members the chance to learn from one another — but the final call is made by the team leader.
  3. Coordinating teams — are those whose members come together to coordinate their leadership activities as they execute strategically important initiatives. Members of coordinating teams are highly interdependent, have shared responsibilities, and must work together frequently and flexibly to accomplish their shared purpose. Coordinating teams also serve info-sharing and consultative functions.
  4. Decision making teams — make the small number of critical decisions that are most consequential for the enterprise as a whole.

While these types are listed in order of growing value to the organization, without proactive management to the leadership team as an entity, there’s a natural drift in the opposite direction (from “decision making” to “info sharing”).

The ironic features of leadership teams

  1.  Leader teams are composed of powerful people — yet they tend to be undersigned, under-led and under-resourced.
  2. Membership is important and coveted — but members often don’t know who is on the team, and they do not really want to come to team meetings.
  3. Members are overloaded — but they tend to waste enormous amount of time in team meetings.
  4. Authority dynamics pervade leadership teams and complicate team process — but members won’t talk about them.

The 3rd irony in particular deserves a deeper look. Leadership teams waste their time in three ways:

  • They focus on surprisingly trivial matters. They do make decisions together but often about issues that are not consequential for the team’s core leadership work.
  • When they do address important matters, leadership teams tend to become caught up in seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Conflicts in senior team often stem from members’ views that their main responsibilities are to maximize the effectiveness of the unit they lead.
  • They cut short potentially vital discussions by agreeing to disagree and then moving on.

The 6 enabling conditions for an effective leadership team

1. A real team

  • Bounded — clear who is — and who is not — on the leadership team.
  • Stable — membership is kept in tact for some period of time.
  • Interdependent — members share accountability for a common purpose.

2. A compelling purpose

  • Clear — can imagine what it would look like if we achieved it.
  • Challenging — a stretch of capability to achieve it, but not impossible.
  • Consequential — important impact on the success of the organization and on the lives and work of others.

3. The right people

  • Members are people who can take an enterprise perspective.
  • Members have the ability to work collaboratively.
  • All the “derailers” are removed — those who undermine others, bring out the worst in others, exhibit lack of integrity, are unable to see other’s perspectives.

4. Solid structure

  • Right size — keep it small.
  • Meaningful team tasks — the work members do together is vital and connected to the strategy.
  • Norms of conduct — members understand what must always be done, what must never be done.

5. A supportive context

Rewards do not themselves create collaboration, they can be a powerful negative; they can divide (status, fairness).

  • Information — what data the team needs — in a form they can use.
  • Education — training and technical consultation to build expertise.
  • Material resources — the space, time and “stuff” for working together on hard decisions.

6. Expert team coaching

  • Team coaching — as an entity.
  • Coaching and participating is often too hard — consider an external coach.
  • Demand of yourself the same work ethic about leading the team as you would have about every other professional responsibility.
What makes teams of leaders leadable? [Wageman and Hackman]

LCP + ITC = ♥

The “destination” and the “path”, the “where?” and the “how?”, the “vision” and the “strategy”.

When it comes to the science of change, my personal experience suggests that good resources on the topic tend to fall into one of two major categories:

 They either paint an exciting end-state which makes the hardships of change worthwhile, or introduce you to an effective tool for driving change (regardless of your destination).

While some attempt to do both, the focus is significantly on one category, paying a bit more than lip service to the other. Pick almost any business book, and 9 out of the 10 chapters will be dedicated to one category, leaving a single chapter for the other. Even if the division of focus is more equal, the ground-breaking idea will fall squarely in one category and not the other. It is up to you, change-maker, to be the sommelier: pairing the exciting end-state with the tool that will help you get there.

Personal and professional growth and development, a favorite topic of mine in recent months, provides a perfect example:

The Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) provides an extremely exciting and detailed “end-state” of what shifting from “reactive” to “creative” might look like:

But in terms of giving me actionable guidance on how to improve “my interpersonal intelligence”, for example, it falls short. A single chapter of this fantastic 13-chapter book takes a stab at the specifics of change and stops at suggesting these 6 high-level practices:

  • Discern purpose
  • Distill vision
  • Know your doubts and fears
  • Engage in authentic, courageous dialog
  • Develop intuition, open to inspiration
  • Think systematically

 To my rescue comes Immunity to Change (ITC):

I can start with my commitment to improving my “interpersonal intelligence”, and follow the process all the way to uncovering the big assumptions that are holding me back, allowing me to then design safe experiments that will enable me to start making real progress towards that objective.

Note that ITC in an of its own does not prescribe any sort of desired end-state —  I can use it just as well to work on improving my “interpersonal intelligence” as improving my ability for “arrogance” if that was ever my goal…

The “destination” and the “path”, the “where?” and the “how?”, the “vision” and the “strategy” — pair them well, and great things await!

LCP + ITC = ♥

Culture and Revolution [Horowitz]

toussaunt

A short talk by Ben Horowitz on what culture is and how do you go about changing it:

Culture and Revolution

Ben’s simple definition of culture:

  • The collective behavior of everyone in the organization
  • What people do when left to their own devices
  • The organization’s way of doing things

Ben offers 4 keys to changing culture, drawing parallels between Toussaint L’Ouverture , the leader of the only successful slave revolution in human history (Haiti, 1791), and modern Silicone Valley leaders:

1. Keep what works

  • Toussaint: use music (a strength of slave culture) as a communication technology.
  • Steve Jobs @ Apple: when coming back to Apple, did not copy Microsoft’s strategy (saparte OS from device, let clone manufacturers deal with the hardware), and instead double-down on Apple’s strength building integrated systems. Severed connection with clone manufacturers, made it even more vertical and build even more hardware.

2. Create shocking rules

  • Toussaint: officers cannot cheat on their wives (rape and pillage being an expected benefit of the “winning” side). Break away from low-trust/loyalty attributes of slave culture.
  • Mark Zuckerberg @ Facebook: “Move fast and break things”, completely opposed to the software engineering mindset of fixing things rather than breaking them…

3. Incorporate people from other cultures and insert them at high levels within the organization

  • Toussaint: Incorporated soldiers from French and Spanish armies that he defeated as officers in his army.
  • Larry Page @ Google: bringing in Diane Greene, who was the CEO of VMWare and on the Google board at the time, to run Google Apps (G-Suite) to infuse Google with the enterprise culture that it desperately needed in order to be successful selling that product suite to enterprise customers.

4. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities 

  • Toussaint: after abolishing slavery, decided not to kill the slave masters, and instead let them continue to run their estate, while lowering their taxes so they can pay their workers.
  • Reed Hastings @ Netflix: forbidding the members of the DVD business unit to come to executive staff meetings (in order to drive the culture shift towards streaming).
Culture and Revolution [Horowitz]

Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting

How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations?

… is one of the 7 Questions I challenged myself to develop better answers for at the beginning of this year.

Most of the writing on this topic, including in this publication (1, 2), has been mostly focused on the later steps of the recruiting process. Especially, how to create an engaging and insightful on-site interview experience, and how to close candidates.

The purpose of the top-of-funnel part of the recruiting process is to qualify candidates 

This is a two-sided dynamic:

  • The company needs to quality the candidate: be interested enough in the candidate to invest a full day of an interview team’s time, further assessing the candidate’s fit.
  • The candidate needs to quality the company: be interested enough in the opportunity to invest a full day, during work hours, interviewing with the company, further assessing the opportunity’s fit.

These earlier steps in the process typically consist of:

  • Sourcing/cold-call email — inviting the candidate to check out the position and express interest / apply
  • Review of the relevant job posting — typically describing the company at a high level and listing the responsibilities that the position include and skills needed in order to handle those responsibilities well
  • Resume submission
  • Phone interview with a recruiter

Various permutations of these earlier steps exist, alternative the order, subtracting or adding steps, but this is the gist of it.

Little attention has been given to these earlier stages in the process, which is surprising given that:

  • At a high level, if you have an ineffective top-of-funnel process, no matter how awesome your bottom-of-funnel process is, you’re going to be wasting a lot of time on poor fit candidates. AND many great fit candidates will not even go through your awesome bottom-of-funnel process.
  • Specifically, more evidence surfaces that the pervasive use of resumes is marginally more effective than a coin flip

A better top-of-funnel process

The remainder of this post is a rough outline of an alternative top-of-funnel recruiting process, which I believe is likely to be significantly more effective than the default one. As always, feedback is most welcomed.

Sourcing / cold-call email

Should invite a prospective candidate to:

  • Check out the company’s website (see below)
  • Join an “Open House” hosted by the company (see below)

Company website 

  • Should be less about benefits, fringe benefits and a cribs-like video of how amazing the office space is.
  • Should be more about the purpose of the company, its values, and employees sharing why they chose to work for this company

Job descriptions

  • Should be less about skills and responsibilities
  • Should be more about outcomes and description of the real work. If it’s an existing role, list out the projects that a current employee has been working on in the last 6 months. If it’s a brand new role, list out what a person in the role should accomplish in the next 6 month (side note: if the answer to that latter question is unclear — don’t start the hiring process).

Open Houses

Are meant to give a candidate a more tangible sense of what working for the company will be like. These can range from simply inviting candidates to work out of the company’s space for a few hours, to a mixer with company employees or an info-talk + Q&A given by a company leader. Companies that are large enough to hold stand-alone open houses for a particular function/department can replace the more generic info talk with a more topical content (“tech talk”, etc.).

Work sample test (WST)

A work sample test is an assignment which fully replaces the resume, and is aimed at mirroring the kind of work that the particular role will entail. A typical WST can take somewhere between 30 mins and 3 hours to complete. The most common (but not necessarily best) example is giving a software engineer some type of coding challenge. A WST can easily be used outside of software engineering: creating a fictional travel itinerary given certain constraints can be an interesting WST (or part of one) for an Executive Assistant. And a WST is useful not just for assessing problem-solving, it can also be used to assess “softer” and/or interpersonal skills: salespeople can videotape themselves pitching a product, designers can submit their portfolios, HR Business Partners can leave a voicemail delivering difficult news to an employee.

Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting

Leadership without easy answers [book synthesis]

After several years of sitting in my queue, I finally got around to reading this classic book:

Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz

While it’s been written almost 20 years ago, it has not lost its relevance. At its core it attempts to define what leadership is and offer principles aimed at helping leaders lead more effectively. Many of the examples used to illustrate these concepts are taken from US political leadership in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s and definitely feel more relevant today, after the latest US presidential race.

Overall this book was a valuable but hard read. Something in Heifetz’s writing style made it harder for me to distill the key ideas in first read. And while the examples certainly help illustrate the concepts, they were incredibly detailed and extensive, making it harder to reconnect back to the overall structure once each of the stories wrapped up.

Nonetheless, much of Heifetz’s thesis made some intuitive sense to me, so I’ve taken up the challenge of trying to distill it to a more concise resource that I (and you) can use for future reference.


Adaptive challenges and adaptive work

One of Heiftez’s key distinctions is the distinction between technical challenges and adaptive challenges:

If we define problems by the disparity between values and circumstances, than an adaptive challenge is a particular kind of problem where the gap cannot be closed by the application of current technical know-how or routine behavior. To make progress, not only must invention and action change circumstances to align reality with the values, but the values themselves may also have to change.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive work:

Adaptive work consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. Adaptive work require change in values, beliefs or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict — internal contradictions — within individuals and constituencies, provides the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways. In this view, getting people to clarity what matters most, in what balance, with what trade-offs, becomes a central task.

In general, different situations can be classified into three types:

Leadership

Heifetz views promoting adaptive work as the essence of leadership:

The hardest and most valuable task of leadership may be advancing goals and designing strategy that promote adaptive work…

Tackling tough problems — problems that often require the evolution of values — is the end of leadership; getting that work done is its essence.

Leadership can be further decomposed into 5 strategic principles:

1. Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues that come with it

2. Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. To use the pressure cooker analogy, keep the pressure up without blowing up the vessel.

3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract work avoidance mechanism like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.

4. Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Place and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem.

5. Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress — people who point to the internal contradictions of the society. These individuals will often have latitude to provoke rethinking that authorities do not have.

Authority

The other key distinction that Heifetz makes is between leadership and authority.

He defines authority as a dynamic that arises from group psychological mechanisms:

These studies begin to suggest a psychological mechanism for the dynamics of authority. A group recognizes the presence of a problem when the level of stress in the group goes up. Stress arises from disorientation in the face of a complex task, and effective groups normally generate an authority structure in response, sometimes quite informally. The authority structure establishes places and roles for group members, including the role of chairperson, and by so doing creates a coordinating and problem-solving mechanism. When members know to whom to turn, they feel calmed.

Leading with Authority

Specifically, an individual in an authority position is expected to provide 5 social functions for the group:

  1. Choosing the direction of group movement (problem definition and direction)
  2. Protecting the group from predators / extrenal threats
  3. Orienting members to their status and place
  4. Controlling conflict by restoring order
  5. Maintaining norms (resource allocation, etc.)

An authority position provides an individual with several capabilities which enable him to be more effective in leading adaptive work:

  1. Provide a holding environment for containing the stresses of the adaptive challenge
  2. Direct attention to the issues
  3. Gather and test information — perform reality testing
  4. Manage information and frame issues
  5. Orchestrate conflicting perspectives
  6. Choose the decision making process

He also offers a few specific guidelines for the latter:

Deciding which process to use: consultative, autocratic, participative or consensual — requires judgement based on several factors:

* The type of problem

* The resilience of the social system

* The severity of the problem

* The time frame for taking action

One becomes more autocratic — exclusive — when the issue is likely to overwhelm the current resilience of the group or society given the time available for decision.

But the relationship between authority and leadership is not only positive:

Having an authority relationship with people is both a benefit to leadership and a constraint. Authority is a resource because it can provide the instruments and power to hold together and harness the distressing process of doing adaptive work. Authority is a constraint because it is contingent on meeting the expectations of constituencies. Deviating from those expectations is perilous… Exercising leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations means going against the grain:

Leading without Authority

Thus, when we speak of leadership without authority, we are referring to a very large set of stances, from the person operating from the margins of society even to the senior authority figure who leads beyond his pale of authority, challenging either his own constituents’ expectations or engaging people across the boundary of his organization who ordinarily or preferably pay him no mind.

Since authority certainly forces some constrains on leading, leading without it offers some advantages:

1. Creative latitude — The absence of authority enables one to deviate from the norms of authoritative decision making. One does not have to keep the ship on an even keel

2. Issue focus — Leading without or beyond one’s authority permits focusing hard on a single issue. One does not have to content to fully with meeting the multiple expectations of multiple constituencies and providing the holding environment for everybody.

3. Front line information — Operating with little or no authority places one closer to the detailed experience of some of the stakeholders in the situations. One may lose the larger perspective but gain the fine grain of people’s hopes, pains, values, habits , and history.

Which therefore require a different set of strategies and tactics:

1. Without authority, one has very little control over the holding environment. One can shape the stimulus, but one cannot manage the response. A leaders without authority can spark debate, but he cannot orchestrate it. Without authority, a leader must regulate distress by modulating the provocation.

2. In attracting and direction attention to an issue, a leader without authority has to take into account the special vulnerability of becoming a lightning rod

3. Just as people look to authority to solve problems, leaders without authority commonly make the mistake of assuming that only authority figures have the power to affect changes. As a result, there is a strong temptations to identify the authority figure as the audience for action. In general, however, people in power change their ways when the sources of their authority change the expectations.

The Personal Challenge

Heifetz concludes the book with some advice on how to manage the personal challenge of leading:

To lead and yet sustain the personal stresses that come with leading requires inner discipline… What follows, then, are seven practical suggestions for bearing the responsibility that comes with leadership without losing one’s effectiveness or collapsing under the strain. They are:

1. Get on the balcony

2. Distinguish self from role

3. Externalize the conflict

4. Use partners — both confidants and allies

5. Listen, using oneself as data

6. Find a sanctuary

7. Preserve a sense of purpose

“Getting on the balcony”

… is the term Heifetz is using the describe the diagnostic/reflective part of leadership. He offers several diagnostic questions which mirror the 5 strategic principles of leadership:

Identifying the adaptive challenge:

What’s causing the distress?

What internal contradictions does the distress represent?

What are the histories of these contradictions?

What perspective and interests have I and others come to represent to various segments of the community that are now in conflict?

In what ways are we in the organization or working group mirroring the problem dynamics in the community?

Regulating distress:

What are the characteristic responses of the community to disequilibrium — to confusion about the future direction, the presence of an external threat, disorientation in regard to role relationships, internal conflict, or the breaking up of norms?

When in the past has the distress appeared to reach a breaking point — where the social system began to engage in self-destructive behavior, like civil war or political assassination?

What actions by senior authorities traditionally have restored equilibrium? What mechanisms to regulate distress are currently within my control, given my authority?

Directing disciplined attention to the issues:

What are the work and work avoidance patterns particular to this community?

What does the current pattern of work avoidance indicate about the nature and difficulty of the present adaptive challenge and the various work issues that it comprises?

What clues do the authority figures provide?

Which of these issues are ripe? What are the options for tackling the ripe issues, or for ripening an issue that has not fastened in the people’s minds?

Giving the work back to people:

Changes in whose values, beliefs, or behaviors would allow progress on these issues?

What are the losses involved?

Given my role, how am I likely to be drawn into work avoidance?

Leadership without easy answers [book synthesis]

Honoring your word

I came across one of the more powerful distinctions I encountered recently by reading Michael Jensen’s:

Integrity: without it nothing works

In it he provides a very concise definition of integrity:

An individual is whole and complete when their word is whole and complete, and their word is whole and complete when they honor their word. We can honor our word in one of two ways:

1. By keeping our word, and on time

2. As soon as we know that we won’t keep our word, we inform all parties counting on us to keep our word, and clean up any mess that we’ve caused in their lives

He then goes to give a more detailed definition of what one’s word actually entails, and the key factors that often cause us to not see the costs of not honoring our word.

But to me, the most profound lesson from the article is the important distinction between “keeping your word” and “honoring your word”.

In collaborative interactions we are often times asked, either explicitly or implicitly, to keep our end of the bargain by completing the work the rest of the team depends on by a given time. And therefore, we often tend to commit, explicitly or implicitly to do just that.

But committing to keeping our word sets us up to not be in integrity, since it assumes that we have complete control over the outcomes of our efforts. Which is rarely the case. Furthermore, when reality hits us in the face, and we realize that we won’t be able to keep our word, our commitment to keeping our word holds us back from letting our collaborators know that we won’t be able to do so, turning a bad situation into a worse one.

But what what if instead we committed to honoring our word? When it turns out, that for reasons outside of our control, we are not going to be able to keep it — we will have no mental disincentive not to let our collaborators know, and we can help mitigate any negative effects.

To make this distinction a bit more tangible, consider the difference between:

Keeping your word: “I commit to having this draft ready for you by 4pm today”

And,

Honoring your word: “I commit to doing my best to have this draft ready for you by 4pm, and if it turns our that I’m unable to meet that deadline – let you know as soon as I can (and help fix the mess I caused)”.

Which one of those responses sets us up better to be in integrity, and maintain a healthy collaborative relationship?

So next time that you are asked to make a commitment — consider committing to honoring your word (rather than to keeping it).

Honoring your word

Organizational Polarities

In doing further exploration into polarity management, I came across this neat image that truly exemplifies the adage of “a picture is worth more than 1,000 words”:

tensionsframework

Though to be fair, it’s a picture of mostly words 🙂

It was developed by Robert Quinn as part of his book, The Positive Organization, which is now added to my reading queue.

But basic familiarity with polarity management is enough to see the value of this diagram even on a standalone basis, as a really powerful way to capture some of the core organizational polarities, highlighting the key positive and negative of each pole.

tensionsframeworksample

I view it as a great tool for jump-starting any organizational polarities conversation. By providing a crude-but-complete (negatives and positives of both poles) jump-off point for the conversation, it can help accelerate the shared empathy and understanding of the opposing views and move participants further along in navigating the more nuanced aspects of the tension.

 

Organizational Polarities