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Key challenges for integrating top teams (1): a focus on decision-making

How can we support top teams to be more agile in the way they work together? Recently I was approached I was approached by the HR Director of a global manufacturer who had been tasked by the CEO to bring new impetus and energy to the Global Leadership Team on which she sat. She explained that this was a newly expanded team under pressure to increase sales and market share as well as keep costs down, and wanting to integrate regional sales directors to achieve this.

I have learnt with top teams that a team development workshop – with a focus on ‘piggy-backing’ a one or two day learning on to regular meetings of such a team – can bring the release in energy required by the HR Director. So I naturally took the opportunity to speak to each member of the team – including the CEO (and de-facto team leader).  At this critical re-beginning of the team, I wanted to understand how energy could be released in areas of concern to the team. In terms of energy I feel my work is similar to that of the acupuncturist looking into the eyes and examining the tongue of the patient before inserting the needle in the right point of the body.

My initial interviews revealed a common picture of a team where great progress had been made by the CEO – in his first 6 months in the role – of building a sense of trust in his ability to lead the team. However, by common consent, there were concerns about the future -and pain-points from the past -linked to 3 issues:

  1. What kind of team have we been in the past, and what do we need to be in the future to handle the biggest questions our organisation faces? There was a sense coming out of the interviews that the team had lost touch with the markets. It needed to take the opportunity of having regional sales people on board, to unite in serving the customer.  Reporting results was no longer enough. The team needed to work together to solve problems, and deliver results itself. A real team rather than a working group.
  2. How can we learn to trust each other in responding to these issues together?  There was a fear that there may be a trust gap between the competence of sales and other functions (such as marketing, finance and product management) in working together globally to serve the customer. The old team of functional experts were concerned that the sales directors would be able to extricate themselves from the details of their markets to serve the broader needs of the organisation. The new regional sales directors were concerned that would get the opportunity to communicate their experience of the customer to others
  3. How do we create value in the way we communicate and collaborate together in the grey zone? There were a mounting number of pressing strategic issues that needed greater clarity and direction for the organisation to move forward such as the impact of online sales, and the growth of talent. However, there was a perception that decision-making was a key bottleneck in the team. The CEO team leader himself admitted to liking to take time to make decisions, weighing up the various options.  Perhaps partly linked to his Scandinavian roots, he enjoyed working in a consensus-style where opening up discussion supported greater commitment to the decisions finally made. His team-members trusted his judgement, but wanted him to be more decisive in leadership style.

In my experience these 3 questions are the biggest challenges of top teams in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world. How can a group of alpha-males and females pull together and build the repository of trust necessary to themselves create change, rather than depend on delegation to others? How can they get the best of speed with the best of commitment when making decisions?

One activity that we tried out in our opening two-day workshop – particularly linked to question 3 – was the testing of a decision-making process that could be incorporated in real team meetings.

Firstly, the team prioritised top two emerging issues that had implications for the success of the team moving forward, and could not be resolved by working within functional or geographical solos.

Secondly, two mixed groups of sales managers and functional heads were each given one of these issues to make a decision on using a 5-step discussion process and a time-limited meeting. Discussing in parallel in separate rooms, each then reported their ‘recommendations’ back to the team leader who took a decision in front of the whole team.

The 5-step process we agreed on was the following:

1. The team would together agree two ‘grey zones’ that most urgently needed discussing

2. For each grey zone chosen, the whole team would also need together to formulate a question to which the answer is the decision they need to make eg how do we handle differential pricing in the new world of online shopping?

3. The two whole leadership team of 12 people (minus the CEO) would be split into two groups, with each group discussing one of the issues. They would be allocated 45 minutes of real face-to-face problem-solving time to prepare a recommendation to the CEO. This meeting would involve the following steps:

  • Clarify the question – what are we helping our team to decide on?
  • Listen to each person, in turn expressing their ‘gut reactions’
  • Summarize the options we have
  • Listen to individual opinions about which option is best
  • Agree on our best possible recommendation to the CEO, based on consensus or split decision

4. Report recommendation back to the whole team  where the team leader makes the final decision, and it is recorded in a ‘decision log’

5. The team also agrees on how this decision is to be implemented and the results monitored.

The process proved a success. It seemed to help to create a sense of interdependence and draw on collective intelligence, but also supported the CEO and his colleagues in finding the faster speed of decision-making they required. 

People wanted to tweak the process slightly, but it was decided to keep going with it in future meetings.

TCO International specializes in accelerating the agility required to get higher performance in a VUCA world. In the next few blogs I would like to share other activities that I have applied to this and other top teams.

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Influencing Virtually

Our ability to influence colleagues in a virtual context depend to a large degree on three factors:

  1. The amount of ‘social capital’ we have accumulated in the ‘trust bank’ of the counterpart we are trying to influence.
  2. Appropriate use of the right channel (eg. email, call, telco, video conference, etc) to send the right message.
  3. An ability to match your approach with the expectations as well as the emotional and rational needs of your counterpart.

1.    Social capital in the trust bank

What I want from you to trust you may not be what you want from me for you to trust me. Therefore, other people can have a slightly different set of ‘high priority trust needs’ compared to what we would instinctively require ourselves – especially when socialized in diverse cultures. For example, high and low context preferences can have a strong impact on our perceptions that others are trustworthy or not. The lower context communicator may be looking for a clear match between what people say (making promises) and what they actually do (delivery on promises). On the other hand, higher context communicators may be looking more for an intrinsic investment in the relationship, for the sake of the relationship and beyond the short term requirements of the professional needs of our functional role. They may also be much more sensitive to reading between the lines in what people say and don’t say, and interpret comments in an email with a degree of paranoia if the relationship has not been carefully established previously.

Without trust we will always be cautious about the risk that others could take advantage of our weaknesses if we reveal them and if there is a communication breakdown, we are more likely to fill the gaps in understanding with negative interpretations of the other person’s intent towards us. On the other hand, if we have consolidated a strong basis of trust between us, even if we have a misunderstanding we would generally give the other person the benefit of the doubt when interpreting their intentions: “He’s just had a bad day – like we all have”.

In virtual contexts it is harder to know when there is a conflict ‘in the air’. With higher levels of trust people are more able to put uncomfortable issues on the table – so conflicts can be dealt with earlier before they fester and cause irretrievable breakdowns in relationships.

We can build our trust bank with others by doing the following:

–       Frame our own approach to others so that they understand where we are coming from – not just out of a black box. So, comment on your own style and how that might impact on others positively and negatively. Explain your context and why you are requesting what you are requesting and how it fits into a wider organisation context, set of practices or expected behaviors locally. For example in an email with a new counterpart who you suspect may have a higher context email style than your own you could say: “It’s typical for us here in country X to be pretty direct in giving feedback; people don’t take it personally and it helps put things on the table fast…but I see how it could appear a bit pushy”.

–       Deliver on Promises. When you promise – do it! Always. Never promising to do anything is not an alternative. Lead with fewer words about what you will do and more action. The quickest way to break trust is to promise and then not to deliver. But, of course, be careful that as a lower context communicator you haven’t forced the other higher context communicator into making a promise they can’t keep. Check the real constraints by asking something like: “what could impact on your ability to meet this promise…for example how supportive is your direct manager on this issue?” The second quickest way to break trust it to be known as someone who never commits to do anything! Both types of people are always full of complicated excuses….which we don’t really believe.

–       Extend trust to others. You have to give trust to get it. Incrementally extend your trust towards colleagues – adding 10% at a time. Most people want to deserve your trust. High trust increases the speed of work, increases motivation & energy and lowers costs. The organisation earns a trust dividend. Suffocating control through checking and double checking is the opposite of trust. Untrusting control slows everything down, reduces personal motivation & energy and increases costs. The organisation pays a trust tax.

–       Build openness. Admit mistakes. Doing it right first time is for the Emergency Room in hospitals; be humble. Encourage EVERYONE to speak up. Defend the quiet voices during teleconferences: their ideas are often valuable but lost; Share the larger organisational context you have access to with people. No one working in your organization is perfect. People close down with colleagues who are not confidently self-critical, but instead regularly blame others. Dominating and aggressive behavior (even when you have the excuse of ‘frustration’) when you have a bit of authority or informal influence is abusing power – again people shut down. Colleagues who don’t share their wider understanding of the organisation are seen as secretive.

2.    Matching appropriate channels

One of the biggest challenges of working in culturally diverse teams at a distance is gaining a sense of commonality around sensitive process issues such as the role of emails (who to cc, when to defer to a call, response time expectations), the choice of language, and appropriate etiquette in teleconferences. Creating ground rules, rather than allowing the (more powerful) cultural groups to go their own way, provides an opportunity for creating a project culture that can help build longer-term commitment. The simple process of allowing everyone to be heard on their preferences both sensitizes the group to diverse needs and allows people to feel heard which makes it easier to commit to any decisions made.

Insights into the high and low context preferences of your colleagues can build your sensitivity to whether an email is enough or if it’s time to pick up the phone. So ensure that there is a healthy and culturally sensitive balance between focusing on task and relationship-building within a project.

Review the channels of communication you have available to you and what you will need to face (key tasks, issues such as using these channels). See example below from our book on Managing Challenges across cultures – a multicultural project team toolbox. This is the output from a team in the review stage of our Communication Audit Tool. Part 1 of the tool helps teams to be sensitive to how well they are presently managing the technology mix and how to improve their use of the channels available.

3.    Matching expectation and needs

Knowing what culturally different (or simply different) colleagues expect and need from you in a virtual project is a prerequisite for a key aspect of trust. The perception that others are exchanging information with each other proactively is key to this. A simple thing to do is simply to ask them.

  • “What do you expect and need from me on this project for you to contribute yourself at the highest level?”
  • “Where do you need more or less involvement/information/support from me?”
  • “Can you explain why this is so important for you (in your context)?”

If everyone did this with the various stakeholders in the early stages (eg. using a teleconference or sending round a questionnaire), about 50% of misunderstandings and misjudgments could be avoided in virtual project work. Sometimes people simply don’t know what others need – or if they do, they don’t understand why they need it, and so are demotivated to put them at the top of their agenda.

Another approach to match needs and expectations is on the HOW side rather than the WHAT or content side. Generally we feel more positively disposed to support people who can synchronize their own style of communicating with our own (eg. high or low context; emotional or neutral; logical or intuitive). So, as long as you are not compromising your ultimate goals and personal beliefs, focus on mirroring and matching the style of your colleagues. Not monkeying, but simple softening your own default style which seems to be in direct contrast to theirs. You may be surprised that a small ‘adjustment’ in your own style can completely change the chemistry of the relationship…and make the substantive issues more easily dealt with.

Influencing is a key part of our series of open Global Agility programs. Take a sampler of our Influencing Agility Questionnaire and get an insight into your own default approach to an essential skill to thrive in today’s complex, networked and multi-stakeholder organizations.

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