Why developing your senior team is difficult, but vital, and how to do it well

An organisation’s culture is set by the behaviours of the senior team. These are the people with years of experience, a wealth of knowledge and the vision, passion and drive your organisation forward. But arguably this is also where you can find the biggest egos and personalities and where people are most likely to have their own agendas. And this can often result in senior team dysfunction, discord and ineffective working. In turn this can filter down throughout the organisation, resulting in distrust and a lack of respect for the senior leaders, and culture where these behaviours are the norm. The senior team need to take a step back, recognise the impact they are having, and agree to change.

When it is so vital for senior leaders to be working together and modelling the way, why don’t they? And what can we do to help them get there?

What gets in the way of developing the senior team?

Habits are hard to break. Senior leaders have spent a long time doing what they do, and it’s got them this far, so it’s understandable that they might not see the need, or have the willingness to change. They may outright refuse to undertake any training, or if they do, they are likely to be disengaged and they won’t learn anything new.

Additionally, at the senior level there is often a negative attitude to learning and development. Results from the 2015 CIPD L&D survey suggest that many L&D professionals suffer at the hands of senior management teams who don’t grasp the true purpose and capability of L&D. Perhaps because they have seen so many learning initiatives that haven’t worked over the years, they are disenfranchised with the whole thing and don’t think that there is anything out there that would be of use to them. Many senior teams lack the knowledge about what L&D can achieve when used proactively to develop an organisation, rather than when it is merely used as a quick fix to react to current problems. This lack of knowledge often contributes to the constraints and lack of resources that many L&D functions experience.

If an unhealthy attitude towards L&D exists at the top of the business, then avoiding the issue of creating development programmes for senior management creates a closed and negative cycle.

And then there’s the time issue. It is so often the case the senior people believe themselves to be ‘too busy’ for development work. This means that even when L&D departments do manage to deliver some development for senior leaders, they are often backed into a corner where they allow themselves to design a quick fix or watered down version. Anything that is pulled together rapidly, or overly pared down, is unlikely to have any lasting impact and will not generate the lasting behavioural changes needed. Worse, the programme will then be regarded as a waste of time, thus enhancing the senior leaders’ limiting belief that L&D is ineffectual.

Why is it so important to try to change this?

One reason is because it’s important how L&D itself is perceived in the business. If an unhealthy attitude towards L&D exists at the top of the business, then truly effective development programmes never see the light of day. The unhealthy attitude increases as less effective development programmes are delivered, creating a closed and negative cycle where L&D end up lacking the resources they need and the whole organisation receives poor training.

The other reason is because the culture of the business is at risk. If the leaders of the business have a false sense of harmony, rather than genuine harmony, if they are not willing to hold each other to account to achieve the mutual goals, if they allow their egos to get in the way of working towards the common goals, then this will have a negative impact on the rest of the business. These behaviours might filter down, and it can lead to a lack of respect for leaders and colleagues – if people see that their leaders can’t work together, why should they respect them and work hard for them?

It falls to HR and L&D leaders to challenge this. They need be brave and use their own influencing and communication skills to challenge this viewpoint and demonstrate why it is imperative that they start from the top.

So what would a senior intact team development programme involve?

One technique to really affect change at that senior level is to create a programme that focuses on ‘me, us and them’. It’s a way of structuring a programme to enable leaders to initially look at their own behaviours and understand why they behave in the way they do. Then to look at how they work better together as a team, and then look at the impact they have on the wider company.

Creating this programme is about focusing on the senior leaders as individuals first and enabling them to see the impact they have on others. It is about creating an experience that raises leaders’ conscious awareness of who they are, how they behave, how they communicate with and relate to others and what their personal impact is. And then to understand why they do it. This involves the exploration of personality, values, beliefs and bias and emotional intelligence.

With greater consciousness comes greater choice and behavioural flexibility. This allows leaders to take control of and be responsible for their own behaviours.

So how can you do this?

  • Plan a programme that incorporates deep psychological assessment with opportunities for leaders to explore and make sense of this information.
  • Ensure that the programme doesn’t hide behind ‘content’. If people are learning models rather than focusing on their behaviour and impact, it’s too easy for them to opt-out and be passengers on the development programme.
  • Ensure you have facilitators who are experienced coaches; who understand how to agitate and probe; who won’t get side-tracked down a rabbit hole by bright, assertive people. Be absolutely committed to creating a development experience, which holds up the mirror to people, however uncomfortable they might find it.
  • Above all, hold onto the knowledge that without this uncomfortable journey of self-discovery, senior leaders won’t change as they won’t perceive the need to change.

With greater consciousness comes greater choice and behavioural flexibility. This allows leaders to take control of and be responsible for their own behaviours.

The programme then needs to focus on ‘us’ as a team – how the senior team can work better together. This is about creating opportunities to practice behaviours together and reflect on learning. It is also vitally important to adopt an approach that will foster a higher degree of openness. Leaders need to be encouraged to be more curious about themselves and others. They need to be willing to be vulnerable (which is the source of creativity, change and innovation). It’s no easy task to admit weaknesses or deeply held beliefs in front of your peers at any level, let alone at a senior level. But if leaders are going to work better together they need to have that deep understanding of each other. The programme needs to provide a safe psychological space, where there is no fear of judgement or ridicule from others and where leaders are encouraged to show self-compassion as well.

This leads to the next step of focusing on ‘them’ – the rest of the organisation and the impact senior leaders can have on the wider company. This step is about understanding how to lead by example and inspire, but most importantly to show their human side to the rest of the organisation and empower others. The work on being vulnerable and open with each other should help leaders to feel able to be open and vulnerable with the rest of the organisation. This is vital to gaining trust and respect. Too often leaders feel they need to put on a façade and have all the answers. The ability for a leader to admit that they don’t have the answers and that they need help from others is incredibly empowering to those that they are asking the help from. This empowerment leads to greater fulfilment and well-being within teams. Additionally, people do not trust others when they can sense that they are being fake or putting on a facade. For leaders to inspire trust in their teams, and therefore the loyalty that comes from trust. They must be truly authentic.


It is true that delivering this type of programme for senior leaders is no easy feat. It requires time out of the office for leaders to genuinely disconnect from work, to stop and reflect and do quality thinking. It requires leaders to be vulnerable and open to change and to challenge, which they may find extremely uncomfortable.

If you can persuade them, however, that as a leader it is vital that they are open to this development, you might just see the type of culture that most L&D leaders can only dream of blossoming in your own organisation.

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