Diagnosing systemic issues in senior teams

Dealing with issues in senior teams is challenging: how can those responsible for learning and development suggest there’s an issue? And how can they ensure that senior leaders buy into what’s being asked of them, instead of just going through the motions? When your coach, facilitator or learning and development provider departs and the positive changes evaporate into thin air it creates a palpable sense of frustration – and serves as evidence to the doubters that L&D just doesn’t work!

It’s a variant on a familiar story that we at Farscape have heard many times. Commitment to and ‘buy-in’ from those at the very top are critical factors. It’s vital too that a thorough diagnostic process is undertaken to establish exactly what needs to be addressed – often it’s not what seems most obvious. Ultimately, it comes down to will. Senior leadership teams are made up of real people and, like anyone else, if they don’t want to change, they won’t. If specific outcomes are to be achieved, the entire process, from diagnosis to completion, requires more than just lip service.

Group dynamics 

The phrase ‘a group of individuals’ may sound clichéd, yet it often rings true for senior leadership teams. Interactions at the top of the business influence the rest of the organisation. Yet leaders can be so preoccupied with their own area of the business that the ‘team’ element gets side-lined.

There are many reasons for this. Disengagement and lack of connection are common; scrolling through emails or tapping away at a laptop in the boardroom indicate that people are not really in the room. Egos and the need to save face or put on a front get in the way too, which leads to a lack of transparency among colleagues.

Everyday business demands have a big impact; pressure from external stakeholders significantly narrows the focus of the senior team, to the detriment of everything but outcomes and financial performance. When the board get together under this climate, interrogative patterns begin to emerge: why has this result been sub-par? Or, why has this outcome taken longer to achieve? Constantly having to answer to this line of questioning can lead individuals to be defensive. Moreover, these concerns cloud the real issue of team dysfunction and distract them from addressing the underlying problem.

Leading from the front

The senior team has to change first as their influence over the business dictates everything. If unproductive patterns of behaviour continue, this will permeate through the whole business and have far-reaching negative effects. The first port of call is helping those at the ship’s wheel to realise that it’s they who have steered the vessel into choppy seas.

Bringing this to light prevents business leaders from maintaining the convenient, and far more comfortable, pretence that the problem lies elsewhere. The recognition of one’s own shortcomings, then those of your team, is an unapologetically vulnerable experience. For directors and business leaders that have forged their whole career by being the way they are, this is often extremely difficult and uncomfortable. And while the discomfort is real, it’s necessary to resolve issues.

If individuals and the group can allow themselves to do this, the results can be transformative: firstly, by exposing themselves to uncomfortable experiences and being vulnerable as a senior team, they are leading by example. The saying that ‘the only person’s behaviour you can change is your own’ is familiar to L&D practitioners, and for good reason. Changing their own actions exerts a positive influence on the behaviour of everyone else in the organisation. Secondly, if issues are patched up elsewhere, without first addressing those at the top, the time, money and effort spent on development is wasted: when staff look to their leaders, the situation will be just as before.

Diagnosing issues: the how and why

The end benefits of working with a senior team are clear: improved function at the highest level and across the organisation. However, it’s the groundwork and the commitment to the ensuing hard graft that can make or break the success of a programme. There are several reasons why a diagnosis is vital before work can begin:

  • Recognising the terrain: You can’t plan an expedition into the wilderness without first knowing what you’ll be up against: mountains, snow, a desert, or rainforest. Each scenario demands different things. Likewise, it’s impossible to address issues in a senior team without first establishing what they are.
  • Reconnaissance provides key knowledge: Allowing L&D providers the time and space to carry out a diagnosis equips them with the insight to formulate a coherent strategy. They can anticipate obstacles and put measures in place to overcome them.
  • Realism is the key to success: Both provider and client need to be realistic about what can be achieved. That means open conversations around budget, time available and what the intended outcome is.

The skill of the L&D practitioner is pivotal; from guiding senior, experienced business people to recognise their faults, to having the conviction to put in place a diagnostic process instead of ‘just getting on with it.’ Informing the subsequent programme, the diagnostic process works as follows:

  • The L&D provider must observe the situation and carry out in-depth conversations with individuals and the group in order to build a picture of what’s happening. Often things that are unspoken emerge in private as being very important.
  • Coaching is one way to gather this information, detailed psychometric analysis is another way to reveal the traits of individuals. This paints a picture of how the team functions – and areas where it could function more effectively.
  • The skill of the L&D professional lies in relaying the findings to the group in a way that allows all to be heard. By illustrating where the team is weak, and acknowledging that this is no one person’s fault, commitment to change from all can be obtained and the group can move forward.

During the observation, it’s crucial that the L&D professional doesn’t allow themselves to be influenced by what the group says needs attention. This feedback can be useful but often masks underlying issues.

Taking down the wall of defensiveness brick by brick 

It’s not uncommon for Farscape to encounter rebuttals such as ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ or ‘We’re fine, the problem is with X.’ This defensive brushing aside of issues is a product of team dysfunction: the preference for saving face over openness and honesty, departmental distractions and a response to pressure to produce results. It creates a vicious circle, as constantly having to ward off criticism and defend your decisions and actions is draining and often leads to the boardroom having very negative associations for individuals, to the extent that defensive behaviours become ingrained; it’s simply the way things are.

Vulnerability enables open, frank and productive dialogue. It’s the thread on which the diagnosis hangs: secret beliefs that it’s everyone else’s responsibility to change may well be harboured by team members and threaten to undermine the programme. However, if these thoughts are brought to the surface during the diagnosis, it’s a starting point that has an evidential basis informed by honest opinions, which everybody can then take stock of, as opposed to a series of competing hidden agendas. A diagnosis lays out the blueprints. Building a stable, sound and lasting structure is ultimately decided by the openness, will and commitment of those with the tools.

Business leaders that commit to change and are willing to get their hands dirty. Sound too good to be true? Join our webinar on Friday 22nd June to hear why it’s not such a distant reality.

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