Tears averted: working with top teams

people - Top Team picTI Tom Irvine announces details of the LF’s new working with executive teams project.

Here’s what two team members said some years ago during one-to-one interviews I carried out during a top team facilitation of a very senior civil service team (all 7 team members in the Top 200 of the civil service):

“I am writing everything down that John (the team leader) says and I am going to use it to garrotte him.”

“I will park my tanks on his grass and see what he has to say about it.”

The joys of working with top teams!

That particular team had a number of firsts for me. It was the first (only, actually) team for which I banged the boardroom table with my fist and made the tea cups bounce and rattle. I was sitting at the head of the boardroom table and two of the alpha males in the team were on their feet leaning over the table pointing fingers at each other. We were having a discussion about ‘conflict’ in the team. Just as the tea cups stopped rattling all team members looked over at me with some surprise. I surprised myself actually – that awful moment where there is no going back. I reminded the team that I was only contracted to work with them up until that lunchtime and that if they didn’t stop behaving like prize fighters then I would walk away and leave them to it.

It was also the first time that one of the team members – during my initial introductory whole-team briefing meeting – interrupted me just after I had said “Well good morning everybody. My name is Tom Irvine and I am going to be working with you to …” His words will stay with me forever:

“Tom, can I just stop you there. Did you know that the last consultant who worked with us left during the first morning in tears? And so did some of my colleagues round the table.”

I replied that I did realise that. His follow up was intended as a killer blow:

“So what are you going to do that is different?”

Needless to say that it was a very (very) challenging team to work with. I spent nine days in total working with the team leader as a coach, working through issues with the whole team, and conducting one-to-one interviews with each team member.

About four days in, following the first set of one-to-one interviews, we had a second whole-team review session. We were at the same boardroom table and I started by saying something like “good morning everybody …”  The guy who had previously interrupted me with the “consultant left in tears” nugget interrupted me again. My first thought was to ask for a new set of brown corduroys to be brought from the locker. He then went on to say:

“Tom, I’d just like to say at the outset that I am prepared to change my behaviour in this team if others are.”

Relief! Progress! They would pay my invoice after all!

I’m now working with executive teams in universities as part of my role at the Leadership Foundation. I’m not expecting to be faced with tanks on lawns and black books full of garrotting plans when working with VCs and their teams. The VCs that I am working with are very positive people who want to do their best to support their teams. The issue with executive teams is always their ability to connect strategy with implementation, and how to engage that next layer with the delivery of the strategy.

We have teamed up with the Real World Group to develop an higher education-specific top team diagnostic that will help the executive team review its effectiveness. We are using this as either a “Top Team 180” (where we get feedback from the executive team members themselves, external stakeholder groups, as well as upward feedback from direct reports) or as a “Top Team 360” where we also add in feedback from the university’s governing body. Early feedback about the process is very positive. It is a pilot process at this stage, and if your university executive team wants to get involved then get in touch. I promise to leave your tea cups intact!
Tom Irvine is the Leadership Foundation’s director of consultancy, contact him at tom.irvine [at] lfhe.ac.uk