Is now the time for a new story?

June 10, 2020
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Senior Team Effectiveness

Some years ago, when virtual teaming was a fad rather than a necessity, I happened to come across a doctoral thesis on virtual teams. After three years of sweat and toil, the erstwhile student had summed up their work with the phrase “distance amplifies dysfunction”. My immediate reaction was that it seemed a blindingly obvious conclusion; however, as we now move into an uncertain but hopefully post-COVID world, “distance amplifies dysfunction” keeps bubbling back into my consciousness. We have all experienced distance in some way—being physically apart, psychologically disconnected, divested from our old regimes and habits, or separated from customers, clients, and for some of us, reality! So, have we experienced the worst of the dysfunction, or is there more to come?

It is clear when we look across our client base that many are moving out of crisis mode and looking for new opportunities that have emerged during the pandemic as they consider a post-COVID future. CEOs and executive teams are feverishly working to prepare for this new order by conducting after-action reviews and scenario planning strategies, processes, structures, and talent requirements. While speed is of the essence, many are holding back, feeling it is too early to pivot and change direction because more data is needed. Nevertheless, there is something senior executive teams should be doing—using this time of enforced distancing to look at their own ability to work as a team and forensically analyze their own performance, surfacing any signs of dysfunction and laying the foundation for success going forward. It is what we call helping teams live and understand their new story.

Helping to define a new story

When considering executive teams, what distinguishes a good team from the highest performing team is their ability to define what they do, how they do it, who they are, and why this is important. The words what, how, who, and why may be simple, but they act as a powerful compass pointing the way to superior performance.

Having a compass is essential in unchartered waters, but as any seafaring person knows, there is a constant need to make shifts and adjustments based on the wind. We are arguably now in one of the biggest storms of a generation, and executive teams are needing to move like never before, quickly learning the lessons of the past few months and shaping a new story that prepares them for the challenges ahead. Here are some of the questions to consider when helping top teams shape their new story.

The What is the work of the team and how it is changing.

  • Have our priorities changed? Just as importantly, what has not changed and needs to be reinforced? Teams should be all over this, but the lens has narrowed, and while hunkering down in crisis mode, it can be easy to lose sight and alignment on what is really important; in particular, focusing on the mid-to-long-term priorities. Using a simple straw poll, on Zoom, for example, can reveal if there is alignment and clarity on the priorities and also whether there is the confidence that the priorities will drive success.
  • Is the team fit for purpose? As executive teams look forward, it would be beneficial to examine what talent emerged in the group. Where did a lack of experience and knowledge expose the team and was there a lack of capability? One way to do this is to see where the team needed to leverage advisors internally or externally. Will this skillset be needed in the future?
  • Are the team aligned around a shared agenda and how is this changing? The shared agenda should drive where the team invests its time and energy. A good example is safety and employee well-being. This has now catapulted up the priority list and firmly sits with the executive team, yet many executive teams see this as HR’s responsibility and are either not aligned or do not give it the time and space in the agenda that it deserves.

The How is the team operating together (their written and unwritten operating principles)—how it makes decisions, how often it meets, how it gives feedback, and how it manages itself when there is pressure. The general consensus is that, despite the amount of Zoom fatigue (yes, this is now a recognized condition), teams are fully embracing virtual working. However, there are important questions to consider in this regard.

  • What are teams learning about decision-making? One client had been discussing a global platform for two years and had never moved beyond stifling debates. Then the crisis struck, and it moved ahead in two weeks. Every organization has examples like this. Spend time unpacking these obstacles to the decision-making process in your company, identify how decision-making authority changes, and determine how to implement better processes that can make a real difference in the future.
  • In what ways do the team norms need to change? Operating in a virtual environment is changing the way we run our meetings; however, a broader discussion on the written and unwritten rules of the team and how have they been demonstrated can still prove enlightening. With one of my clients, their norm of scrutiny—when overzealously applied—created a culture of holding back bad news. They soon realized that in times of uncertainty, innovation and opportunities are often borne out of such information. Also, if new norms are agreed upon, watch for old habits creeping back in and not being checked or pointed out.
  • Is the team open and candid with their feedback? This is not a strong muscle for many teams, especially executive teams; however, giving the space for reflection and the opportunity to share feedback, particularly under these unprecedented times, is a powerful way to build trust. Strangely and hopefully, we are now finding that working virtually with teams, people are more likely to share direct, tougher feedback by video!

The Who is the people that make up the team. It relates to the team dynamics, the personality and cognitive styles of the team, and the culture they create. Everyone on the team will have been impacted in some way by distance, so giving people the chance to get in touch with this, without making assumptions, is key.

  • Take time for personal reflection. Ask team members to share their own personal journey during the pandemic and how it will shape them going forward. Having the group share this with each other is a powerful tool to re-establish and build a deep level of trust. It also provides a library of stories that can be used to motivate others in the organization.
  • Look to harness conflict in a positive way in order to leverage tension that drives different perspectives. We know high-performing teams are good at this, being adept at harnessing tension to drive vociferous debate. As teams return, they need to guard against the metaphorical “group hug” for managing the crisis and “smoothing over cracks”, when in reality, it is the cracks that will help identify opportunities for change.
  • Take the opportunity to articulate and define the culture of the team that is needed post-pandemic. There are heroes in all parts of the organization and within the team that exemplify agility, resilience, and a “no surprise” culture. It is important to call these behaviors out and be clear about the culture you want to create.

The Why is the philosophical heartbeat—why the things we are doing are important and what binds the team together. Often teams confuse this with delivering on the strategy when it is actually much more than just a goal.

  • Agree on the team’s purpose. It should resonate with the team and feel inspired. For many, the current environment has led them to question their own purpose, which is a great springboard to open the discussion. Purpose-led leadership is needed now more than ever.
  • Articulate the why of the team to others. As Simon Sinek says, people do not buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

Helping teams move from an old story to a news story is not a new exercise, but in the current environment where so much is unknown and changing, this helps executive teams focus on the one thing that is in their control—themselves.

Simon Callow
Simon Callow is a senior partner at RHR International, managing the firm’s international operations with affiliates in Europe and Asia.