Foundations of Executive Team Development – Thoughts for Challenging Team Building Exercises

Having held officer level positions in a few industries: airline, leisure travel, internet, convention, and defense oriented industries, I have participated in and hired consultants to help conduct “team building” exercises; the operative word is-exercises. There are a lot of moving parts to any successful team building exercise.

Let’s take a look at Executive Team Building as a subset of the generic team building exercise. Officer level managers require a whole different approach to Executive Team Building. Here are some thoughts on why senior manager team building is difficult. I have found officer level managers arrive at their positions for three reasons: they are part of a family business; their persona and experiences match a corporate leadership culture (often characterized also as-who you know); and/or, they have skills (achieved through education or former positions) that are needed to fix a problem such as a manufacturing problem. Point being, everyone arrives at the officer level by different and sometimes circuitous methods. By this point-in-time, people’s management styles and personality traits are developed and tested: what you see is what you get. Even this perspective is sliced a little thinner by the way we are wired. For example, engineers approach management from a different perspective than a marketing person. Junior members of a company are much more malleable in shaping their views and are motivated to demonstrate that they are team players.

The title structure of a company may be Senior VP, Executive VP, President, etc., depending on the size of the company. Whatever the hierarchy, the pointy end of the pyramid is very competitive and therefore has far reaching effects on shaping each manager’s attitudes toward their peers. Additionally, senior managers develop a persona within their respective industries that can last a career lifetime. The projection of an industry persona becomes important should a manager feel their career is becoming stagnant and they want to explore career changes.

The point here is that Executive Team Building is really Executive Team Meeting. At senior levels in an executive’s career, he/she has traits that a CEO must recognize and manage through “performance evaluation” tools and not Executive Team Building/Meetings. Team Building is not about shaping relationships between peers. When there is a small cadre of senior manager’s, personality types are evident to all. The politics in these environments can be exacerbated to a level that makes “passive aggression” becomes an art form and Team Meetings are not a cure.

Here is a short case study to illustrate my point of reference.

A few years ago I was part of a growing company in a very dynamic industry. All the officers were A-type personalities and very ambitious to achieve recognition within the industry and by the corporate owner. All were hard driving, creative, highly educated. The senior management ran the age gambit from very young to more experienced and were both male and female. Because this was a very young company, the “charter members” of the senior management team resented new senior manager’s coming into their ranks having not “paid their dues” and fitting into the culture. Most of these managers would minimize a peer on the team rather than let them excel in their respective position (if that someone were competing for the next CEO position).

To solve the problem an organizational psychologist was brought in to get the team working together. The team took a battery of tests and did personal interviews with the psychologist. The results of the tests were reviewed individually with the participants and a team meeting was held to discuss the dynamics at play within the team. Bottom line, it was not a success; probably for the same reasons General’s Patton, Bradley and Montgomery were always at odds-a group of over-achievers with juxtaposed ego’s and the next promotion.

But not all is for naught. Even personal animus within a team may be addressed as long as it is not addressed in a manner that is in the category of “manipulation”. Executive Team Building is not training; rather it is communicating.

Not all meeting or team building programs are for large companies. Most companies in the US fall into the category of family owned or small businesses and they have team building requirements. Further, Team Building is part of a total event. The dynamics of a small group of senior managers is different in purpose and form versus larger groups.

So I can make a point, let’s assume some or all of the above comments are correct.

Every leader knows, events must be well defined and that also applies Executive Team Building exercise as part of the overall meeting objectives. Simply said, lay out the objectives of a Team Building exercise in succinct language. Not in an esoteric manner.

Executive Team Building meetings fill a threefold purpose: 1. communicate high level corporate issues to the executive team, 2. address relationship issues within the team, and 3. work on leadership messaging at target the rank and file employee. Executive Team Building should also be customer focused. Customers and vendors always have input in management speaking with a team voice. A positive corporate culture will always impress the customer.

Executive Team Building should not be looked upon as a mind game or an effort by the CEO/President to create a “can’t we all just get along” executive camp out. At the least it should provide clear goals, agreement of effectively communicating to the company and impart confidence to the organization.

In a small organization with a dynamic senior management cadre, it is the CEO who must keep check on executives who could bring more liabilities than credits to the desired performance of the company. As a company changes due to: the economy, competition, maturity of the market, changes in management, or simply because of new corporate structure, the CEO who must look at his charges and make sure they are all pulling in the right direction.

Uncertain times seems to dictate that very small companies should pay attention to the workings of the executive team and use the Executive Team Building exercise as a “sanity check”. I prefer to use the term-Executive Team Meet: A time to sync-up, renew the relationships, discuss and re-enforce. Remember, Tem Building for executives should not be over used…so make each one special.

Here is where a meeting manager/consultant comes to the forefront-amplifying the experience from the head to the heart. What kinds of activities are available in any venue to support the objectives of the Executive Team Meeting? Recognize that Wine Country is the focus? Think beyond the traditional golf events, or dinners. You can take advantage of hot air ballooning, wine blending for a corporate holiday customer gift, cave dinners, a painting experience, culinary exercises, high profile guest speakers, etc.

Executive Team Building/Meeting is about communication, formatting the message to the employees, unifying the strengths of the team and most importantly, presenting a vital company persona to vendors and customers.

Team Building Exercises – Choosing the Right One

When a prospective new client calls us up and expresses an interest in team building, we ask a simple question – what do you want to achieve out of it? You might be surprised at how many people don’t have an answer. After a short pause, we might get a reply along the lines of “well, we want it to be fun…” and then it tails off again.

If you don’t know what you want from a team building event, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get it. Of course, you might get lucky and hit upon the right activity to deliver the outcomes you needed even if you didn’t realise that you wanted them at the time. You might win the lottery next week as well – but it is probably best not to plan for it though. Ah – “plan”. Now there’s an idea…

All good plans start with the desired end result. What is it that you are trying to achieve? Before you select a team building activity, you probably want to have two types of goal – session and longer term. The latter should help make it plain where the former sits in the development process. That is, a team building session needs to be happening for a reason and have a defined role in moving you towards what you are trying to achieve overall. The session goals should be measurable and understood by the team’s management, the team and the activity provider. That is, a team building session needs to achieve its part in the development process.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the activity itself yet. That’s because choosing it comes last on the checklist. Once you know what you want it to achieve, then you can set about finding the activity that best delivers against your criteria. Yet all too often people start with an idea of what they want to do rather than what they want to achieve.

For example, a surprisingly common opening comment to us is “In a previous job I went on a treasure hunt and I think it’d be good for my new team to do the same”. When asked “why?”, the answer is usually “well, it was fun”. That’s fine if fun is the only thing that you are looking for, but it seems such a waste when it is possible to combine fun with something that also has a point to it. Something that improves the team rather than just placates it.

If we ask “would you like to bring the whole team closer together?” and the answer is affirmative then an activity that is naturally competitive such as a treasure hunt strikes us as a bad idea. Similarly, taking people to naturally individual activities such as quad-biking or clay pigeon shooting isn’t the best way to illustrate how to make the team more effective.

So what are the key elements in selecting the right activity? My experience suggests the following four components:

1) It should be relevant to the group. For example, if the team is office based, they will struggle to see the relevance of climbing mountains back in the workplace – as much as they might enjoy it.

2) It should require the same kind of skill sets and team approaches that are necessary for the group’s real work. For example, if you want a team to develop their decision-making skills to improve their effectiveness at work, it needs to have strong elements of decision-making within it.

3) It should be fully inclusive. That is, all team members need to be enthused by the activity. Activities are sometime chosen by a clique within the team to their own preferences and this can actually split a team rather than build it if their idea of heaven is one or more colleagues’ vision of hell.

4) It should have a proven track record in delivering the kind of outcomes that you are looking to achieve. Or you need to trust the deliverer implicitly if it is a new activity.

Now that sounds like the makings of a plan.