Real Team Energy

A divisional leadership team in a knowledge intensive services firm moves into double digit growth with widening profit margins while peer divisional teams, no less talented, in no less promising markets, falter. Staff are engaged, clients are excited, all sorts of market breakthroughs are being made, but nobody on the leadership team seems particularly tired or stretched. There’s not a lot of visible leadership from the front, the right moves and the right decisions just seem to, well, happen. Everybody – peers, staff, team members themselves – say this is a great team; and it’s true that they meet religiously for two hours on a Friday, and go on a day’s retreat once a quarter … but nothing seems to get decided per se at their weekly meeting, and there isn’t much in the way of strategy sessions or team building exercises at their retreats, just rather intense free flowing discussions. There is a team leader but she seems to say little at the weekly meetings. The team does have a team coach who joins them for the retreats but he seems strangely uninvolved in much of their discussions. The good business results keep rolling in. What’s going on?

There’s an old saw that says that the best way to learn something is to try and teach it. Currently we and other colleagues at Sheppard Moscow are working with senior teams in half a dozen or more global household name companies; but, as is so often the case, it was only when the two of us were recently asked to run a workshop on ‘group facilitation and team coaching’ for the internal team coaches in one of the ‘Big 4’ professional services firms, did we pause to think again about ‘what is it that we are really doing when we’re coaching senior teams, and what are senior leaders doing when they are successfully leading their teams?

The easy answer, or perhaps our old answer, might be that we’re developing their capacity to make better decisions together through the experience of working through substantive ‘live’ issues in new and more effective ways. We’d reference the art and science that lies behind this: the arts of facilitation and coaching; the social psychology of teams – and maybe mention some of the battery of techniques, diagnostic instruments, and underlying frames we keep in our kitbags.

But recent conversations with Peter Hawkins – the doyen of systemic team coaching – have caused us to have new thoughts about familiar practices. Peter emphasises that teams only exist in relationship to their purposes; and that the despite the great variety of team purposes, every team has the same basic work to do together if they are to be effective and high performing. Of course, so far so familiar, every model of team effectiveness lays out some essentials and most team coaches and many experienced senior team leaders have their own working modelling that’s their personal mash-up of these generic elements.

What’s different though is the systemic frame … when we think of it energetically. How do we connect all the available, but often stuck, energy that the team could have … to all the energy, often variously directed, that the whole system has – so as to galvanize the team and through it the whole system to greater effectiveness and business performance? And what is the role of the team coach or team leader in this?

Those of us influenced by the gestalt tradition often focus on the mobilisation of energy and understand the importance in team coaching and in team leadership of presence, of negative capability – being ok with not knowing, not acting, and of being confident in making both provocative and evocative interventions, while working with intra- and inter-personal, team and system dynamics. But working with human dynamics in such ways can often seem daunting - more alchemy and mystery than art or science – and so the temptation is to fall back on techniques that seem to achieve similar effects but whose full underlying potency may be hidden from us.

So it is here, at this point, we have to get serious – and very disciplined - as team coaches, as team leaders; about emotional intelligence, about group dynamics, about intentionality. There is a way to mobilise team energy in service of team purpose and it requires self-awareness, confident interventions, and the right stance. The way we do it in Sheppard Moscow for instance is with an unwavering attention to group climate, subtle but lightly held processes, while maintaining a clear line of sight to business outcomes, with a clear commitment to enabling others to do the work they need to do, yet intervening authoritatively where helpful.

And at the heart of this is good consulting skills: engaging, really listening to the system, joint diagnostics, co-learning with the client, …

Why does this work? Because human energy is mobilised for something and around something, and our energy stems from our humanity and from our inherent human ‘group’ish-ness’.

For example, a team, may confirm its ‘co-mission’ by really listening to what their world is calling to them to do, and then listening carefully to their own hearts … For example, the same team may struggle to clarify its unique collective endeavour - the thing that only they together can do on behalf of the system - then struggle even more to surface and name the competing hidden commitments that persistently hold them back from executing on that collective endeavour and from co-creating their future … For example, the team may be unaware of the need to connect their passion and concerns to the very different preoccupations of others who are critical stakeholders in their mission,  and they may feel strangely indifferent, even sub-consciously hostile, and avoid connection, to others who are in reality key system interfaces … For example, the team may overcome all this and learn to trust itself to learn and challenge itself to exceptional performance, once they experience their own potency in practice and in their gut …

Going back to our divisional leadership team, the team coach has been teasingly accused of ‘jedi mind tricks’ by the team, the team leader has been has been accused of being lucky, brilliant, and a smooth operator – but mainly the team feel they’ve done it all themselves. And they have.

Johnny Kelleher, Partner, & Anita Harris, Managing Partner, April 2016

4 May 2016

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