Mind the gaps

26 04 2011

Spent a very profitable evening listening to Prof Peter Hawkins speak to “Coaching Leadership Teams” at the Civil Service College the other evening. Crystallised all kinds of things for me, with a mixture of experience, wisdom and useful models.

One recurrent theme was the notion of learning to lead in, and to manage, the gaps: the gaps between team members; the gaps between units within an organisation; the gaps between board and executive directors and unit management; and so on.

Why does this matter? For the same reason that sending people on endless individual training sessions doesn’t help them be better team contributors; and why buying team-building by the yard is unlikely to impact team performance. In other words, understanding that team performance can only be understood in relation to the gap between the team and the interests and ambitions of the team’s stakeholders; and that it is the transactions and purposeful interactions between people on the team – not whether they treat each other more thoughtfully or like each other better – that impact the ability of the team to satisfy its stakeholders.

If that sounds a little instrumental, think from the perspective of the manager. Most people become managers because of their expertise in solving stand-alone problems, not complex interactions. So when they manage individuals, they do just that; they treat each individual as a distinct performance issue. The problem is of course that when they go for their own appraisal they may well find that having a team of high performers is not the same as having a high performing team. If they then buy in a metric tonne of team-building, all that happens is that their collection of high performing people now communicate better, trust each other more, invite each other’s input and so on. Unfortunately, until they learn to take collective responsibility for what their stakeholders want, they still won’t be a team, let alone a high performing one.

In this context, understanding the impact of individual and collective perspectives and perceptions is critical. Whether you manage the gaps by a lowest-common-denominator approach – finding ways of aligning disparate selfish interests – or by a more inspirational “great common endeavour” approach, understanding what “the gaps” model really means in your situation requires that you can identify fully with the perspectives involved. You can convince yourself that a more appreciative mode of communication makes a difference in your weekly team meeting but it doesn’t cut the mustard when you are explaining to your stakeholders that the plan is going to have to change. In fact, it doesn’t really cut the mustard in most team meetings either, even if people are too polite to say so. (In this respect Birkman is once again solid gold; equipping leaders and managers with objective data on what actually matters to people, how they will frame goals as well as success itself, etc etc)

I am probably overstating a perspective to make it stick, and I absolutely believe that treating people without respect disqualifies a leader; but behaving well isn’t enough. A leader has a responsibility to lead “us” on a shared endeavour to a place where we can know that we have succeeded; and that is what makes a leader responsible for understanding what that means for each player and leveraging the interplay of those ambitions.

Mind the gaps!

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