Teams In the Squeeze

Sep 13, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

People in a Blur by Brandon Hoover

All of the leaders I work with believe in “the power of the team”—at least in principle. However, in practice, they often find it difficult to access and leverage that power when their teams are under intense pressure. One such team, formed by a client I worked with recently, is a perfect example of where leaders need to focus and what approach can help do just that.

The company had just acquired a retail business that boasted phenomenal performance numbers and future forecasts. As part of the integration process, a really smart set of seasoned executive professionals was assembled and given the lofty ambition of advancing shareholder value. The members of this executive team, all mature individuals with short tenures of 9 to 18 months in the acquiring company, were known for imbuing their work with drive, optimism, and an infectious startup energy. I was brought in to help them integrate as a high-performing team. Their drive, optimism and energy were obviously necessary, but not sufficient to overcome the challenges they were facing.

The post-pandemic retail market is highly competitive. The enterprise they inherited was in a state of disarray. Processes across the organization were inconsistent and disjointed. The pressure on the team to deliver results was palpable, almost oppressive. Each leader was working tirelessly to streamline systems and align their respective areas. To top it all off, they had to navigate around a boss who was a numbers nerd with a natural bias for details. This obsession often was at odds with things they had already put into motion.

Two months in, the sector this business served underwent a seismic shift. Predictions and plans that had been made a year in advance now seemed hopelessly out of touch with the realities of the current market, which was mired in uncertainty and apprehension about excessive inventory. In spite of this turbulence, the team remained intact. At a time when others might have bailed, these senior executives had enough talent, experience and presence to hold the pressure of shareholders and company owners breathing down their necks and still remain present to the work at hand. They knew they were exactly where they needed to be. And they knew they simply needed to adapt to the new reality and transform it into an opportunity. What they needed most from their boss was the ability to have candid conversations about being caught “in the squeeze”.

However, their boss was defaulting to his “expert” mode. As new real-time data came in, he would react quickly to the numbers, make changes on the fly, and send out directives. He would forget to take the time to leverage the power of his own highly experienced team. And he was blind to the fact that what he was doing, rather than provide the helpful support he intended, was creating “noise” in the system.

The situation called for the shared responsibility and collaborative decision-making that are a hallmark of ‘high-performance teaming’. What his team would have liked, in this regard, were more opportunities for them to voice their ideas about how to handle things as they were happening. More open-ended conversations. More discussions of how to change their decision-making processes and set a cadence. More chances to point out and speak to their boss’s blind spots.

My aim was to help their boss more effectively adapt and learn how to operate interdependently with his team members, instead of relying so heavily on his “numbers expert mode”. Making this shift from individual expertise to collective wisdom would not only transform the way the group operated, but also the outcomes for the company.

This team of seasoned professionals is the linchpin of the company’s survival. Their leader has to resist his natural inclination to focus on managing data and learn to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of his people.

To facilitate this shift, I proposed an exercise to help them all have a breakthrough in this area. Everyone on the team, including the boss, gathered in one room. I posed a challenge to them, something very close to one they were dealing with in real life, along with the instruction that their boss refrain from speaking. The idea was to allow ideas to come up and percolate among the group. The focus was not on dissecting the ideas, but on pooling different suggestions together. This would help pollinate perspectives and possibilities across multiple disciplines and provide the team with a collaborative approach to problem-solving. The ideas they came up with represented a brilliant and creative reframing of the problem, which opened the door to solutions far beyond anything the boss would have come up with by looking at the challenge through his numbers lens alone.

Top-down guidance often limits possibilities: this approach expands them.

This proved to be a (re)defining moment for the teams’ leader. He took advantage of this opportunity to publicly value all their diverse opinions and perspectives, to acknowledge all their assembled ideas, and to let the power of the team lift the conversation to a whole new level. The team and the company have not looked back since.

Today, more than ever before, leaders are being called on to create the conditions for effective learning, collaboration, and teamwork. Creating those conditions starts with mastering the dynamic interplay between yourself and your team members. That is why, for the last two decades, I’ve studied the work being done in adult stage development. I’ve incorporated my own learning and experiences in this area into my facilitation and executive coaching of leaders and their teams. In future articles, I’ll share more about these stages, what distinguishes them, and how that awareness can help leaders succeed at leading people through tough challenges.

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