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The Rudiments of Engagement

Getting a management team engaged is both financially and personally rewarding. The concepts described here will help get you started.

22 August 2007
Business theorists love to argue about the difference between management and leadership. I agree with Jim Collins' assessment that one of the steps on the way to becoming a strong leader is to first have command of excellent management skills. Some people never go beyond manager to leader, and that's fine, because being a manager is worthy work. But anyone who thinks they can be a leader without successful management experience is fooling themselves. That's like trying to do Algebra III without having first memorized the multiplication tables. 
 
A leader's biggest job is to get the management team engaged, which requires mastery of management skills combined with strategic vision and the willingness and ability to guide and develop others.
 
A company I am working with wants help building a more cohesive management team. I always start with this question: "What is the problem or situation that caused you to seek outside help?"
 
    Client: "Well, it just seems like our management team doesn't get along very well."
    Me: "Are they hostile?"
    Client: "No. Well, not most of them. They get along in small groups. Sometimes some of the individuals are hostile to others, but there's no general sense of hostility."
   Me: "Are they capable of tackling business objectives together?"
   Client: "If they all agreed with it in the first place."
   Me: "How often does that happen?"
   Client: "Not very often. Well, I can't really tell. I suspect most of the talking happens outside our management meetings."
   Me: "What would 'cohesive' look like to you? What would you like to get out of this?"
   Client: "I'm not even sure I know. I just know there has to be a better way to do this."
 
There is a better way. It's not easy, and if anyone thinks it's going to happen over a period of months, they'll be sorely disappointed. But building a management team that works well together is both possible and rewarding. Key elements to consider when developing your high-performance team include:

1. Culture.  Know your business proposition and culture. If you have established your business as a technology and product leader, you need to build a management team capable of healthy competition. If you have established your business as a customer relationship company, then you need a management team that can collaborate. If you are a low price leader, then you need to build a management team that can carefully control the organization. If you don't get this first element right, none of the other elements will pay off to their full potential.

2. Know Your Management Team's Individual Qualities.  Most leaders don't get to start their management teams from scratch. If they did, they would hire people who had strong personal characteristics related to the business proposition types above. Awareness of each management team member's strengths and weaknesses - not just in terms of professional skill, but in terms of relevant cultural characteristics and interpersonal abilities - is essential. Most people can work in more than one type of culture. Leadership's responsibility is to clarify what the culture is and model it.  CAVEAT:  Mind the highly destructive person in your management midst. They encourage cliques as a way to build their own power. They are cynical, criticize everything they didn't have a hand in creating, and they believe they are smarter than everyone else (how do you know this? They have a tendency to say it out loud). They encourage others to participate in bad behavior then sit back and watch the results. They are poison. You can't start from scratch, but you can get rid of that one person and watch how fast the personality of your management team changes.
3. Honesty and Openness.  Forget the management retreat with ropes course and trust falls - those things don't work. This is the step that takes a while. You say what you want and you model it. Start by being honest with your management team. Let them know what you want to create - in terms of culture, team behavior, and achievement - and get them talking about it. This does not happen in one meeting! Keep 'management culture' on the agenda, and promote regular discussions about how the team is progressing toward the vision you have established.

4. Communication Ground Rules.  Set them. Debate is healthy and important, but make agreements with the group regarding what the ground rules will be to ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Make it clear that crossing the line will result in a time out. A very important ground rule for the leader is to make sure that when someone crosses the line and gets called on it that IS the repercussion. Why? Because at first - particularly if your management team has a habit of dirty arguments - they won't know how to follow the new ground rules. If they can stay loose (i.e., not afraid or cynical), they will pick up the new behaviors quickly. But if the new situation is threatening, you'll just replace dirty arguments with repression. You may need to have a conversation with one or two folks if they repeatedly have time-outs called on them, but you will be surprised at how quickly the nature of debate in your management team changes.  Some people will begin to participate that opted out before, and others will make it a little safer than they once did.

5. Business Clarity.  I'm trying not to write a book here, so I'm condensing points 5 through 10 or 15 into one thought. If your vision, strategy, organizational design and control methods aren't well developed, all the openness, communication ground rules and healthy human beings in the world won't give you a cohesive management team. There has to be a clear plan, and you have to follow it and continuously review it. Have you ever noticed how your children start fighting on a rainy day? It's because they're bored and they have nothing else to do. This is true in businesses as well. When people don't have a clear sense of where they are going and how they are going to get there they disintegrate into camps that bicker and do other dysfunctional things. Business clarity is the responsibility of the leader. It can be contributed to by the group, but every social structure craves leadership.

6. Practice Success. 
 Never leave a meeting with decisions un-made and direction unclear. This throws fuel on the fire of dysfunction. Even if your decision is akin to "OK, we don't have enough information to make a decision. So, who is responsible for developing answers to A., B., and C., and on what day will each of you have your work done?" - that's action and that's success. The best way for a management team to become cohesive is for them to be successful working together - and effective management meetings can be a forum for that (though I realize many people can't even picture an effective management meeting).  Get your team members working together on projects, but make sure you provide clear expectations and direction. If you don't, they'll go off and flounder with one another, followed by one of those rainy-day experiences.
Getting a management team engaged is both financially and personally rewarding. The concepts described here are only the barest bones of an explanation in how to achieve this. But you can certainly start here.

(c) Andrea M. Hill, 2007

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