Teams at the Top - New Book Misses the Point

by Peter B. Grazier

Originally published in EI Network on June 1, 1998


Little has been written about the behavior of teams at the tops of organizations. This group of senior managers, most notably the Chief Executive Officer and his or her direct reports, holds a unique position at the top of the hierarchy. They are the key decision-makers, wielding significant influence over the actions and behaviors of many people who comprise the organization.

For years, many in the collaboration/participation movement have lamented what they have called “lack of top management support” for these processes. Too many times senior managers speak the language of participation only to fall back into highly directive behaviors when it’s time to make “the tough decisions.”

In these times of rapidly changing technology and work environments, there are certainly times when quick decisions are necessary. But there are other decisions, such as those relating to work redesign, or reengineering, that could have and should have extensive input from those whose jobs are being redesigned.

It was in this context that I looked forward with great anticipation to the new book from Jon R. Katzenbach titled Teams At the Top. Katzenbach co-authored the bestseller, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, a book that connected with many readers. But his new book misses the mark on its message for senior leaders.

Thinking that maybe my years working with team concepts had jaded my thinking, I asked two other people for their opinions of the book. Without knowing how I felt, they both said the book was a disappointment.

Teams at the Top, in the words of the author, focuses on three basic messages:
1. The best senior leadership groups are rarely a true team at the top—although they can and do function as real teams when major, unexpected events prompt that behavior.
2. Most of them can optimize their performance as a group by consciously working to obtain a better balance between their team and non-team efforts—rather than by trying to become an ongoing single team.
3. The secret to a better balance lies in learning to integrate the discipline required for team performance with the discipline of executive (single-leader) behavior— not in replacing one with the other.

The above having been said, the author seems to look for reasons why teams at the top won’t work rather than how to move senior leadership toward more team, or collaborative, behaviors. The book, at times, almost seems to be written for senior executives as a license to continue their current styles of single-leader control.

For example, in his chapter entitled “Why ‘Nonteams’ Prevail at the Top,” Katzenbach completely confuses this reader with the following:

"It is abundantly clear that nonteams work, particularly at the top. There is a natural order to things; it tends to be hierarchical. Place 11 guinea hens in a pen, and science tells us that they will instinctively sort out a natural pecking order. This establishes which hen is strongest, the accepted ranking among them, and who influences whom. In human organizations as well, it is important to establish who reports to whom and who is in charge of what. These are reasonable things to want to know, and knowing the answers helps everyone get things done in a large institution."

"Leadership groups at the top of human organizations are a bit more complicated than simple animal analogies imply. Nonetheless, the same instincts for strong, individual leadership persist. Most of us prefer strong leaders who will shoulder the burden of “making a clearing in the forest” that ensures organizational performance and helps sustain the viability of the institution against the unpredictable forces at work in our society. The value and security we gain from a strong leader is undeniable, and team behavior often seems to threaten both."

"Teams are more likely to disrupt the natural order of things at the top. They do not sustain established, predictable patterns of leadership or respect time-honored rules and roles for the members. They are neither efficient nor orderly groupings. Seldom are they the best way to get normal work accomplished or routine problems solved. Although they may protect their members, they do not follow comfortable pathways, nor do they maintain a predictable pecking order based on the relative formal positions of the members. Moreover, teams are seldom the fastest way for a group with an experienced, capable leader to “get where they are going,” particularly if the leader has been there before. And teams certainly require long hours of hard work!"

Guinea hens...natural order... pecking order... strongest. These are words guaranteed to sustain the topdown hierarchical non-participative decision-making of senior executives. The statements in the above paragraphs are appalling when viewed in the context of the contributions made by team decision-making in the last two decades.

Perhaps this is the book’s most noteworthy omission. Trying to fit executive behavior into a work team model is not the issue...collaboration is. Little is said about the benefits of executive collaboration...and this is the primary reason why they should operate more as a team. Particularly at the executive level, where decisions can make or break the organization, greater collaboration should be the norm, not the exception.

Another statement that brought chills to these bones was:

"Nonteam behavior persists at the top simply because top executives prefer to function as individual leaders most of the time."

Of course they prefer to function this way. The single-leader, hierarchical model has been
standard operating procedure all of this century. People naturally prefer to behave as they have been trained. To do otherwise is uncomfortable.

We could make the same argument with respect to front-line workers who are asked to work in a team. If they simply refused because they preferred to work as they always have, we’d have no progress at all in moving toward more effective work structures!

Katzenbach goes on to say that

"[top executives] excel in settings where they can focus on achieving their individual best results, as well as hold others similarly accountable. They are natural overachievers as individuals; they are uncomfortable collaborators in amorphous groupings with overlapping accountabilities."

What he is describing is the current state, brought on by years of selecting those leaders who “fit the mold” of traditional management thinking. The question arises then of the executive of the future. Will she be more collaborative because she was reared in a lower level team system that rewarded collaborative behavior? What about today’s young people who are learning the fundamentals of collaboration in public schools. Will they be more collaborative leaders? When one experiences the power of collaboration firsthand, it is not a lesson easily forgotten.

Katzenbach again sings the praises of the single-leader by stating that this leader “usually offers the advantage of knowing what the group’s goals and basic working approach should be.” Perhaps he should read how Microsoft Corporation’s CEO Bill Gates was persuaded by his team to reconsider their strategic direction in light of the rapid growth of the Internet. Had he not listened to his team, Microsoft stood the chance of being left behind one of the most significant trends of the 20th Century.

Katzenbach’s belief in the traditional hierarchical structure with its strong leader and prescribed “pecking order” ignores other effective operating processes. Again the Internet serves as an example. As one of the fastest growing modalities of communication today, the Internet has no formal hierarchy and certainly no single leader. Yet it grows at breakneck speed in both size and efficiency.

What is most disturbing in a book supposedly about teams is the language used so frequently to describe team operation. Phrases such as “amorphous groupings with overlapping responsibilities,” “disrupt the natural order of things,” “seldom the best way to get normal work accomplished or routine problems solved,” “seldom the fastest way for a group with an experienced, capable leader to get where they are going,” “time-consuming ‘forming, norming, and storming’ stuff,” and other similar statements make one wonder if the author truly understands and believes in team processes.

In fact, I am somewhat perplexed at why the book was written in the first place. If it was written for senior executives to reinforce existing behaviors, it succeeded. As a catalyst for change it has failed miserably.

Executives need to understand that drawing on each others’ talents is a desired behavior, not a sign of weakness. Working together for the betterment of the organization will yield better decisions, not time lost in wasted activity.

Guinea hens may seek out a natural pecking order and look for the strongest bird to influence them. But Canadian wild geese are effective by using a different process....one that draws on the strength and mutual support of each bird in the flock. This is the model for the workplace of the millennium.

The demands of today’s marketplace require a nimble approach and a rapid response to change. Reliance on the dominant, single-leader management process is an idea whose time has gone. Certainly, we will continue to operate our organizations in a structure that clearly delineates responsibility and accountability, but to ignore the significant benefits of team processes and collaborative decision-making is certain to suboptimize the talents of the critical players.

Jon Katzenbach, for some reason, has badly missed this point.