Awake at the Wheel: A Study on Executive Team Development

By Robert A. Goldberg

(Originally appeared in The Leadership & Organization Development Journal, MCB University Press, Volume 21, No. 5, 2000, pgs. 225-234)

It’s All There At the Beginning

“Every time my guys talk with one another,” Eliot lamented, “I make another million dollars.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious but I was dazzled by his comment. I had only moments before been introduced to Eliot, the CEO of a medium sized bank in the Midwest. We sat at a small round table in his office on the fifteenth floor of his bank’s building. A photograph of Eliot with Ronald Reagan adorned one paneled wall, alongside photos of Eliot shaking hands with other luminaries whose faces I couldn’t recognize. Eliot was a robust 60 years old, with a ruddy complexion and a head full of silver hair. The glass walls of his office looked out over the entire city. A little overwhelmed by the power his office projected, I got my bearings by sneaking a look out the window at the river as it peeked through the buildings.

Two weeks before, I had received a call from Michael, the Bank’s general counsel, who contacted me through another client in the same city. My client had prepared me for the call, saying that it would take a miracle to help that Bank, and good luck.

Michael was equal parts irony and exasperation when we spoke by phone. “We are the most successful bank of our size. Our stock price and earnings improve every year, and relative to the competition we consistently attain higher profits and lower expense ratios. The senior executive group is comprised of men in their fifties who have all been with the Bank for a long time. The least tenured of us has been here fifteen years. You should also know that we are all very wealthy and none of us has to work any more to make ends meet.”

After interrupting him to say that it sounded pretty good to me, he continued to describe the situation. “Our strategy over the years has been to acquire smaller banks and integrate their systems into ours in a fast and seamless fashion. In fact, this may be our core competence — integrating acquired banks. But now we are going through tremendous growing pains. To continue our current rate of growth, we need to acquire ever-larger banks. Unfortunately, they are more difficult to find and certainly more difficult to integrate.

“And rather than pull together, the senior leadership team is pulling apart and the seams are starting to show. This is a very conservative group that has known each other for a long time and frankly, most of them really can’t stand each other. Even their wives don’t get along! Yet we’ve been able to work this way for a long time, managing our own silos with Eliot making all the significant decisions. He is an extraordinary leader, by the way — brilliant, inspiring, tough as nails and very prominent in the community.

“But our growth has suddenly led to an unprecedented need for collaboration across Operations, MIS, Marketing and other departments. And it’s just not happening. Even the Board is starting to get antsy. So Eliot is ready to let someone from the outside help his guys start getting along, which is a big thing for him to admit.”

As I heard Michael’s story I couldn’t muster much empathy. After all, these guys were rich as hell, ruling their corporate fiefdoms in relative comfort under what sounded like a difficult but ultimately, benevolent father figure. For a moment I wondered whether I should be in the business of helping enormously wealthy individuals stop acting like babies and start playing nice with each other. Fortunately, this identity crisis passed quickly as I became fascinated by the notion that the Bank’s future might hinge on the ability of its senior executives to work together as a strategic coalition. They did appear to recognize that the pace of change and the complexities in the marketplace were rendering their approach to managing their business somewhat obsolete. Perhaps, I thought, I could help them find a new, more effective model for managing the Bank. At the very least, I might help them make more contact with each other, both departmentally and personally. I was hooked.

We scheduled a morning for me to visit with Eliot and Michael, and now, two weeks later, I sat transfixed as Eliot continued his history lesson while Michael sat back and observed our conversation.

“Before I became CEO ten years ago, my predecessor had been President for 30 years. He was quite a piece of work: a real dictator who knew your own business better than you did. And he was a very aggressive guy. He would often humiliate us in our meetings. It was ugly. Now I also come from a West Point background, but I have been trying to be more inclusive, less brutal. I’m a true believer in the new leadership model.”

At this I caught a glimpse of Michael, who was covering a snicker with his hand.

“To make matters worse,” Eliot continued, “we have always prided ourselves on having an aggressive sales culture coupled with a strong bottom-line focus. So we never invested heavily in our information systems, nor have we invested in our managers’ training and development. The net effect of this is that we are now so busy catching up technologically that we can’t service our existing needs, let alone plan for the future. And, there are so few competent managers in the pipeline that we have a talent vacuum. When I grew up in this Organization, we were rewarded for managing our costs so tightly that we would drop dead before making a new hire. Its one thing running lean and mean, but we now have over one hundred management level openings in a market of virtually no unemployment. I call these guys every week to find out how many managers they’ve hired. It took me a year to convince the Operations SVP that he wouldn’t get whacked if he hired new people. What a group!”

As Eliot continued to describe his problems, he sounded like the Pharaoh complaining about the twelve plagues. But I remembered from my Bible studies that the Egyptians actually deserved the locusts, frogs, etc., for keeping the Hebrews in bondage.

The other thing that stood out was how Eliot was so obviously contributing to the problems of the group while appearing oblivious to the impact of his own behavior on his people. He told me about how he would ask a few of the guys to accomplish the same task, hoping that one of them might get it done. I asked if he was concerned about them stumbling on each other or feeling as if they were in some kind of competitive race to ‘the answer.’ I also asked him how well he trusted their competence.

He told me that he used the staff department executive vice presidents (his head of audit, his CFO and Michael, his general counsel) to tell him about the problems in the business units. I asked him if that led people to withhold information and ‘pretty things up.’ He did say that there appeared to be a ‘mutual non-aggression pact’ in place during their weekly Operating Committee meeting, but that there was a lot of finger-pointing and blaming in between meetings.

He told me that if an executive came to him with a complaint about a colleague, how he would meet with ‘the offender’ to find out what was going on. I asked if he ever brought the antagonists together and worked the conflict out with both of them instead of in ‘one-off’ meetings.

He told me that in the interest of accountability, they had recently instituted disciplined checks and balances to control costs and allocations. Line departments had to ‘buy’ the services of the MIS and Operations groups. At the same time he complained about how those departments seemed to be running the Bank — the proverbial cart before the horse.

And finally, he described the competition among some of the ‘younger’ guys for his own seat. With a chuckle, he said that they seemed to be begging for his attention, trying to one-up each other so they can get his job some day. I asked him about his succession process and he said that he hadn’t decided upon one.

Throughout the conversation it was hard to get a word in edge-wise. Here I was, some consultant from out of the clear blue sky, and Eliot didn’t even seem curious about me or about how I might approach the situation. He appeared much more interested in unburdening himself of his story. Finally, Michael asked me facetiously whether I thought there was any hope for the team.

I said that I really wasn’t sure, and Eliot seemed to like my answer. The strength of the culture, the firm’s leadership history, the sheer length of time the guys have known each other, their quid-pro-quo transactions, their incentives, even their success and their wealth all were conspiring to encourage back-stabbing, one-upmanship, mistrust and non-productive competition. It wouldn’t surprise me, I said, if the only person who was thinking of the entire enterprise were Eliot. Eliot nodded his agreement and said that he didn’t have very high expectations. All he wanted was for his guys to talk with one another more frequently and more productively than they did. He didn’t want to change the culture, he said; its culture is what made the Bank successful. Then I asked the test question.

In gauging a client’s response to this part of a conversation, I rarely pay much heed to their words. I need to see how far they push their chair back, or whether they cross their arms over their heads, or whether their eyes dart to the right. I even take note of the bobbing of their Adam’s apples, if they have one. The question is: “To what extent are you part of the problem, and are you interested in finding out what others think?”

In a lower tone of voice (a good sign) Eliot acknowledged that he must be part of the problem. “After all, I am the leader,” he said. He shuffled in his seat and said that he would support the process by trying to change his behavior if that would help. He paused to consider what he had just said. It was the first period of quiet since we sat down. Then he looked me in the eye and said that it would not be easy, that he is pretty set in his ways. “After all,” he said, “I’m going to be sixty years old. But I know that if we don’t do this we are sunk.”

I knew then that the team development process would work. I said, “Its important to know that you do not expect your guys to do something you, yourself, are unwilling to do. You can’t expect any change from them until they see your willingness to accept feedback and do something with it. I can tell you now that I am bullish on this process and I am bullish on this team.” And, I thought to myself, I admire the guy’s guts, because while he says out loud that he doesn’t want to change the Bank’s culture that is precisely what he intends to do.

The Process is The Outcome

Toward the end of the meeting I suggested a fairly traditional team development process. I would meet with the group at one of their Friday Operations Committee meetings for Eliot to introduce me and to break the ice. Then I would meet with each executive for about an hour, gathering information about the team from the point-of-view of people other than Eliot and Michael. After synthesizing this information into a feedback report, I would design a team development ‘program,’ which hopefully would address the team’s issues and its members’ aspirations.

I made it clear to Eliot and Michael that the team would see the same report that they did; there would be no ‘privileged’ information. I said it was important that I not be considered Eliot’s lackey. In other words, the team would have to feel themselves as a client in the same way that Eliot did for the process to be successful.

Other than being surprised that he would actually have to attend the team development meeting (so much for modeling new behavior!), Eliot didn’t have many questions. This concerned me because I felt he wasn’t considering the implications of the process. There had been too many times I had seen some pretty ugly behavior displayed by executives receiving feedback in a group setting, and it was usually because the consultant hadn’t adequately prepared or coached them. I made sure that Eliot and I would spend some one-on-one time to review the feedback report and the design of the program before we scheduled the group session.

Michael’s question revolved around how much time we would need for the session. He was thinking an afternoon would be sufficient — after all, these were incredibly busy guys. I looked at him wide-eyed and blurted, “The problems we were just talking about took over twenty years to percolate. You think we can resolve this in a day? It will take much longer than that. I’m suggesting a process that will get you on the right path. The first step is to help the group to develop confidence that they can make their own circumstances better. Once they have accomplished this (and I will help them do so) there will be backpedaling, which we will have to deal with. I’d say we begin with a dinner and some light evening work as a warm up, and spend the next entire day together. We will also need to initiate some processes that people will be expected to continue when the session is over. Short of that, we won’t accomplish much.”

At that point Eliot broke in, “That’s fine. But just let me make clear what I do want to accomplish. My guys don’t have to love each other; they just have to collaborate. But to do that they have to trust each other more. Also, we must have some tools to communicate better with each other. There is so much going on behind each other’s backs that it feels like the Roman Senate. If we had some ‘rules of engagement’ maybe we can stop wasting time and can make more money.”

Another two weeks later I was introduced to the group in a conference room just outside Eliot’s office. The room was a paneled rectangle with a long oak table and dark leather chairs on casters. The city again loomed just outside the glass wall.

When I arrived there were two suited men sitting next to each other at one end of the table and another two seated together pretty far down on the other side. I took a deep breath, walked in the room, shook hands and took a seat. After explaining who I was, the two pairs of executives resumed their conversations and I sat in a neutral corner, pretending to look at my notes. Eventually the other Operating Committee executives walked in, including Eliot and Michael. After some preliminary bantering, Eliot noted my presence and reminded the group about the team development process.

I stood up and summarized my conversation with Eliot and Michael, only omitting the times when Eliot or Michael had described the specific players and their problems with each other. I also mentioned that when a consultant is called in the situation usually improves immediately. They chuckled when I described the phenomenon of ‘fleeing to health,’ like when you go to a doctor and all of a sudden start feeling great. After my spiel I made sure to go around the room to get every single person’s reaction to my statements. I did not permit anyone to remain silent.

Generally they were favorably disposed to the prospect of having the situation improve, but I felt that they were really thinking, “Sure I’d like the situation to improve as long as I don’t have to do anything.” The MIS executive made it clear that he has no patience for touchy-feely stuff and that we are in the business to make money.

After describing the process (emphasizing the purpose of the one-on-one meetings) I left with a challenge to the group. “Not everybody can do this work. Some people have a tape playing in their heads saying ‘things can never change.’ Some people are too tightly wound to even admit to a person’s face that they have a problem with them. And I really think that some people believe that keeping things in a negative spiral is actually in their best interest.”

Then I offered hope. “But if people understand that there is real work to be done and, if they are able to do it, relationships will improve, there will be more cross-department cooperation and better results, and it can be the foundation for changing the values and culture of the Bank. It always works.”

Over the next two days I met with the members of the Operating Committee in their offices. I was chaperoned by Michael’s administrative assistant, who was scrupulous about interrupting our meetings in exactly one-hour intervals, usually when the conversation was just getting interesting. It was clear that the intervention was well on its way when several of the executives expressed how they recently reached out to others in a way they never had before. I encouraged them to do so, remembering my comment about ‘fleeing to health.’

After a few of these sorts of meetings I usually have a fair idea of what the remaining people will report. But the conversations are always fascinating, like the movie Rashomen, or the joke about blind men describing an elephant. For this group, my interview protocol included these questions:

  • Why do you think Eliot wants to do something like this now? Do you agree with his assessment?
  • What are the strategic business issues the bank is dealing with or needs to deal with?
  • What are meetings like? Are decisions made at meetings, and if so, how are they made?
  • What is the level of trust among team members? (I ask them to be specific about who is and who is not getting along.)
  • What is Eliot doing well to support the effectiveness of the team? What 1 or 2 suggestions could you give him that would help him better support the effectiveness of the team?
  • What are you doing that is helping the team? In what ways are you impeding the team’s effectiveness?
  • What is not being discussed now that should be discussed for the team to improve its effectiveness?
  • What would have to happen to make this team development experience something you are proud of?

These questions require some reflection and introspection; thus the conversations are usually rich. I am conscious of the need in these meetings to balance a sympathetic with a challenging presence, probing the extent to which interviewees’ feel some ownership of the situation, or whether they consistently project responsibility onto others. Beside the data I received in response to the interview protocol, I learned:

  • That Bob, the CFO, appeared to be on a crusade to get rid of poor performers throughout the Bank, not merely in his own department. He had recently distributed a memo entitled ‘A Hunting Guide for Parasites.’ Bob admitted that he was considered ‘Darth Vader,’ and was having second thoughts about his style.
  • That the friction between Evan, the head of MIS, and Rick, the head of Operations, was so bad that, other than in Operating Committee meetings, the two had not sat in the same room together in over a year. At that time the pressure of integrating a new acquisition had led to an embarrassing (and public) shouting match between them.
  • That two lines of business were refusing to share prospective customer lists with each other for the growing health care sector. Each group was concerned that they wouldn’t get credit or that the other group would jeopardize their own prospects.
  • That the head of the largest business unit was so fed up with Eliot’s micro-managing and abuse that he was, for the first time, seriously considering resigning. Toward the end of our conversation this fifty-five year old man looked up and plaintively said, “But what would I do? This is all I know. I don’t golf. My children are grown and gone. So the unknown is worse than this. But, honestly, not by much.”
  • That everybody thought the Friday Operating Committee meeting was a sham (‘weird theatre,’ as one team member said). I was amazed that intelligent people could tolerate ‘sitting on egg shells’ with each other (the ‘mutual non-aggression pact’ that Eliot had spoken of) for so long, and playing up to their boss while he alternately abused and patronized them.
  • That the Operations and MIS departments had enormous power to accept and prioritize project requests from the various lines of business. Thus, there was terrible resentment toward MIS and Operations, who were thought of as controlling the whole Bank. It was even more remarkable to me that no one thought it worthwhile to challenge this system. They all felt Eliot’s demand for checks and balances would out-weigh any other considerations.
  • That everyone agreed there was a talent crisis. As one executive put it, “The level of play has exceeded the bench.” Yet few of the executives believed this crisis extended to their own function.
  • That the head of the Bank’s newest business unit, which was quickly becoming responsible for an ever-larger percentage of profit, told me everything is fine, and you can’t argue with success, so “Why are we even doing this?”

On the plane home after the one-on-one meetings, Michael’s earlier question about whether there was any hope for this team surfaced in my mind. While I had dealt with more difficult situations before, I had rarely observed so much ‘scapegoating’ and so little warmth within a group of high-level executives. But I was encouraged by the common ground there was about the issues, and everyone’s apparent sincerity in wanting to improve the situation. I sensed that the interviews mobilized energy for the work ahead and helped each individual get in touch with themselves in anticipation of making contact with each other.

The Meeting, or, ‘Even Weirder Theatre’

A month later I walked into a private club in that same Midwestern city. It happened to be the club that Eliot and several others members of the Operating Team belonged. I could smell money and cigars in the lobby, which looked like it had been frozen in time from the late nineteenth century. As I walked to the receptionist I prayed that Michael’s assistant made the arrangements for me to use my laptop computer with a projector the club would provide.

My meeting with Eliot a week earlier to give him the feedback had gone well. Michael was surprised that there were no surprises. I was careful to be neutral but clear about the personal feedback for Eliot. When he defended himself (who could blame him?) I discussed the feedback and his behavior in terms of trade-offs that he was making. This helped him see that nothing we were dealing with was black and white, and that every issue he was dealing with worked along a polarity.

For instance, his assigning four executives the same task might get him the right answer, and it might help him see who was his most ‘clever boy.’ However, Eliot needed to more deeply learn how much this approach aggravated the mistrust among the group, led to inefficient time management, and sent confusing messages to the next tier of managers (who would receive instructions about the same subject from several senior executives looking for the same information). My job was not to tell Eliot how to manage his troops, but to make him aware of the ramifications of his decisions and to explore other, potentially less self-defeating, options.

Now, as I searched the corridors of the club for the room we were assigned I realized this was my first executive team development session for which I wore a suit and a tie. I usually work in hotels or conference centers (even most offices are ‘business casual’ these days). I was lucky to be forewarned by Michael’s assistant that this venue was more formal. Even the audiovisual technician wore a tuxedo, like a waiter in a four star restaurant. Fortunately, he had the equipment I needed.

The room was set up with a horseshoe shaped table, the open end at the front of the room. I found the projector I needed, and several flipchart pads on easels. The table was set for dinner, with glistening silverware, china and crystal goblets for everyone.

My design for the session was framed around the notion that the group had to break its patterns of interaction. They needed to learn and practice new ways of communicating with each other. My role would be to establish the structure and processes, get them started, and get out of their way as much as possible. But I did anticipate needing to intervene in several areas:

  • Encouraging the quieter members to speak and keeping the more aggressive members from monopolizing the session.
  • ‘Leveling’ Eliot’s power in the room. I usually do this early, through a combination of good-natured teasing, by actively disagreeing with a point, or by encouraging others to provide alternative points of view.
  • Publicly acknowledging even the slightest effort of anyone who brings up a subject considered taboo.
  • Slowing down an interaction if I believe one of the principals is no longer listening to the others’ point-of-view.

Specifically, I planned on spending the first evening helping the group find a shared vocabulary (‘rules of engagement,’ as Eliot would say) so they could spend the next day practicing while they worked to resolve some long-standing problems among them. It was also crucial for them to remain aware of the reasons for the session, so they wouldn’t fall back into some shallow denial of their problems.

After Eliot kicked off the meeting, I asked each member to introduce himself again to the group by describing ‘one thing they are up against’ at work and one thing they are up against at home. I had been told before that even though the group has known each other for so many years, many of them didn’t know each other on a personal level at all. The group learned that one member’s child had attention deficit disorder, another was considering purchasing a retirement house on the coast of North Carolina, another’s wife was recovering from surgery, another was experiencing the ‘empty nest syndrome’ for the first time, and so on. Through this simple method the group learned that they had more in common with each other than they thought. Some were embarrassed that they didn’t know each other considering how long they’ve worked together.

I then introduced a communication tool I have had great success with in working with other executive teams. The tool, called the “left hand column” was developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (1974), and later expanded by Rick Ross in The Fifth Discipline Field Book (in Senge, et. al, 1994). Basically, our ‘right hand columns’ are composed of thoughts and feelings we feel comfortable disclosing to others; the ‘left hand column’ is composed of thoughts and feelings we are reluctant to say. By becoming more aware of our ‘left hand columns,’ individuals come to learn what is holding them back from speaking their ‘truth.’ Paradoxically, most of us think we are protecting others when we suppress our truth; however, we are usually trying to protect ourselves.

Utilizing the language of the “left hand column” signals to others in a group that someone has something important, yet uncomfortable to say. In addition, that the person isn’t speaking out of malice but out of concern. It is an excellent way of getting taboo subjects on the table. I always bring with me to these kinds of sessions a toy rubber giraffe, and I toss the giraffe to the first person who, unbidden, makes a ‘left hand column’ comment to the group and labels it as such (a fun way of recognizing someone for sticking their neck out). I then ask this individual to pay attention and toss the giraffe to the next person who discloses from their own ‘left hand column.’ I was pleased that throughout the session people were using the language of the ‘left hand’ column and tossing the giraffe around the room.

It was important to introduce this tool early in the session because I was about to review the feedback report with the group, and the language of the ‘left hand column’ provided a way to air difficult thoughts that previously might have been censored through the ‘mutual non-aggression pact.’

What people usually say when they receive a team feedback report is that there are few if any surprises (good validation for the interviewer, actually). The power is in everyone receiving the same information at the same time, and having an opportunity to discuss their reactions with each other. This is at the heart of team development work: an opportunity to have ‘real’ conversations about strategies, processes, structures and relationships. For a team ‘frozen’ in its pattern of interaction, getting the issues on the table for the first time has a therapeutic, cathartic effect. As important, until the group finds ‘common ground’ around its perception of the issues, planning actions to address those issues is premature.

I have learned a few lessons over the years when providing teams with interview feedback. First, how important it is that people do not feel criticized by the facilitator. Rather than feeling the need to defend themselves, they need to see the inevitability of the situation, given their history up till now. On the other hand, I have learned to not soft-pedal the feedback. While I protect respondents’ identities, I do not hesitate to name names. Also, I only include information if more than one person carries a particular perception, and report information in descending order of the frequency of comments about the topic.

Finally, I have learned to be explicit that the report is through my own filters and biases, and that I have no monopoly on the truth. So I frequently ask the group to validate the information. This helps them take ownership and keeps me from needing to defend my perceptions.

During this particular session, the group practiced using their ‘left hand columns’ and there were a couple of heated exchanges (which I saw as progress). Notably, when the perceptions of Eliot’s leadership style were displayed, and he asked the group to clarify the information, several were able to point to specific examples of when he displayed that behavior. To his credit, Eliot took it well: he acknowledged their point-of-view, explained his own, and asked for input about alternative ways of handling the particular issue. I knew the group was doing well when the heads of MIS and Operations acknowledged the damage their relationship was having on their departments’ ability to collaborate. Michael sat in rapt attention as the two antagonists ‘circled each other,’ looking for rapprochement while trying to ‘save face.’

We had planned on finishing the evening session by nine. At 11pm I trudged back through the snow to the hotel, exhausted, but pleased that the ‘thaw’ of the frozen interactions had begun.

The next morning we picked up where we left off. A key moment occurred as a response to my describing what I viewed as the key responsibilities of a senior executive: wearing a functional ‘hat’ (running a business unit or division) while wearing an enterprise ‘hat’ (ensuring the long-term strategic and development needs of the organization are addressed). The group started to see the factors that prevented them from wearing the enterprise hat:

  • By not developing strong executives underneath them (the ‘talent crisis’) they were able to stay within their comfort zones of running their functions on a tactical, day-to-day basis.
  • Corporate financial checks and balances established incentives for functional rather than corporate goals.
  • The Friday Operating Team meetings were organized to report results rather than tackle any cross-organizational issues or make any strategic decisions.
  • Eliot’s style of managing individuals rather than the group contributed to low levels of interaction and trust.

Bob, the CFO, Evan, the head of MIS and Don, the head of audit, fell headlong into a conversation about this topic. Don said that many enterprise issues were not being addressed, despite the role his department played in identifying them and facilitating their resolution. Eliot, who called these issues Don’s Hot List, agreed. Eliot then took over the meeting, and while pointing his butter-knife at each person, asked the group for a listing of key strategic enterprise issues. While I wrote these on a flipchart, it became obvious that many of these issues were also on Don’s Hot List. Eliot and the group began planning how they could use the Friday meeting as a vehicle for resolving these issues. They renamed Don’s Hot List the ‘Enterprise List.’ When Eliot pointed the butter-knife at me, I asked him if I should feel threatened by his action. The group cracked up, mostly because Eliot hadn’t even realized he had been wielding the knife like a baton.

I tempered the group’s growing enthusiasm with some caution. Since much of the legwork for these issues needed to be done outside the Friday meeting, I suggested organizing in sub-groups around particular topics so that the members would get practice working collaboratively.

I strongly suggested to Eliot that he not permit any one member of a sub-group to present a recommendation on any enterprise issues to him one-on-one. Eliot still needed help seeing that how he managed the group after the meeting would either reinforce the agreements they were making or kill the process. The group agreed and gave Eliot some other ideas about how he could support their collaboration during day-to-day interactions. At this point, I was hardly paying attention to the content of their conversation, but was admiring their candor and new energy. They were actually seeing how to improve their situation.

When I thought this conversation had reached a natural end, we processed a self-assessment instrument (the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation — Behavior) which I had sent before the meeting as a pre-work assignment. The FIRO-B provides a reliable snapshot of an individual’s needs for inclusion, control and affection. I hoped that the group would see not only the organizational factors that had inhibited their coming together productively, but the personal factors as well.

The group’s profile was significant in the areas of control and affection. Like other senior executive groups I had worked with, the individual players on the Operating Committee had a consistently high need to express control toward others, and a consistently low need for others take control or responsibility in areas that affect them. That is, they enjoy taking on responsibility for making decisions and are comfortable telling others what to do, but quite selective about who they would permit to control their own activities. While there were a few exceptions, one could predict that members of the group would gravitate to areas in which they can exercise control (i.e., their own divisions) while avoiding any cross-functional work in which they might have to relinquish at least some control.

This profile around control was coupled with the group’s overall low need for expressing affection toward others and their discomfort with others expressing affection toward them. Affection in this context refers to the need for close, personal and warm relations with others. Their profile helped the group understand why after so many years so many of them didn’t know each other on a more personal level. While close personal relations are not absolutely required for effective team behavior, I find that groups with members that care about each other as people are better able to get through the rough spots. They simply are more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt and to ‘watch each others’ backs.’

When we posted everyone’s FIRO-B profiles on the wall, the team began to understand the source of some of the friction between some members, and they spent considerable time deconstructing past misunderstandings through the lens of the instrument results.

Thus, they realized that not only organizational issues were in the mix. The FIRO-B helped the group realize that their unique tendencies were also a major factor, and that any commitments they made to each other to change their pattern of interaction (i.e., the revised Friday meeting format, etc.) would have to take this into account. During the session these insights also served as a ‘reality check’ for those whose enthusiasm in the moment led them to make unrealistic demands on themselves for wholesale personality changes.

After lunch I set up a process in which each member of the team would receive feedback from his teammates about how he enacts his role in the organization, and how he can contribute even more. Called the ‘Home Page’ exercise, each participant is asked to take some flipchart paper and creatively design an internet home page describing the fundamental purpose of their position, how they think they are doing, how they believe they are being perceived, and how they would like to be perceived.

Upon presenting their ‘home page,’ each team member receives feedback from the rest of the group. This exercise gives the group practice in providing and accepting constructive, yet critical input, at the same time building clarity around expectations of each other. After Eliot chastised the group for re-engaging in their ‘mutual non-aggression pact,’ the group balanced appreciation for each other’s contributions with some specific suggestions. Eliot’s presentation, itself, was notable for two reasons. He said his most important role over the next two years was the development of this team, which was remarkable considering his other duties. And, while he was standing by his flip-charted ‘home page’ he continued to hold and wave his butter-knife at everybody. I was amused by the symbolism: Eliot needed to make his point sharply and not safely, but was beginning to do so with less of an edge.

Following the presentations I asked everybody to grab some Post-It notes and ‘hit’ on each other’s ‘home pages’ with any other feedback that, for whatever reason, hadn’t spoken but needed to be received. I asked everybody to collect their own ‘hits,’ and save them for later.

One reason I conduct the ‘home page’ exercise is to prime the pump for a more difficult feedback experience. Upon the conclusion of the ‘home page’ exercise, I remind the group that the work they completed was specifically about their role-relationships with each other, and was valuable at that level. However, it did not help them address some of their sticky one-on-one relationship issues. The interview data had clearly indicated a history of recriminations and acrimony among several members. Through highly structured conversations around ‘burning issues’ I believed that the members could start putting the past behind them and make some fresh starts with each other.

During the session we only had time to prepare and conduct one round of these conversations. The expectation, however, was that within one month of the meeting that every member would have a one-on-one conversation with every other member around a pressing, real issue that was interfering with a having a productive relationship. By holding themselves accountable for this (all they had to do was let Michael know they had completed the task) I felt they would not only reach a higher level of understanding with each other, but that the momentum of the meeting would be programmed to continue.

For this process I have each person prepare for this meeting by following a protocol’ They write down what the ‘burning issue’ is, and what they need from the other person so they can work better together. With each person taking turns, the conversation culminates with each party making a personal commitment to the other party. When I describe the process to the group, I emphasize the need to stay within the structure if they are looking to improve their situation (otherwise it’s too easy to deflect away from the real issues). I also provide some suggestions of what to do in case someone doesn’t live up to his commitments (i.e., like not running to Eliot to tell him!).

I noticed a combination of exhaustion and cautious optimism when the conversation partners shuffled back into the meeting room following their first one-on-one. We ended the day by my asking everybody to review their post-it note feedback and reflect on the day, and to declare one commitment they could make to the team that would help its effectiveness. I made sure to record these commitments so that Michael could distribute the list after the meeting.

Following this, we summarized their agreements about the new format for the Friday morning meeting, as well as other agreements made during the day.

At that point we had been doing intentional team development work for an evening and a day, and everyone was dying to get out of there.

Nothing’s Changed, But Everything is Different

Directly after the intensity of one of these sessions, it’s very difficult to predict whether ‘the inoculation will take.’ On the one hand, the group seemed energized, made pertinent commitments around their processes and their relationships, and Eliot was happy about how well the meeting went. On the other hand, this was a group that had been slowly imploding for years, and I feared the whole process would be like punching a pillow — it always reverts to its previous shape after you take your hand away. Would they even continue the one-on-one relationship building process, I wondered.

Three weeks and two Friday Operating Team meetings later, I called Eliot to follow up. He reported:

  • People were having their one-on-one meetings consistently; a few had even completed their cycle and said the conversations were a most productive way to clear the air, put stuff behind them and figure out how to move ahead.
  • Several people came to Eliot with the realization that so many issues at play were organizational and not personal. This, by itself, Eliot believed to be beneficial.
  • Bob, the ‘Darth Vader’ CFO, told Eliot that after the first night together he felt he had become a scapegoat and was feeling pretty low about it. After the ‘home page’ exercise, however, Bob said that he definitely started feeling better about the process and understood what he needed to do.
  • The Friday meeting was re-christened the Enterprise Meeting. Eliot said that the meetings certainly take longer, but are much more productive. One of the moments of truth came when some criticism was made of one of the team members. His previous nemesis actually came to his defense by telling the group to ‘check their hand grenades at the door.’ In general, there was much more humor and lightness to their meetings.
  • The health care sector was re-structured collaboratively by the two business lines that had been in competition with each other, and everyone was happy with the outcome and how they reached agreement.
  • The results of our session were starting to cascade down through the organization. Two of the group had discussed the process with their direct reports and explained the new ‘rules of the road.’

When I asked how he was doing personally, Eliot said that he was still struggling with his impatience about getting an answer immediately but that he was committed to be more participative. He said, “I am holding back a little, asking for more input from the guys. Rather than decide on stock options this year, I’m having the finance guy and the HR guy come back to the team with a recommendation.”

“But,” he added, “I wonder what we have unleashed.” Would the shift toward collaboration dull the group’s competitive spirit? Would the value of individual achievement be diluted by ‘decision by committee?’ I replied that it is easy to see these as mutually exclusive propositions, but in reality both ends of the polarity are always at play — collaboration against competition, individual achievement against teamwork, and so on. The trick was to find the right balance. I wasn’t sure whether he heard me or not, but I encouraged him to share his misgivings in the next ‘Enterprise Meeting.’

Finally, I asked Eliot if his initial hypothesis was correct. Not understanding what I was talking about, I reminded him of our first conversation in which he said that he would make another million dollars every time his guys talked with one another. Laughing, he said, “Frankly, I think we tapped into the mother lode this time. But just in case,” he added, “I saved that butter- knife from the meeting and it’s sitting right here on my desk, for all to see.”


Argyris, C. and Schon, D. (1974), Theory in Practice, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Ryan, L. (1970), Clinical Interpretation of the FIRO-B, Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto.

Senge, P., et. al. (1994), The Fifth Discipline Field Book, Doubleday, New York.