I have a leadership-coaching client who engenders well-earned loyalty from his people. Equal part strategic and operational, tough and tender, he defines his role as building and leading highly effective teams. Hell, even I’d work for him, despite my 15 years of self-employment and being highly allergic to any supervision.

But as an executive team member he is a disaster. In meetings with his divisional peers and CEO boss he occupies most of the airspace, speaking first, fast and often. He defends his own group vehemently against his colleagues’ objective and even gentle critiques. He challenges many and supports few. I don’t understand how someone so competent a team leader can be so excruciatingly lousy as a team member.

Actually, I do understand: the attitudes and skills of executive team leadership are different from effective team membership. Not everybody is so versatile as to pivot back and forth between roles, even though most of us wear both ‘hats’ at different times.

Skills Need to Align to Roles

For example, effective team leaders orchestrate good decision making by ensuring multiple points of view are brought to light, biases are minimized and unintended consequences are considered. Team members are most effective when they balance advocacy for their area of responsibility with taking into account the wider, enterprise picture. These are two different skill-sets.

Another difference is related to followership. Team leaders need to cultivate high-achieving followers by being sensitive to their unique situations, challenging their assumptions, and removing obstacles. Team members, on the other hand, need to be effective followers.  A good follower on a team commits to team decisions even when they may personally disagree with them. And afterwards, they must represent the team’s decision to their own people in a way that assures consistent execution across the organization.  In other words, good team members sometimes ‘take one for the team.’

Finally, peer relations are also different. Team leaders need to maintain a healthy detachment from team members or risk being seen as playing favorites. This detachment comes in handy when the team leader needs to provide critical feedback, redirect or even remove a team member.

Team members need to be great collaborators. This requires them to value others’ contributions as much as their own, provide resources to other groups, and build trust.

Back to my client: After a very rough start as an executive team member and a tougher conversation with his boss, he reached out for feedback from several peers. He caught an earful.

After hearing how he was perceived, he complained to me about how people just didn’t ‘get him,’ that his division was doing great, and that they should examine their own flaws before looking down their noses at his. After listening to his justifications for a while, I reframed the situation from two perspectives.

First, I said that ‘getting him’ didn’t really matter. If he continued his negative interpersonal relations, the organizational ‘antibodies’ were going to mobilize against him, and eventually he’d be rejected by the body (in other words, he’d derail).

Second, I offered up the notion that his ineffectiveness as a team member was hurting his own division, which was the last thing he wanted. After all, I asked, what other divisions or executives would want to deal with someone who is such a pain?

When he recognized his personal responsibility and understood the cost of his behavior to his own organization, he knew that he needed to change his ways.

Versatility is Key

To his credit, at the next team meeting he stood up in front of the team and expressed multiple mea culpas with sincere remorse. He asked for another chance, and he asked for support. This simple act of vulnerability helped but didn’t assure the change of his relationships or his reputation. For that, he had to meet one-on-one with several peers, and demonstrate a change over time.  He also initiated collaborative initiatives across two other divisions, which his boss noticed.

In so doing, he lost nothing of his effectiveness as a senior team leader. But now he can honestly say he’s not only a great team leader; he’s also a great teammate.

Many of us wear multiple hats but don’t consciously shift how we behave despite differences in role requirements. Baseball players don’t wear helmets for a reason. Every now and then it’s worthwhile to look up and see what hat we are wearing, and play the game we’re in rather than one we haven’t suited up for.

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008

Illustration reference: :  http://hfinn3.wikispaces.com/Huck%27s+Moral+Conflict