Executive Roundtable Attendees:
Drew Morton, VP, Chief Human Resources Officer, Hanger, Inc. was founded in 1861 by the first amputee of the American Civil War, and provides integrated rehabilitative solutions to more than one million patients each year.
Joel Trammell, CEO, CacheIQ is a software company that accelerates the performance of large storage systems. Joel has been a serial entrepreneur in Austin for over 20 years.
Angela Baldonero, SVP of People and Client Success, Return Path is in the center of the e-mail ecosystem gathering intelligence to help both senders and receivers of e-mail operating in eight countries with 400 employees.
Lori Knowlton, SVP, Human Resources, HomeAway leads the marketplace for vacation rentals with employees in eight countries.
Paul Brownell, Principal, Growth Acceleration Partners develops software applications for service company clients.
Bjorn Billhardt, CEO, Enspire Learning is a leadership development company focused on creating leadership development experiences for new managers, aspiring directors and vice presidents.
It’s fair to say that everyone in business recognizes the value of teams – but too often, only lip service is paid to teamwork, and management scholar Peter Drucker wrote that the track record of teams in American business is not impressive. At an executive roundtable in Austin, business leaders gathered to discuss teams – what makes them successful, what kills executive team performance, and what will determine team success over the next decade.
In their book, “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization,” authors Jon Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith contend that to be successful, teams need to have a performance challenge. Joel Trammell of CacheIQ agreed with that assessment.
“The team has to have a mission,” he said. “When I think of teams, I think about what’s the purpose that’s going to drive building a high performance team.”
Buy-in is important, said Hanger Inc.’s Drew Morton. So are diverse perspectives on the team. “You have to have the right people and if you engage them on the right strategic topics, you’re going to have a group that thinks integrated and leads that way, too,” he said.
Those things are important, said Lori Knowlton of HomeAway, but there’s an “X Factor” to the success of teams: the passion they have for the business and their customers. “You can have aligned people with connected missions,” she said, “but you still have very distinct and smart people around the table, and through that common understanding and common desire to do the right thing for the customer, they can cover a lot of ground and it’s a crucible for a lot of different ideas.”
Couple that with a level of trust, and breakthroughs happen. Angela Baldonero of Return Path said she has seen instances of a team member owning up to something that isn’t working. If someone is willing to be vulnerable in front of his peers, that moves the team to a stronger place. “When you can get messy – I’ve seen that be really transformational,” she said.
But that can be tough to achieve, said the Refinery’s Mark Frein. “As people move up the ranks they become more and more cautious about admitting failure and about looking vulnerable in front of their peers,” he said. Learning that you can talk about being wrong is a departure from expectations that have been formed over a long period of time in an executive’s life.
“We like the phrase, ‘Creative abrasion,’” said Morton. We’re looking for that ability to challenge each other in a safe way, and when you combine humility and vulnerability with confidence, that’s a magical set of leadership characteristics that builds a lot of engagement.” He defined “creative abrasion” as pushing yourself to different corners of thinking.
“That’s where I see the most innovation occurring,” said Brownell, when an organization’s culture enables people to take risks and make mistakes.
Mark Finger of National Instruments said their team is using a quote from Peter Drucker more and more that says, “Culture eats business strategy for breakfast.” Companies create business strategies and yet, if you’re a lousy place to work and you don’t have trust, it almost doesn’t matter.
In “The Wisdom of Teams,” Katzenbach and Smith say all teams must overcome obstacles. Sometimes, teams can die. Enspire Learning’s Bjorn Billhardt said it’s important to understand the team’s goal. “One killer is to not understand what tasks need to be accomplished and then forming the wrong type of team with the wrong setup for the task at hand,” he said.
But teams can churn through data and dither over questions that can be resolved by one decisive individual. “I’ve seen lots of teams form to make a decision the executive should have made a long time ago,” said Trammell.
“Oftentimes the easiest decision is no decision,” said Finger. “The folks who have been more successful at NI are the ones who can make the call.”
Baldonero used the example of a brilliant person who doesn’t mesh with the firm’s culture. “That’s destructive and tolerating it is insane and can ruin the performance of the team,” she said. Knowlton called it the “brilliant jerk.” She suggested that teams strive for balance between style and skill – similar styles and different skills can be very powerful for an organization.
Several of the participants cited experiences on teams that were high performing. Morton said the feeling is “energizing” and provides “extraordinary satisfaction.” “Exhilarating,” was the word Brownell used. “It creates a sense of confidence that you can achieve anything and overcome anything the world throws at you and still get a positive outcome.”
But some said they’d been on bad teams, as well. Toxic environments are highly political, focused on the individual and not the team. “You get robbed of confidence, you get robbed of feeling creative and comfortable because you’re playing defense all the time,” said Brownell.
The group was asked how long it takes for a high performing team to come together. Knowlton observed that no team is high performing all the time. Frein added that the emphasis should be not on performance, but on quality. “Perfection is de-motivating, but excellence is not,” said Knowlton. “If you strive for perfect you stop taking risks and putting yourself out there or helping other people.”
Billhardt noted that a team might seem to be high performing, but it’s really a matter of being in good times. “There are teams that look really great on the outside,” he said, “but when there’s a hiccup you see how the same characteristics that made them high performing in a good environment leads to disintegration in stress in tough times.”
“I like that word stress,” said Trammell. “I think real high performance teams are a lot more fun in hindsight than they are when you’re part of them. To be a high performing team, by definition, you have to be reaching a goal you’re not sure you could reach so there’s doubt, stress and indecision.”
What about accountability?
“It’s huge,” said Morton. “If you don’t have it and you’re not holding each other accountable and don’t bring ownership to the table, then you don’t have each other’s back because you’re not doing your part.”
“That dimension of being able to trust that other members of the team can go off and do something on behalf of the team – and that you don’t have to do it all – only comes if you feel accountable to each other,” added Brownell.
“There are two kinds of accountability,” said Frein. “The first is accountability for a task. The harder one in top teams is accountability for relationships: ‘Did I treat you well?’ It means even when we disagree, did we disagree in a way that treats you with respect? Because of our backgrounds, we often are good at accountability of tasks, and often really awful at accountability of relationships.”
Over the next ten years, teams might have to adapt to new situations. The panelists had several predictions, centering on technology. Lori Knowlton said “executive ADD” could lead to teams becoming less effective. “The tendency to go over an e-mail or make an appointment, or create a ‘to do’ list while someone is saying something important takes a huge amount of energy out of that conversation,” she said.
“It used to be that the only thing that changed within companies was technology,” said Billhardt. “Companies had to adapt to new technology from time to time, but fundamentally stayed the same for decades. These days, I think every function and every role on the executive team is changing, so, the ability to do a quick trial and error as an executive team and be open to failure is real important.”
Frein said social media will make everyone on the executive team into a more public persona. “Today, everyone is watching so if the CFO says something different than what the CEO is saying, the world knows and they know right away,” he said.
“My favorite times are the down times because that’s when you get the crucible of teams really forming,” said Knowlton. “If you’ve got a great competitor or a competitive environment, or even a financial challenge, it helps people focus on what’s important. I love those crisis moments because people come together in different ways.”
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