Foundations of Executive Team Development – Thoughts for Challenging Team Building Exercises

Having held officer level positions in a few industries: airline, leisure travel, internet, convention, and defense oriented industries, I have participated in and hired consultants to help conduct “team building” exercises; the operative word is-exercises. There are a lot of moving parts to any successful team building exercise.

Let’s take a look at Executive Team Building as a subset of the generic team building exercise. Officer level managers require a whole different approach to Executive Team Building. Here are some thoughts on why senior manager team building is difficult. I have found officer level managers arrive at their positions for three reasons: they are part of a family business; their persona and experiences match a corporate leadership culture (often characterized also as-who you know); and/or, they have skills (achieved through education or former positions) that are needed to fix a problem such as a manufacturing problem. Point being, everyone arrives at the officer level by different and sometimes circuitous methods. By this point-in-time, people’s management styles and personality traits are developed and tested: what you see is what you get. Even this perspective is sliced a little thinner by the way we are wired. For example, engineers approach management from a different perspective than a marketing person. Junior members of a company are much more malleable in shaping their views and are motivated to demonstrate that they are team players.

The title structure of a company may be Senior VP, Executive VP, President, etc., depending on the size of the company. Whatever the hierarchy, the pointy end of the pyramid is very competitive and therefore has far reaching effects on shaping each manager’s attitudes toward their peers. Additionally, senior managers develop a persona within their respective industries that can last a career lifetime. The projection of an industry persona becomes important should a manager feel their career is becoming stagnant and they want to explore career changes.

The point here is that Executive Team Building is really Executive Team Meeting. At senior levels in an executive’s career, he/she has traits that a CEO must recognize and manage through “performance evaluation” tools and not Executive Team Building/Meetings. Team Building is not about shaping relationships between peers. When there is a small cadre of senior manager’s, personality types are evident to all. The politics in these environments can be exacerbated to a level that makes “passive aggression” becomes an art form and Team Meetings are not a cure.

Here is a short case study to illustrate my point of reference.

A few years ago I was part of a growing company in a very dynamic industry. All the officers were A-type personalities and very ambitious to achieve recognition within the industry and by the corporate owner. All were hard driving, creative, highly educated. The senior management ran the age gambit from very young to more experienced and were both male and female. Because this was a very young company, the “charter members” of the senior management team resented new senior manager’s coming into their ranks having not “paid their dues” and fitting into the culture. Most of these managers would minimize a peer on the team rather than let them excel in their respective position (if that someone were competing for the next CEO position).

To solve the problem an organizational psychologist was brought in to get the team working together. The team took a battery of tests and did personal interviews with the psychologist. The results of the tests were reviewed individually with the participants and a team meeting was held to discuss the dynamics at play within the team. Bottom line, it was not a success; probably for the same reasons General’s Patton, Bradley and Montgomery were always at odds-a group of over-achievers with juxtaposed ego’s and the next promotion.

But not all is for naught. Even personal animus within a team may be addressed as long as it is not addressed in a manner that is in the category of “manipulation”. Executive Team Building is not training; rather it is com

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