How well does your management team play?

by Terry White on July 22, 2013

I’m trying to avoid sports analogies on this topic, but there is one sports quote that deserves to start this discussion about how to develop your management team.  John McKay was a very successful USC coach in the 60′s and went on to become the longsuffering coach of the hapless early Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  For CEOs/business founders who think their companies are becoming dysfunctional, here is some comic relief from Coach McKay.  In response to a reporter’s question, “Coach, what do you think about your defense’s execution?” he replied, “I’m in favor of it”

Having said that, I am now transferring to a rock-and-roll lead-in.  In 1966 I went to a concert by The Byrds in San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom.  The opening act was a new band called Moby Grape, and they blew everybody, including The Byrds, away.  When their debut album hit the stores a short time later, people were calling them the best SF band ever—yes, better than The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother.  Yet within two years Moby Grape sank into the ocean depths implied by its name.

Ironically Moby Grape band members were as together as a team could be.  They shared an expansive vision of a blues-rock-country-folk-psychedelic musical direction built on three cross-talking guitars and beautifully expressive bass and drums.  You could see their live performance a solid respect for each other’s musicianship and songwriting.  The ideal teammindset and execution.  If only they hadn’t picked a megalomaniacal manager who was good only for erratic decisions and sowing conflict.

Every business owner wants a management team that can play together like a great band, and most entrepreneurs are not megalomaniacs.  So, how come they seldom get the ideal result?  Maybe because in the real world they don’t have a development process or a reward system to create and solidify a management team.  They simply hire good people and hope for the best.  Not much more than a decent cover band for weddings and parties.

Let’s look for solutions for great management teams from the perspective of Why, How, What.

“Why” is part vision and part common sense.

When you hire or promote someone to a management role, you assume the ability to direct and oversee work in a group environment.  But to hire a potential member of a true management team you have to raise the ante.  Many successful creative thinkers, technology wizards, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs can make amazing contributions to your business but are not hardwired to take responsibility for others.  Other candidates realize that management is the ladder for career advancement, but they don’t grasp the responsibility.  Management team adds an ethical weight to the job, and candidates have to buy into that vision.

The vision has a very a very practical basis and personal benefits. Teamwork is an economic variable.  In the short term teamwork creates efficiencies, saves time, increases productivity, generates revenue growth, and guarantees greater profitability—not forgetting that owners can offload decisions and tasks and focus on the real CEO job functions.  In the long term the management team is a critical value driver for future ownership transitions.  Whether the transition means outside buyers, inside buyers, family members, merger partners, or public stockholders, for every option the presence of a knowledgeable, committed, financially aligned management team adds value.  In all of those options members of the management team will come out on top.

“How” is about establishing balance in the midst of contradictions.

If there is such a thing as virtuoso managers, you don’t need to find them.  You can build an effective management team with acceptably talented people as long as they have the right mindset.  As founder, owner, and CEO you have to inspire them to accept challenges on behalf of the team that are add odds with self-interest.

First, you ask them to sublimate the instinctual drive toward personal benefit and accept a reasoned system geared toward benefits-in-common.  You want them to offer brilliant ideas and strategies, but you want them to cede control of the outcome to a group.  However, back to sports momentarily, isn’t this the dilemma faced in every team sport?  What’s the verdict on talented players with great stats who don’t help their teams win championships?  They often have trouble getting into their Hall of Fame.

Second, you need a management team made up of specialists with very different areas of knowledge and very different levels of leadership skill.  Yet the success of the management team depends on integration of individual expertise into a partnership unit and on the willingness and capability of every team member to take the lead as needed.  All their knowledge must be considered equivalent and all team members must achieve equivalent leadership ability.

Finally, you want every member of the team to be self-reliant.  At the same time you require them to take responsibility for the consequences of every other team members’ decisions and actions.  Then you expect them to share credit for success with perfect grace.  Meanwhile, turn on the TV any evening and realize all of popular culture is caught up in glorifying competitive arrogance and cutthroat deception.

I remember proposing a consulting engagement to a senior executive in charge of one silo of a diversified international financial services institution where part of my pitch was how the project would have a positive impact on related silos as well.  He stopped me and asked without a blink, “Why would I want to help them succeed?”  I was speechless, but I now understand how adjectives like Byzantine and Machiavellian stay with the language for centuries.

Thankfully, in smaller privately owned companies, unlike big business institutions and reality TV shows, most managers have good intentions and do the best with what they have to work with.  The trouble is that isn’t enough to build great management teams.  You need a systematic approach that shows individuals the components of the team mindset and illuminates their shortfalls so they can adjust their behaviors.

“What” can be understood by four concepts and twenty variables that drive the development of management teams.

Aptitude is what managers bring to the table.

  • Deep knowledge
  • Broad experience
  • Organizational ability
  • Talent for cooperation
  • Leadership acuity

Authority encompasses what the company puts on the table and personal skills that create control.

  • Decision-making freedom
  • Reporting boundaries
  • Flexibility to adapt
  • Listening skills
  • Persuasion abilities

Accountability is the risk managers accept for leadership status.

  • Alignment of individuals, team, and company success
  • Benchmarks to set expectations
  • Performance evaluation
  • Partnership trust
  • Conviction of true believers

Autonomy is earned by execution and commitment.

  • Strategic insight
  • Logistical foresight
  • Contingency planning
  • Influential relationship-building
  • Expansive vision


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How to Debug Your Company’s Culture

by Terry White on December 18, 2012

Culture happens.

Yet in business there’s a misguided assumption that culture is created by mission statements, company values lists, and branding taglines. Not true—I say so backed up by a BA in Anthropology, MA in American Studies, and four decades of culture-watching since.

Culture is a self-sustaining force that emerges in all large groups based on common patterns in the members’ thoughts, words, and actions. While corporate proclamations have an impact on the employees’ thoughts, words, and action, they often become the source of culture problems. Why? They are fragile—a few management do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do inconsistencies can undermine the authenticity of missions and values and turn good intentions into cynical cultural jokes.

Take a lesson from a mega-company whose culture is regularly rated among the very best by business media,.  I give you  an alternate story told by ex-employee.

“That company has an enthusiastic team culture built on the premise that innovation requires many minds, questioning and creating in perfect collaboration.” Sounds pretty good, except…. “It’s a great company to work for except for one thing. Everyone tries to be the ideal team player, yet it’s the member who manages to stand out above the team who gets picked for promotion. The best team players never advance. So the culture offers you this career choice—screw yourself or screw your team. How enlightened is that?”

This may not be the most serious cultural mistake a company can make, but it potentially hurts loyal employees—and in turn stakeholders and customers. Companies therefore have moral and pragmatic reasons to manage their cultures more proficiently. Not, however, by a massive makeover of their mission and values and taglines. There is a simple solution that no one seems to know about.

Did you notice the hidden lesson in the ex-employee’s story? Focus on these words—“…great company to work for except for one thing.”  Separate the two messages. Leave the great-company message alone and focus on the exception.

One thing  isn’t a culture breakdown, it’s simply a bug. Managing culture is a debugging exercise. And because anthropologists have been breaking culture down into managable components for more than a century, you will find bugs easily by knowing where to look.

Let’s pick a common culture problem and create a debugging strategy—say, gender issues. Here is a complaint I heard not long ago from a female sales rep. “This is a great company to work for, except for one thing—the sales department has a male locker-room atmosphere that makes me angry and holds me back from giving my best.”

Not wanting to make the situation worse, she hesitates to complain. But of course she will talk to other women in her position and eventually the culture will pick up these messages and carry them to management. But how can management solve a problem that must have been imbedded in the culture for a long time?  How do you start a cultural change.

First management should not  ignore the “great place to work” positive message. Instead, focus on the exception by examining the cultural components and interviewing the members of the culture they effect. Simply stated–identify the bugs, remove them, and reprogram. Here are some suggestions.

Shared Ideals and Beliefs

Ideals and beliefs are what societies take as given—no need for explanation or interpretation. For example, America’s ideals and beliefs are always related to our central concept of freedom. In company cultures there are similar concepts but they are not always articulated clearly or they may seem outdated or they may be great words on paper but disconnected from the deeds in the cubicles. One gender issue bug could be the lack of a more global principle—like respect. Ask yourself….

  • How visibly does your company champion respect and value diversity?
  • How would you rate all levels of management at making respect tangible with employees?
  • How well does your company integrate its functional areas and reinforce the value everyone’s contributions?

Language and Kinship

Less abstract that ideals and beliefs, linguistic patterns reveal to anthropologists how the people of a culture perceive their environment and interact with it. Corporations have a language full of similar signals—jargon that uniquely describes products and processes that make up the landscape employees work in. Also messages for how success and the lack of it are measured and expressed. Kinship tells the anthropologist how people relate to each other and how they manage differences in status and skills. The company uses titles and job descriptions in the same way. Because men and women have some distinct language and kinship differences, the  bugs will be easy to observe.

  • Do your recruiting, training, and retention strategies contain gender biased language left over from the past?
  • Is your company sensitive to the well-researched, distinctive communication patterns associated with males and females?
  • How saturated is your motivational language with male-centric messages that females may not relate to—military and sports analogies, for example.

Rules and Rituals

Cultural rules set the boundaries of behaviors, while rituals teach patterns of behavior within those boundaries. Corporate rules on gender issues are typically focused on the critical boundary of sexual harassment— essential for myriad reasons but not exactly the foundation for creating new gender sensitive success models. Companies need to evaluate those models and debug the rules and ritualized measurements that advance people.

  • How can your company create and enforce new rules about respect for gender differences and all other forms of diversity?
  • Can the behavior models associated with success in your company be equally applied to males and females—and should they be equally applied or modified for gender differences?
  • If your company has a corporate dress code as well as other rules with gender implications, are the rules enforced consistently between genders?

Artifacts and Memes

Artifacts are material objects that carry cultural meaning. In the corporate world that’s anything from desk chairs to success awards to wall decor to parking spaces. Memes are intangibles—ideas, behaviors, fashions, fads that move through the culture.  Memes self-replicate by imitation and mutation to let everyone know what’s cool in your company, what’s smart, what’s valued, and what’s not.

  • With the accelerated pace of change, is it time to rethink the traditional artifacts and memes that were norms in a more gender-biased past but are clearly out of touch today?
  • Can your company establish a competitive business spirit that respects male and female differences in measuring career growth and satisfaction?
  • How can your company integrate gender equality and also provide affirmative support for one gender without suppressing the other gender.
  • Is there an ideal cultural message to encourage gender collaboration while als0 endorsing separate gender workstyles?


Sometimes the bugs show up a level below the general culture. When a cultural entity is large, anthropologists look for subcultures within it. For example, America shows a homogeneous cultural identity to the world, yet within the country are countless strong subcultures that set their members apart from other subcultures, leading to positive diversification or negative conflict.

In the same manner corporations think they have one culture, but a closer look reveals groups within the company that stand apart with a culture of their own—sales, tech, senior management. The specific gender conflict of this sample debugging exercise is the sales department. Within that department gender issues might be better managed from a subculture perspective by creating female sales teams, female mentors, and female sales management alongside male counterparts.

As long as the relative importance of physiological, psychological, and environmental factors in gender differences remains debatable, gender parity will waver between integration or separation and the cultural issues will remain in flux.  However, if  preferences in things like goal-setting, workstyles, lifestyles, learning methods, and communication patterns are real, why not support them as subcultures? Political correctness may be counterproductive in this case.


Finally, the information required for debugging cultural problems is best discovered up close and on the ground. Anthropologists go into the cultures, live among the members, and gather information as objectively as possible.  It is a process known as ethnography.

Ethnography is not a job for management, who are likely to be perceived more as part of the problem then part of the solution to employees experiencing a bug in the culture. Nor can it be conducted from the top floors of corporate headquarters. Every member of the culture—that is, at least the employees in the specific functional areas where the problems are centered—is a potential influencer or inhibitor of positive cultural change.  They all need to be heard in some form. They are the ones who will spread the post-debug stories that will reboot and preserve the culture.

The best way to gather their thoughts and observe their actions is to team an unbiased outside observer with trusted inside members of the culture or subcultures. The outsider has an objective to debug and brings insights from experience in other companies but does not start with any preconceptions or judgments. The insider brings context, hindsight, and foresight that broaden and deepen the analysis, assuring today’s culture solutions don’t evolve into tomorrow’s culture problems. That combination is the best assurance that everyone in the company gains the benefit of the debugging efforts.


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Company Founder Cloning Efforts Fail … Succession Planning On Hold

November 6, 2012

Over the past three decades I’ve worked with many business founders who want to see their entrepreneurial success extend to the next generation. Yet they share a common realization that defeats their ambition. They are not going to find anyone who can replace them. This sounds like an egotistical delusion, but it’s true—nobody can replace [...]

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An expanding trend is about to test parents and grandparents and students of all ages.  While our public school systems have been pitifully slow to experiment with technology-based learning, the tipping point finally appears near.  This is great for students and challenging for teachers, but it could change the whole educational dynamic for the current [...]

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The Lost Art of Experience Marketing—How can financial services firms apply it?

May 15, 2012

Buying your product should be an experience, not an event—that’s the revelation marketing gurus have been pumping lately.  Buying decisions are right-brain driven, and smart online marketers load your screen with sensory and emotional impressions that help you make them.  That’s Experience Marketing—an old American art form that needed to be rediscovered and updated. You [...]

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April 29, 2012

Really, this isn’t Hollywood where the villagers chase down the madman with all-night torches.  Passing the torch is real.  Torches can go out. As long as we have the torch  metaphor going, think of the torch itself as what a successor needs to know to assure continuity of the business—everything related to customers, products, and [...]

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Are you building a management team or just lining up vice presidents?

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We recently met the new CEO of an iconic American corporation. He radiates a competitive charisma that surely will take the company to a new level of success. Luckily, he is surrounded by a loyal team of executives—many he brought from his previous company. Or is that actually unlucky? In working with private businesses we’ve [...]

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Client Goals–Are you sure you are getting the message?

January 31, 2012

A recent poll of financial services professionals produced an eye-opening result we want to share with you.  However, the application of the findings goes beyond financial services to virtually all business relationships with customers or clients. Here is the shocker.  Suppose you have 100 highly affluent clients who depend on you for personal and business [...]

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“What you put your attention on grows.” A better strategic planning model for entrepreneurs

January 17, 2012

We have worked with many producer-founded financial services firms as well as family businesses in other fields.  January always releases a lot of strategic planning energy in these small-to-midsized companies, and we are often asked to facilitate strategic planning retreats. We always enjoy the role—generating debate and building consensus by asking tough questions, challenging assumptions, [...]

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How to be the financial advisor every client wants right now? Try channeling Gregory Peck!

August 16, 2011

IdeaTransfer is always feeling for the pulse of our culture—particularly the decision mindset of the business owners and affluent families that many of our clients serve.  During the 2008 meltdown they were angry and disappointed by their advisors–obviously.  But it was not as simple as the pain of having their assets ravaged.  It was about [...]

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