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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