‘Team at the Top’ Proves to be a Misnomer

Tom Peters

We usually assume, with good reason, that the gang at the “top” of the corporate hierarchy are the best and the brightest. These execs are our strategists and evangelists, upon whose shoulders rests the future of the firm. Aspirants to the throne naturally look forward to achieving the pinnacle, not only for the bucks and the perks, but also for the chance to work with the best in forging an exciting future.

These reasonable assumptions were dealt a blow in an article called “Teams and Teamwork: A Study of Executive-Level Teams,” in the Winter 1987-88 issue of National Productivity Review. Authors Robert Lefton and V. R. Buzzotta, long-time counselors to top management, systematically examined 26 top-level teams, ranging in size from six to 20 people (usually a CEO or president and vice presidents); 20 of the firms are in the Fortune 500 club. In a nutshell, the authors found little teamwork, virtually no “synergy” from these collections of wise heads and a lot of wasted time and childish behavior.

Start with communication, and listen to one participating executive: “We rarely discuss things in the true sense of the word. Usually, each of us takes a fixed position early on and sticks with it. There’s lots of speech-making, grandstanding, and put-downs. Everyone’s so intent on saving face that nobody’s willing to budge.” Then onto internal coordination: “Who coordinates? We go our own separate ways, and that’s that.” “Most of us are very cautious about coordinating our efforts. I think we’re afraid we’ll get sucked into somebody else’s problems.”

And decision making: “The boss makes the decisions, period. We endorse them. It’s a very neat division of labor.” “Generally, if we have a tough decision to make, we put it off in the hope it’ll make itself. If we’re forced to decide, we usually opt for the safest alternative.” About meetings: “The president of our company uses meetings for two purposes: to deliver sermons or to lay down the law. The rest of us just sit and listen and nod agreement.”

These damning comments, especially when one considers the talent and track records of those who made them, are not anomalies. Instead, they accurately reflect the quantitative results that emerged from the research.

The authors conclude that the top teams generally engage in firefighting instead of considering basic concepts. “We’re so used to having to take action, frequently under pressure, that we seldom take time to reflect deeply on fundamentals,” one exec told the researchers. “Contemplation makes us edgy,” added another.

The bunch are also lousy listeners, say the authors: “On many of our teams, what passed for listening was little more than a respite during which those managers who weren’t talking marshalled arguments against the one who was. … There was … frequent inattention, frequent interruptions, and almost reflexive arguing and counter-arguing. … [A] number of managers who were articulate to the point of eloquence seldom seemed to hear simple messages spoken by others. Highly developed speaking skills frequently went hand-in-hand with underdeveloped listening skills.”

Top-down “decision-making” regularly stifled dissent of any sort: “We attended a meeting in which the COO kicked things off by saying: ‘I think we must—I repeat must—build the new branch as soon as possible, but I want to hear your views first. Within minutes, six vice presidents agreed that yes, we must.”

Finally, the teams seemed little concerned about implementation: “Ironically … the same executives who proclaimed the need for wholehearted commitment at their own level would often say things like, ‘Let’s write it up in a memo and send it around,’ or ‘Let’s each of us hold a meeting to tell his people what’s been decided,’ …[M]any of our executives seemed to believe that any decision promulgated by top management would automatically receive the follow-up it required …”

If these observations about executive attitudes and processes are true, what’s to be done? The biggest attitudinal problem is that too many of the surveyed chiefs saw teamwork (at the top, that is) as soft-headed abrogation of their divine authority. One CEO told the authors: “The whole idea of calling a meeting every time a decision has to be made … goes against my grain. I don’t think the president of a company, any company, should be held hostage by his vice presidents. I’m darned if I’m going to abdicate in favor of the people who work for me. That may be what the bleeding-heart theorists recommend, but it’s no way to run a business.”

But as the authors point out, real teamwork—free-wheeling communication, constant probing of basic assumptions—is the ultimate in tough-mindedness. Further, such teamwork demands no abrogation of the chief’s authority. A commitment by the boss to openness, listening, and reserving opinions until others have spoken does not require resorting to one man, one vote. (Though many effective top teams I’ve observed do believe in one person, one vote; that unanimous, but no-baloney consensus is the sine qua non for subsequent effective implementation of any strategy.)

The procedural part of the “fix” means consciously working at becoming an effective team. It’s one thing to be appalled by these findings; it’s another matter entirely to be willing to work consistently as a group to make it better.

Management teams at any level might use the quotes in this column to score yourself and your group (does this or that apply, and if so, how much—seriously consider a secret ballot). If you are unhappy with the results, consider whether or not you are willing to make a systematic investment in time to try to improve. It could well be the most important investment decision you’ve ever addressed.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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