The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team

Step 4: Make and Keep Agreements to Develop Shared Reality, Trust and Speed

After taking 100% responsibility for being in a great team, co-authoring a singularity of focus, and surfacing real member motivations (beyond a paycheck), the next long lever of building a great executive team I would employ is making and keeping agreements. In this post I’ll summarize my research in terms of why, what, and how to make and keep agreements.

Why: Loving Your Reality

“Insane” is the most common descriptor I hear leaders use to describe difficult operating environments — and I hear it a lot. I bet you do, too. So, why not take responsibility for developing a highly-sane reality where you love working?

Why: Norms By Default or By Design?

Behavioral norms  — behavior that is considered normal in that context — develop  lightning fast in groups. In fact, they develop so quickly they become “just the way it is” before you know it.

Leaders and coaches who understand this  also understand  that they have two choices about how norms form. They can have norms by default, or they can have designer norms.

Norms by default develop by whatever is unconsciously allowed and tolerated. The effectiveness of such norms will fit a normal (no pun intended) curve. So, the likelihood of healthy norms developing “by default” is low.

Wise leaders and coaches promote designer norms early in group formation. You could think of designer norms as normal behavior that is chosen and agreed upon by the team to support the team.

Let’s look at two “whats” to consider what making and keeping agreements is about.

What: Critical Operating Agreements

Human behavior varies widely — even among people in pursuit of a common goal. We wear our hair and clothes differently. We have different work styles and preferences. We enjoy different pastimes.

Indeed, diversity of style, taste, approach, beliefs and more is considered good and right. And, among all of this diversity, there are a few critical expectations you hold for how people should behave when they have you as a partner – and the same is true for them.

I’ll offer some pointers in the “How” section for how to develop designer norms through agreements.

What: Everyday Agreements

One hallmark of a highly effective relationship is the ability to make and keep agreements of all sizes and shapes on the fly. Develop your own ability while nurturing and appreciating this ability in others.

How to Develop Designer Norms Through Agreements

The goal is to identify the fewest and most important set of behavioral agreements that (a) support the team in operating at peak performance together because of shared relationship expectations (i.e., shared reality), and (b) allow all other individual behavior to vary (i.e., allows for plenty of individualism).

So, list all of those most important behavioral expectations of each other. They are usually about considerations for one another such as — but certainly not limited to — timeliness, communication, keeping promises, confidentiality, taking responsibility (my favorite), mutual support, and decision-making.

After listing them all, talk about each, combine and edit in ways everyone agrees to, and allow the most compelling five to nine to bubble to the top. You should be able to verify each by asking and answering: “How would we know if one of us is breaking that agreement?” and “How would we know when we are following that agreement?” Hint: This is why we make agreements about behavior rather than, for instance, feelings.

Require engaged consensus. Don’t allow give and take as in “well I don’t really believe in #2 but I’ll give it to you if you give me #3.” You will regret that later when you have ineffective norms (and a middling team) based on the rationale that “I  really never did support that when we agreed to it and you know it.”

Write them down, distribute them, hang them up, review them at every meeting.

Leave room on your list for one or two additional ones to be discovered and added.

Time agreements are the nursery school of all behavioral agreements. This is because such agreements are so observable.  Talk with teammates about what happens to honesty, trust, confidence, and integrity when time agreements are made and then ignored or broken.

Finally, consider this: The likelihood of your fragile new operating agreements being broken or violated is likely 100 per cent. Expect violations and don’t be surprised. Ask every team member to call out other team members when the violation is still small — so calling it can also be small and highly respectful instead of a major confrontation. Do this, and you’ll have your designer norms.Making and meeting agreements in an Agile executive team

How: Good Habits for Great Agreements

Ask for what you want – Every highly effective person I know asks directly for what they want. If you demur when you have a chance to set expectations, then sadly — and you may think this harsh — you reap what you sow. Get to know yourself and have high regard for yourself. That’s how to feel good about asking for what you want.

Pursue clarity – Sloppily crafted agreements produce aberrated results. Why? Because there never really was agreement — just different interpretations. Before closing on an agreement, clarify together who is doing what by when, how, and why.

Keep It – Trust is the residue of promises kept. When you make an agreement, keep it. Or at least have the courage to renegotiate it or announce that you’re not going to keep it.

Don’t Make Any Agreement You Aren’t Willing to Keep – Before making any agreement no matter how small, ask yourself if you truly intend to keep it. If the answer is no, then don’t make the agreement.

When it comes to gauging your integrity, the size of the agreement doesn’t matter. What matters is your ownership of it.

“Yes” Doesn’t Mean Anything Unless “No” Does – If the norm is that only “yes” is the acceptable answer to any request, then the relationship is broken. If you want “yes” to really mean “yes” then you have to allow for “no.”

Clean Up All Broken Agreements at the First Opportunity – We all make agreements with the best of intentions and then blow it. Why? Because we are human. We miscalculate. Externalities impede and change our priorities. We forget prior commitments. There are a thousand good reasons.

Only by cleaning up the broken agreement — by acknowledging that you blew it, apologizing, asking how to make amends, and re-committing to the relationship — do you get to maintain the relationship and keep building trust.


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