The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team

Step 1: Deserve, Demand, and Be Worthy of a Great Team

Here is the first flawless step in building any team any time, no matter your role:

Take 100% personal responsibility for being a member of an amazing team.

Why? Here are four reasons:

1. Taking 100% personal responsibility is not the same as being a responsible person.

2. You deserve to be a member of an amazing team.

3. Role accountability is not the same as personal responsibility.

4. Personal responsibility inspires shared responsibility which makes you more effective and happy at work.

Taking 100% Personal Responsibility

“To what do you owe your participation in this failed program?”

I asked engineer after engineer when I interviewed members of two large failed programs. “I got put on a bad team,” was the number one response I received. Note that talent was not the issue since each employer prided themselves on hiring the best of the best.

This not-so-shocking finding led to this revelation:

Professionals assume someone else is responsible for the quality of their team and experience at work.”

When you give up that assumption — and I hope you already have or soon will — you are presented with two opposite assumptions to consider:

  1. Whether or not a group becomes a high-performing team is mostly luck and not worth investing much of my leadership time and talent in. Or,
  2. I can take personal responsibility for building any team at any time by tapping into the now well-developed art and science of team leadership.

The second choice is the more productive, sane, and successful way to go.

The Responsibility Process

Over the last 25 years, a small research team has unpacked the mental processes by which all humans take AND avoid responsibility for our situations, lives, actions and consequences. This research produced the Responsibility Process, a breakthrough discovery showing how good, smart, and generally responsible people like you and me display plenty of denial, defensiveness, and resistance on a daily basis when things are not going our way.

When we operate from the naturally-occurring bottom six mindsets in this chart, we apply our skills and talents to defend, cope, and resist. When we operate at the top of the chart we learn, grow, and change — elements essential to an agile mindset and culture. Leaders worldwide report that awareness and applied practice of this process in their own mind dramatically leverages all of their leadership abilities.

You can and must come to know and apply your own mind’s Responsibility Process to understand what it takes to build and lead a group to become a team, and then do it.

Deserve To Be In A Great Team

You have come of age during a time of paternalistic management left over from the industrial revolution. A deeply embedded assumption about going to work is that you just have to — i.e., the Obligation mindset — put up with a lot of crap in order to earn a living. That’s changing.

The truth is that you can earn an even better living and provide far more value if you are also having fun and enjoying engaging relationships at work. Remember what I wrote in the first post in this series, when teams perform highly:

  1. We voluntarily contribute beyond what our roles ask of us.
  2. We indeed produce collectively at high levels.
  3. We have a great time doing it.

You do deserve this — don’t you? Then, demand it of yourself and your situation. Don’t accept less because of some left-over traditional management thinking.

Don’t Confuse Responsibility With Accountability

While we use the words “responsibility” and “accountability” interchangeably, there are two distinct meanings at work: One has to do with how we make and keep agreements about work and reward. The other has to do with our felt sense of ownership for a situation, problem, or consequence.

In the absence of personal responsibility, we attempt to drive accountability with limited results. But when people operate at high levels of personal responsibility, then managing accountability is effortless.

As managers, we tend to have an overdeveloped ability to focus people on role accountability, and an underdeveloped ability to effectively promote ownership for the larger value-stream.

Traditional Role Accountability Mindset

This overdeveloped sense of role accountability keeps us overly focused on pieces and parts, structures, functions, departments, and roles — the all-consuming atomizing of work. This “differentiation” (as it is called in organization science) is one of two big components of organizational sensemaking. The other big part is “integration” or bringing the whole together.

Before the last couple of decades of flattening, optimizing, and right-sizing, integration was the job of managers at every level. Now, integration is everyone’s job. Self-organizing teams in agile software development are the current epitome of simultaneous role differentiation and value integration. Executives have a great deal to learn and borrow from these front-line teams.

Personal Responsibility Inspires Shared Responsibility

In the first post I defined “team” as “a group of people stepping up to an opportunity for shared responsibility.” What does that mean?

It means the individuals go beyond what their roles require of them because they feel a sense of ownership for a problem, situation, or initiative — for the overall value. And when one sees another demonstrating a similar sense of ownership toward the same thing, then each becomes more willing to help and be helped with what they are doing regardless of their role accountability. The diagram above illustrates this.

The Context Is The Container

In the first post I mentioned that the most important chemistry is not the chemistry between individuals. Leaders often over-focus on this. I’ve found leaders gain enormous leverage when they instead focus on the chemistry of the container or the vessel. The vessel is the playing field of shared responsibility – so in other words, as leaders we want to create a context or a culture where people can thrive and where shared responsibility is expected and valued.

Think of the container as a fruit bowl with the fruit representing both people and product. You get to design the fruit bowl of leadership norms, agreements, tolerances and intolerances, and focal points.


The Container Provides The Shape and Support For Abundant Productivity



Try this: Close your eyes and imagine opening your arms to surround and contain the entire social system for which you want yourself and others in your team to feel a sense of ownership. I bet what you envision could go well beyond your department, function, and organization to encompass suppliers, customers, and more. Congratulations, you’ve just defined the group for which you want to design the container.

In the second post in this series, I revealed the hidden-in-plain-sight organizational self-sabotage we create by how we design the organization. In this post I’ve shown you the single most important mindset and frame of reference for you to adopt in building and leading the executive team to have both an excellent team and to start developing a single agile context across the organization.

In the next post, we will continue to develop the container with the second flawless step for building the executive team.


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