Real Leaders

Experiencing a Toxic Team? It May be Time for a Team Guardian

“There is a toxic culture developing in the team and we are losing people.”

I zoomed into the conversation – this was a completely unexpected comment. It was a familiar situation in larger companies which were not paying attention to the team dynamics, but to hear it at start-up, one that had a deep purpose, an accomplished team, stellar reputation, and a driven leader?

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I am with another start-up, in their meeting room with a group of  Gen Z’s: their culture is driven my autonomy, mastery, innovation,  and passion and yet their spirit seems heavy. I don’t see or feel excitement and drive: I hear a lack of belonging, a feeling of being unheard, and musings on finding another fit.

Separately, sitting with a group of eight men on a team that are C-3 and who lead digital transformation in a large telecom, many of whom have been working together for years yet when we talk about roles, ‘who do you report to again?,’ asks one of the participants. Others also seem unsure but mostly they are surprised at the gaps in the knowledge they have for each other. When we talk about Covid, ‘I had no idea it’s been so tough for you’, is one of the comments.

At a different meeting I was observing, one of the executives interjected suddenly, ‘I have to leave this meeting for an hour’. There was no explanation. Suddenly it felt like was there was a secret in the room.

I suggested there was some tension at the departure of this executive and the CEO, who was also in the room, then explained in detail the urgent matter he was attending to. There was then a palpable sense of relief but what the CEO had not realised earlier was the fact that what was known to her required vocalising to others. 

And there are many more such anecdotes.

We talk about team work often, and most leaders – whether at  start-ups or established companies –   see it as a key to unlock success. Data shows us that 60% of new ventures fail due to problems with the team. Creating the right team culture is quoted as paramount. Culture lives within teams, and thus it spreads into an organisation. 

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So how do leadership teams build and sustain a successful team culture and then roll it out? 

Who leads this initiative?  

Some might argue it is the HR division. However, the skills required to unearth the patterns that hold teams back and then to address them in ways that feel safe yet courageous, objective and impactful are very distinctive – they rely on coaching, facilitation, group dynamics psychology, constellation work, conflict management and experience in sensing the room.  

If we are serious about creating teams that flourish and perform we need an expert in teams to support the organisation. We need a Team Guardian (TG). And clearly HR would be essential in its role to liaise with the TG.  

Start-up’s are particularly in need. Founders are driven by passion; dealing with daily challenges, external stakeholders and having to drive the business forward. They suddenly find themselves move from 3 people to 30 or 300 having at times never managed a team or had the time to think about culture. They often lead by instinct and at times this works well but at some point they have to sit down and – in addition to capital raising, hiring, strategy –  reflect and focus on the state of the team. How are they collectively performing? How are they connecting and communicating? What is being missed? What are the undercurrents? Are they clear and aligned on strategy and vision?  At some point this becomes an essential priority. Only, mostly, they have no time and/or experience to do this effectively.  

TG’s are professionals and their super power is to build, nurture and sustain high performing teams; to support key players in their goals, and to resolve conflict.

This support is vital for all leaders. And for start-up’s it can be the key to success – how the team works is make or break.  

So how can this work practically?

Can a TG be an EXCOM member? What is the scope and longevity of the role? How important is objectivity and the perception of objectivity? How is the TG to be renumerated?  And how is the success of TG’s to be measured – what are the KPIs?   

What is clearer to answer is how a TG’s impact can be measured: using dimensions connected to belonging, openness/communication, clarity/alignment, safety, and meeting dynamics is a very good start. Naturally within each team there may be specific and proprietary challenges that the TG will have to unearth, diagnose, address and assess.

Belonging and safety are key to us as humans. When we feel we belong our commitment is higher, as is our performance. Safety, includes the ability to speak up, to be controversial, to be vulnerable, and to be courageous.  In such an environment, communication flows, defences are down, we can hear each other and also feel heard leading to clarity between team members.  Clear and open communication, underpinned by trust is empowering and creates ownership and a sense of alignment. 

Like other executives, the tenure of a TG will depend on their scope, need and impact.

In my experience, TG’s need to work with most members of the leadership team both individually and as a team. Although this number can vary depending on contextual complexity and will be impacted by timespan, a team that invests 6-9 days initially (in a year) with their TG can see significant progress. This can then be supplemented with targeted individual coaching. 

The TG will typically work with multiple teams within an organisation assessing the larger relational dynamics and being able to interweave learnings from all the teams to create a shared language and alignment. 

Can it be full time role? Yes and no:  it would depend on size and complexity of the entity in question.  Another multifaceted question to answer is how will a TG be engaged? As an employee, consultant, and/or owner coach?

This is a role that is emerging as a necessity and as it is embraced will continue to evolve.

Time to get a TG?

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