I recently listened to a rebroadcast of a speech Lyndon Johnson gave to a joint session of congress when he proposed the voting rights act. The gist of his speech was that while things had gotten better for African Americans, they were still not good enough when it came to the right to vote. Johnson had reached the point when he would no longer tolerate the behavior of some of his congressional colleagues in this area, even at the risk of damaging relationships that had gotten him to the presidency.
“We are so much better than we used to be,” is a phrase that has become a huge red flag for me when I hear it from members of an Executive Leadership Team (ELT) engaged in our Team Alignment process. Most often, this comes up when we begin our work and the ELT is exceptionally dysfunctional—the team lacks focus and direction, their meetings are unproductive, meetings are taking place behind closed doors with subsets of the team to discuss how they really feel about a full team meeting, they are slow to make decisions and the CEO is very frustrated. You get the picture.
Aligning an ELT involves pre- and post-assessment of the team to measure progress. Often the pre-assessment is terrible: low trust, lack of commitment and accountability, poor results. When the post assessment shows great improvement, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. But being better may not be anywhere near good enough. Why? Because the real issue is not if the team is better than it was at the beginning. That’s pretty easy. What really matters is whether the team is good enough to meet the challenge of transformation.
As we move forward with the Team Alignment process, we assess whether an ELT is performing at a high level. It involves two metrics: Quality of aspiration and level of tolerance. Team alignment is not an end unto itself. The real goal is to create a team capable of doing great things. Once an ELT reaches the “better” phase, our challenge to the team is “How can you use the trust, commitment and accountability you have built to do truly great things that transcend the day-to-day business, and get to the real reason your organization exists?” This is what quality of aspiration is about.
Greatness transcends good business results. A high quality aspiration means making a difference for the better. It goes back to the values you seek to live in the world: Quality heath care for all, quality of life for senior citizens and educational equity are just some examples. Such aspirations enable a team to transcend functional silos to become unique career experiences characterized by collegiality and true high performance.
Level of intolerance means each team member must not tolerate unacceptable behavior or under-performance from any team member. What I usually find in “good enough” teams is they continue to tolerate ineffective or uncommitted members because it seems easier or less risky than confronting the issue. I know this is going on when team members start complaining that the CEO should be taking stronger action against one or two members.
Every member of the team is responsible for the performance of the whole. If you as a team member tolerate unacceptable behavior from other members, you are partly responsible for the problem. Just as LBJ no longer tolerated the behavior of his congressional colleagues when it came to African Americans’ right to vote, we can all aspire to that kind of intolerance of unacceptable behavior. Your organization and the world will be better places when we do. Send me an email to continue this important conversation!