In two decades of consultancy work, we have worked with a number of highly effective strategic leadership teams. This journey has provided invaluable insights into what propels these teams towards success and what hinders their performance. At their best, these teams play a pivotal role in shaping strategic focus, ensuring successful implementation of strategy, and fostering an organisational culture in which people can truly thrive.  We have observed that the most effective strategic leadership teams are built on having a blend of the ‘right’ people, a compelling purpose, and high levels of trust.  This blog begins to unpack these three imperatives.

Assemble the Right Team

Do team members collaborate or compete?

Getting the right people on the team is critical.  We have observed that teams that are made up of a diverse group of people who can function as ‘bridge-builders’ are often best placed to succeed.  These leaders value the contribution of others, foster creative collaboration, and as a result, help the team make better sense of complex challenges.  Having the right team leader with the quality and character to enable collaboration is particularly important. This is typically a leader who demonstrates resilience and humility, who can facilitate the growth of colleagues and who places the success of the organisation and its people above all other considerations.

If the team has a tendency to pull in different directions, it can be challenging to make progress on shared goals and priorities.  For teams heading off course, it is vital that disruptive or unhelpful behaviour that is inconsistent with team and organisational values is tackled early to maintain cohesion and effectiveness.  Where teams become disconnected, we have observed a tendency for team members to become more orientated towards self-preservation and are more likely to compete than collaborate.

Foster a Collective Cause

Why does this team exist?

The best teams have a compelling purpose.  We see that teams that are clear on purpose help to direct behaviour and motivation towards a shared goal.  Purpose gives clarity to the ‘why’ question.  We have seen that a number of teams get stuck on purpose, struggle to clearly articulate the ‘why’, and can only tell us that ‘this is what we do’.  In our experience, if the leadership team is clear on its purpose, this cascades down to teams throughout the organisation, and helps frame the ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions.

The most effective teams understand the interdependencies and interfaces that will be key to realising strategic goals and priorities.  This comes from a belief that it is only by working collectively that strategic leadership teams can effectively tackle tough challenges and thrive.  In our experience, these challenges are not usually addressed if people are unclear on purpose.  The best teams seek to join people up and work across-boundaries to deliver meaningful and sustainable improvement.  In doing this, they also understand that aligning rewards and incentives with collective outcomes is essential.  Strategic leadership teams with a compelling purpose energise, inspire, and mobilise others.

Facilitate Honest Conversations

How easy is it to bring up problems or tough issues to the team?

To be a high-performing team people need to feel that they can be free to be themselves.  We have observed that for a number of teams, this sense of ‘freedom’ to be vulnerable can be elusive.  Our view is that the creation of a psychologically safe space in which team members can come together to ask ‘dumb’ questions, admit to lack of knowledge, seek help, or challenge assumptions is the most fundamental aspect of a high-performing team.

Our experience tells us that it is environments where people feel comfortable and have confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up that leads to sustainable high performance.  Developing this environment can take time, and a key part of this is building trust.  We have seen in less trusting environments, that team meetings and conversations can lose authenticity if honesty is not valued.  A lack of psychological safety can lead to teams ignoring ‘elephants in the room’ and instead look to comfortable collusion, protecting egos and conflict avoidance.  Strengthening trust bonds allows each team member to bring their true selves to the table, mitigating groupthink, enabling challenge and learning and fostering a high-quality strategic dialogue.

We believe the journey towards a high-performing strategic leadership team hinges on three pivotal factors: assembling the right team, fostering a collective cause, and facilitating honest conversations. High-performing teams are characterised by members who collaborate as bridge-builders, align around a compelling purpose, and cultivate a psychologically safe environment where honesty thrives. By prioritising these elements, leadership teams can propel their organisations towards sustained success.

by Richard Sharpe, Principal Consultant and Managing Director