Imagine a world where you bring together the top leaders in your organization to solve the company’s most pressing challenges, and, instead of coming together as a core group to solve that problem, they approach the exercise as a collection of factions that are more concerned about their and their team’s self interest than solving the company’s needs. It sounds tragic, but also probably like another day at work for a lot of folks, and it’s why I spend a lot of time building a First Team mindset amongst the leaders in my organization.
A First Team mindset is the idea that leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over supporting their direct reports—that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual teams. If you’re not entirely onboard with that concept, I get it. It took me a while to come around to it myself. But, in my experience, a First Team mindset has been transformational in creating a high performing organization by improving the quality of leadership and management practiced. Instead of spending time and energy in watching their backs, your leaders can be focused on moving your organization forward. When your leaders have built trust with each other it becomes significantly easier to manage change, exhibit vulnerability, and solve problems together.
Here are some of the ways I’ve had success in creating a First Team mindset:
The more explicit you are about the behaviors you expect from your leaders the better off you’ll be. I make sure I’m clear with my managers about their responsibility to one another. If I’m hiring a leader, I detail the First Team expectation in the job description and interview for ways in which they’ve practiced it. If I’m transitioning an engineer into a leadership position, I make sure I tell them about this shift in their focus. When possible, I’ve also written it into our career ladder. If you have a manager readme, put it in there too.
I find that it’s best to leave as little to interpretation as possible on this front. While it’s always scary to put something down in writing, I’ve found that my successors and I have always been thankful that past me did this.
Treat Them Like a Cohort
I’ve found that if you don’t treat your leadership team like a cohort, they won’t become one. So I make sure I bring together my leadership team on a regular basis and afford them the same benefits and constructs as a normal team. That includes everything from mailing lists and slack channels to team building exercises and social events. Information and trust are the currencies of leadership, and demonstrating an equal distribution of them through shared experiences is a powerful tool.
Help Them Help Each Other
In my day-to-day. I encourage interdependence and normalization of help seeking amongst team members. I constantly encourage my team to talk to one another about their problems, and refer them to each other for help.
If one of my managers has a difficult conversation coming up, I’ll refer them to a fellow manager to role play it. If one of my reports is encountering a problem that someone else has seen before, I’ll send them to that person from help. It sounds simple, but normalizing this behavior can be so powerful.
Another great way tool is Manager Roundtables. Psychological safety has been a topic making a splash in management and leadership zeitgeist, and formalizing help seeking is a key component to bringing that about. Manager roundtables are a great way to achieve this as they are spaces specifically designed to share and solve problems collaboratively. This is a place where I prefer to bring in a third party to facilitate rather than participate myself due to power dynamics.
Help Them Help You
One of the best parts of creating a First Team mindset is that you can invite your team to help you solve your problems as well. Showing this kind of vulnerability may feel scary at first, but it has proven to be so beneficial to me. Being able to leverage the capabilities of my leaders on my problems not only leads to better outcomes for my organization, but also serves as a great development opportunity because it exposes them to the types of problems that they will face at the next level of their career.
I have asked my team to help me develop every piece of my organization’s VMSO. I’ve also asked them to help each other develop their individual teams’ VMSOs. One of the most mind blowing exercises I’ve been a part of is when I asked my managers to develop a VMSO for another manager’s team. Give it a shot. I highly recommend it.
I also involve my team in promotions and compensation calibration. This is a place where there is usually a finite pool of money that must be allocated across an entire organization, and having a First Team mindset avoids bickering and taker behaviors. It’s a great way for managers to get different perspectives on their reports and develop confidence that, as a group, we are making fair and equitable promotion and compensation decisions. You can read more about compensation calibration here and here.
Reorgs and personnel changes are another area where I’ve benefited from having a cohort of leaders invested in each other. Very few people like reorgs, and I’ve found that the hardest part about reorgs isn’t deciding the new organizational structure, but having the discipline and will to enact the change in operation and collaboration models that fall out from them. Having your team involved in shaping a reorg is a huge step toward getting buy in an increases the chances of success.
I credit a lot of my success to building a First Team amongst my managers. Transitioning to this mindset was definitely an inflection point in the way that I think about and practice leadership and management. For me, it’s been an effective way to raise management quality, make good decisions, and increase organizational performance. And, I think if you give it a try, it can be that for you, too.
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