has been written about the behavior of teams at the tops of organizations. This group of
senior managers, most notably the Chief Executive Officer and his or her direct reports,
holds a unique position at the top of the hierarchy. They are the key decision-makers,
wielding significant influence over the actions and behaviors of many people who comprise
For years, many in the
collaboration/participation movement have lamented what they have called lack of top
management support for these processes. Too many times senior managers speak the
language of participation only to fall back into highly directive behaviors when
its time to make the tough decisions.
In these times of rapidly changing technology and work
environments, there are certainly times when quick decisions are necessary. But there are
other decisions, such as those relating to work redesign, or reengineering, that could
have and should have extensive input from those whose jobs are being redesigned.
It was in this context that I looked forward with great
anticipation to the new book from Jon R. Katzenbach titled Teams At the Top. Katzenbach co-authored the bestseller, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, a
book that connected with many readers. But his new book misses the mark on its message for
Thinking that maybe my years working with team concepts
had jaded my thinking, I asked two other people for their opinions of the book. Without
knowing how I felt, they both said the book was a disappointment.
Teams at the Top, in the words
of the author, focuses on three basic messages:
1. The best senior leadership groups are rarely a true team at
the topalthough they can and do function as real teams when major, unexpected events
prompt that behavior.
2. Most of them can optimize their performance as a group by
consciously working to obtain a better balance between their team and non-team
effortsrather than by trying to become an ongoing single team.
3. The secret to a better balance lies in learning to
integrate the discipline required for team performance with the discipline of executive
(single-leader) behavior not in replacing one with the other.
The above having been said, the author seems to look for
reasons why teams at the top wont work rather than how to move senior leadership
toward more team, or collaborative, behaviors. The book, at times, almost seems to be
written for senior executives as a license to continue their current styles of
For example, in his chapter entitled Why
Nonteams Prevail at the Top, Katzenbach completely
confuses this reader with the following:
"It is abundantly clear that nonteams work,
particularly at the top. There is a natural order to things; it tends to be hierarchical.
Place 11 guinea hens in a pen, and science tells us that they will instinctively sort out
a natural pecking order. This establishes which hen is strongest, the accepted ranking
among them, and who influences whom. In human organizations as well, it is important to
establish who reports to whom and who is in charge of what. These are reasonable things to
want to know, and knowing the answers helps everyone get things done in a large
"Leadership groups at the top of human organizations
are a bit more complicated than simple animal analogies imply. Nonetheless, the same
instincts for strong, individual leadership persist. Most of us prefer strong leaders who
will shoulder the burden of making a clearing in the forest that ensures
organizational performance and helps sustain the viability of the institution against the
unpredictable forces at work in our society. The value and security we gain from a strong
leader is undeniable, and team behavior often seems to threaten both."
"Teams are more likely to disrupt the natural order
of things at the top. They do not sustain established, predictable patterns of leadership
or respect time-honored rules and roles for the members. They are neither efficient nor
orderly groupings. Seldom are they the best way to get normal work accomplished or routine
problems solved. Although they may protect their members, they do not follow comfortable
pathways, nor do they maintain a predictable pecking order based on the relative formal
positions of the members. Moreover, teams are seldom the fastest way for a group with an
experienced, capable leader to get where they are going, particularly if the
leader has been there before. And teams certainly require long hours of hard work!"
Guinea hens...natural order... pecking order...
strongest. These are words guaranteed to sustain the topdown hierarchical
non-participative decision-making of senior executives. The statements in the
above paragraphs are appalling when viewed in the context of the contributions made by
team decision-making in the last two decades.
Perhaps this is the books most noteworthy omission.
Trying to fit executive behavior into a work team model is not the issue...collaboration
is. Little is said about the benefits of executive collaboration...and this is the primary
reason why they should operate more as a team. Particularly at the executive level, where
decisions can make or break the organization, greater collaboration should be the norm,
not the exception.
Another statement that brought chills to these bones was:
"Nonteam behavior persists at the top simply because
top executives prefer to function as individual leaders most of the time."
Of course they prefer to function this way. The
single-leader, hierarchical model has been
standard operating procedure all of this century. People naturally prefer to behave as
they have been trained. To do otherwise is uncomfortable.
We could make the same argument with respect to front-line
workers who are asked to work in a team. If they simply refused because they preferred to
work as they always have, wed have no progress at all in moving toward more
effective work structures!
Katzenbach goes on to say that
"[top executives] excel in settings where they can
focus on achieving their individual best results, as well as hold others similarly
accountable. They are natural overachievers as individuals; they are uncomfortable
collaborators in amorphous groupings with overlapping accountabilities."
What he is describing is the current state, brought on by
years of selecting those leaders who fit the mold of traditional management
thinking. The question arises then of the executive of the future. Will she be more
collaborative because she was reared in a lower level team system that rewarded
collaborative behavior? What about todays young people who are learning the
fundamentals of collaboration in public schools. Will they be more collaborative leaders?
When one experiences the power of collaboration firsthand, it is not a lesson easily
Katzenbach again sings the praises of the single-leader by
stating that this leader usually offers the advantage of knowing what the
groups goals and basic working approach should be. Perhaps he should read how
Microsoft Corporations CEO Bill Gates was persuaded by his team to reconsider their
strategic direction in light of the rapid growth of the Internet. Had he not listened to
his team, Microsoft stood the chance of being left behind one of the most significant
trends of the 20th Century.
Katzenbachs belief in the traditional hierarchical
structure with its strong leader and prescribed pecking order ignores other
effective operating processes. Again the Internet serves as an example. As one of
the fastest growing modalities of communication today, the Internet has no formal
hierarchy and certainly no single leader. Yet it grows at breakneck speed in both size and
What is most disturbing in a book supposedly about teams
is the language used so frequently to describe team operation. Phrases such as
amorphous groupings with overlapping responsibilities, disrupt the
natural order of things, seldom the best way to get normal work accomplished
or routine problems solved, seldom the fastest way for a group with an
experienced, capable leader to get where they are going, time-consuming
forming, norming, and storming stuff, and other similar statements make
one wonder if the author truly understands and believes in team processes.
In fact, I am somewhat perplexed at why the book was
written in the first place. If it was written for senior executives to reinforce
existing behaviors, it succeeded. As a catalyst for change it has failed
Executives need to understand that drawing on each
others talents is a desired behavior, not a sign of weakness. Working together for
the betterment of the organization will yield better decisions, not time lost in wasted
Guinea hens may seek out a natural pecking order
and look for the strongest bird to influence them. But Canadian wild geese are effective
by using a different process....one that draws on the strength and mutual support of each
bird in the flock. This is the model for the workplace of the millennium.
The demands of todays marketplace require a nimble
approach and a rapid response to change. Reliance on the dominant, single-leader
management process is an idea whose time has gone. Certainly, we will continue to operate
our organizations in a structure that clearly delineates responsibility and
accountability, but to ignore the significant benefits of team processes and collaborative
decision-making is certain to suboptimize the talents of the critical players.
Jon Katzenbach, for some reason, has badly missed this