In the latest edition of Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends (2018), the authors state:

“Senior leaders can’t afford to work in silos in today’s complex, dynamic environment. The goal is to act as a symphony of experts playing in harmony—instead of a cacophony of experts who sound great alone, but not together…..we call this new, collaborative, team-based senior executive model “the symphonic C-suite.” Like a great symphony orchestra, a symphonic C-suite brings together multiple elements: the musical score, or the strategy; the different types of instrumental musicians, or the business functions; the first chairs, or the functional leaders; and the conductor, or the CEO.”

The slightly tongue-in-cheek title to this article (yawn) stems from this question – “When was it ever acceptable for the top team to not be a team?” How is this a “new, collaborative, team-based senior executive model?” Of course in today’s environment working as a real team is critical, but it has always been important. By default, a team is a group of people who come together with a shared purpose. This is the glue that holds the team together. Could you imagine a sporting team taking to the field of play where some team members wanted to win while others wanted to lose? I would imagine it would be very funny to watch.

When was it ever acceptable for the top team to not be a team?

To be fair to the authors, I’m assuming their intention is to highlight the observed trend in the data (right) when they say, “In the last two years of our global research, the most important human capital trend identified by our survey respondents has been the need to break down functional hierarchies and build a more networked, team-based organization…The urgency around this issue is clearly reflected in our survey results. Fifty-one percent of the respondents we surveyed this year rated “C-suite collaboration” as very important—making it the most important issue in our 2018 survey—and 85 percent said that it was important or very important.”

2018 Human Capital trends graph

More of a Re-Calibration

So perhaps we should see the survey result as more of a re-calibration towards where it should be anyway? Although the authors point out that C-suite teams have been undergoing an evolution which started with the CEO being the all-powerful authority figure at the top, being a team is not a “new, collaborative, team-based model.” It has always been what teams are about, whether the team is a relatively junior team or sitting at the top of the organisation. The problem has been in the way C-suite roles are framed.

Why the “Team as a Symphony” and “CEO as Conductor” Metaphor is Flawed

While thinking about a team as a symphony – and the team leader (CEO) – as the conductor, playing beautiful music together is seductive – it is a flawed, overly simplistic metaphor. Why? There are three reasons why we should steer away from this metaphor: (1) Individual performance is emphasised first and foremost (a violinist isn’t thinking about the whole, they’re thinking about getting their bit right); (2) Members of an orchestra (usually) play one instrument only and dedicate their lives to playing that instrument flawlessly; and (3) Conductors are the authority figures who are suppose to bring it all together through precise control and instruction. These three areas can be fatal to teams working effectively together.

classical musician photoIndividual Performance Over the Collective – While functional expertise is important, it can also constrain a team and shouldn’t be seen as the most important criteria for entry to a senior team. Yes that’s right. Senior teams are usually formed based on organisationally convenient lines and boxes on a chart (usually just reflecting all of the major functional areas thrown together), rather than what constitutes an exemplary team. With this first structure mentioned, people usually place more energy and emphasis downward (the team that reports to them) rather than to the team in front of them.

A question I like to ask teams I work with is, “Which is your first team?” Most find this to be a challenging notion to get their head around. Running a bunch of functional silos well doesn’t guarantee organisational success! Effective teams must focus on doing the work that no other area can do alone – and be prepared to make decisions that benefit the whole, sometimes wearing a cost in their functional area.

Team composition should reflect the best group of people we can assemble for short, medium and long term goals and so may change as the need arises…

Playing One Instrument: This perpetuates an old model that we need to move away from. Team composition should reflect the best group of people we can assemble for short, medium and long term goals. And so composition may change as the need arises (perhaps with a very small consistent core of no more than 3-5 people). Truly effective team members don’t derive their power from playing their respective instrument (function) flawlessly, they gain their power from working together to solve large organisational challenges first – with their respective functional specialisations playing a distant secondary role. Leadership is leadership, not leadership because I know a lot about HR or IT or Finance. The transition from proudly wearing a shiny badge that reads “functional specialist” can be enormously challenging, with many senior people never making it. Perhaps a more apt badge should be “I’m a leader first and foremost”.

The transition from proudly wearing a shiny badge that reads functional specialist can be enormously challenging, with many senior people never making it.

conductor photoCEOs as Conductors – The metaphor used by the authors smacks of a classic ‘hub and spoke’ model where all guidance and direction comes from the person at the front (the CEO). In this model, a symphony is created by the conductor “orchestrating” every move, every play, in a precise, controlled way. This approach works when the task at hand is of a technical, reproducible nature. Organisations and teams don’t work in that way. The authors observe (as many have done) how dynamic and fast-paced our work is today, yet the conductor metaphor is straight out of 19th century management theory – “I have all the answers and so to be successful you need to do exactly as I say.” This doesn’t reflect the real world and takes us backwards.

Where to from Here?

The authors finish this section of the report by stating:

The movement toward the symphonic C-suite is proving to be one of the most powerful and urgent trends for organizations worldwide.” And that, “CxOs at leading companies understand that working, collaborating, and interacting as a team is now essential—and they are reorganizing around this model. We expect this trend to accelerate as organizations begin to recognize that the symphonic C-suite—teams leading teams—is the most effective way to tackle the complex issues businesses face today.”

I’m not sure teams are – or should be – re-organising around the “symphonic model” suggested. While we can’t dispute that change is required, we must be careful not to re-create the glory days of the all-conquering team leader/CEO who always felt the need to be holding the baton – to be the one in charge. While senior people always need to be accountable, it is the antithesis of good leadership to be always directing. We should be supporting senior people in a way that makes it okay to say “I don’t know”. They need to be taught how to be present, vulnerable and real. A leader’s actions need to be less ego-driven and more service-driven. Perhaps we can help them most by not using archaic metaphors about leadership and teams that don’t move us forward collectively.

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