Patrick Lencioni & The Table Group for the “First Team” concept
and Dalmau Consulting for the image
I loved my job.
I was part of a powerful and effective executive team, to whom I was loyal. I had no problem identifying that they were the team that I was personally responsible and accountable to.
They were my ‘First Team’.
I had built my own team into a great team. People who took on some of the most complex projects you could imagine and not just succeeded but excelled. I felt great loyalty to everyone who directly and indirectly reported to me.
But there is no doubt that my division was my ‘Second Team’
A First Team – best articulated by Patrick Lencioni – is the idea that true leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over their direct reports—that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual, or “Second”, teams.
If you’re not entirely on board with that concept, I get it.
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.
When leaders have built trust with each other it becomes significantly easier to manage change, exhibit vulnerability, and solve problems together.
I was part of a team who looked and functioned as like example A in the drawing:
When I fell out of my “First Team”
Things changes when I got a new boss with who I was close and considered myself a trusted confidant. Over time she went quiet, stopped sharing reasons for decisions and stopped responding. People were hired people onto the leadership team, of which I belonged, whom I believed did not demonstrate the standards I expected of them. My performance began to slip, and my reactions to events were not always as professional as I either hoped or was expected of me.
In retrospect, all the signs pointed to the simple fact that I was nearing, or had gone past, my best before date as far as she was concerned. To be clear, I have never purported myself to be perfect in any regard, but in this case, I was dealing with a boss who was not providing me clear and proper performance management nor effective leadership.
As pictured in example B, I lost faith in my boss and much of the leadership team.
So much so that I focused on my own team, and slowly but surely, I became more and more isolated for the organization’s objectives.
Other Examples of a Broken “First Team”
Imagine a world where the top leaders in your organization are gathered to solve the company’s most pressing challenges. Instead of coming together as a team focused on solving that problem, they approach the exercise more concerned about their own self-interest than solving the company’s needs as pictured in example D above.
Or are you part of a leadership team that is so disconnected from the rest of the company that they have
no idea what is happening on the shop floor. Picture example C above as the worst of ‘Undercover Boss’. Where leadership simply has no idea.
But probably just another day at work for a lot of people, and it’s why I spend a lot of time building a First Team mindset with my clients.
Here are some of the ways I’ve had success in creating a First Team mindset:
Be explicit about the behaviours you expect from your leaders. Make sure you clear with my managers about their responsibility to one another. Including detail the First Team expectation in the job description and interview for ways in which they’ve practiced it.
Treat Them Like a Cohort
If you don’t treat your leadership team like a cohort, they won’t become one. So make sure you bring together your 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
Encourage interdependence and normalization of help-seeking amongst team members.
Encourage them to talk to one another about their problems and refer them to each other for help.
If a manager has a difficult conversation coming up, have a fellow manager to role play it. Normalizing this behaviour can be so powerful.
Formalizing psychological safety a key component and roundtables are a great way to achieve safe spaces to share and solve problems collaboratively using a third party to facilitate.
Help Them Help You
Invite your First Team to help you solve your problems.
This vulnerability may feel scary, but it has proven to be beneficial to leverage the capabilities of your leaders lead to better outcomes for your organization. And is a great development opportunity because it exposes them to the types of problems that they will face at the next level of their career.
Make it Stick
To ensure that you and your leadership team is adhering to the First Team concept, I recommend reviewing the following with your team:
- At every opportunity, point out the priority of Team #1 prior to making any key decisions.
This will put leaders in the correct frame of mind. When entering an executive meeting, team members need to remove their functional hats, and put on their executive team one.
- Demand that team members prioritize the executive team over all others.
When the executive team is truly cohesive and prioritized appropriately, their ability to face difficult challenges with confidence further bonds the team and models unity to the organization. This requires an absolute, unwavering commitment to the First Team.
- Explain how the team’s direct reports will be impacted.
We all know that if there is any daylight between executive team members, it ultimately results in unwinnable battles that those lower in the organization are left to fight.
Like many of the concepts I consult on, First Team is as powerful as it is simple.
I have seen highly educated leaders with vast experience have an “aha” moment about the First Team concept resulting in immediate impact on their team’s cohesion and their organization’s ability to succeed.