Gearing The Top Team for Tough Times

In the current climate of severe cuts to the UK’s public and voluntary sector, it is essential that your top team is geared up for the challenges ahead. This means building the team even when time and finances are stretched.

In the wake of the Chancellor’s emergency budget, many of my clients are gearing up for tough times ahead.  A few organisations are already in the thick of it – having to introduce emergency budgets in response to early funding cuts from public bodies – and others know it’s only a matter of time before this is a reality.

The big tension with budget cuts, is that the financial benefit comes from being able to implement savings rapidly in-year, whereas the recovery depends on how thoughtfully the process is handled – in the decisions about what to cut, the way in which the impact on individuals is handled, and the way in which organisations are reconfigured. If you can balance this tension and do both well, it will make a huge difference to your organisation’s future.

The sudden reality bite of the emergency budget has cast a spotlight the state of top teams. Not all executive teams are geared up to handle the immense demands that will be made on them in the coming months. Team members will have to work together like never before: to take tough cost-cutting decisions; to generate lean service innovations; to steer unpopular changes; to handle upsetting redundancies – including redundancies in their own teams; and to hold the organization on track throughout.

Up to now, most senior teams have managed a sufficient degree of give-and-take cooperation to get the job done. Their decision-making didn’t call for highly sophisticated engagement. But the quality of interaction that enabled them to get by in good times does not equip them sufficiently for the tough choices that they will have to make. It will now require a robust and sophisticated degree of sharing and openness to handle the complex demands that are about to be placed on them.

There is another paradox here – When teams most need to up their game, they are least able to learn how to do so. Under pressure team members find it exceptionally difficult to trust and to be open with each other, because a state of high stress tends to generate anxiety and suspicion. So at the time when teams most need to pull together to work on complex problems, they are least inclined to act in a unified way. And stress also inhibits team learning, so if members haven’t already learnt how to function as a high performing team, they will struggle to learn to collaborate effectively under pressure.

This means that leaders need to line up their executive teams now before the pressure really kicks in. This requires a substantial investment of time, effort and resources – and sophisticated PR to explain your decision to adopt development activities when all around you expect to see frenetic fire-fighting behaviour and a climate of austerity! Conventional wisdom dictates that it is wrong to invest scarce resources in executive team development at a time when jobs might be on the line, but remember that a slash-and-burn policy could destroy your organisation.

One CEO client has put her neck on the line: in anticipation of cuts of around 20% across the board, she embarked on a development programme to fine-tune her top team, much of it looking ahead at how they will take tough decisions and how they will keep staff engaged. She made a guarantee to staff that they will experience a positive difference to the way in which the forthcoming programme of cutbacks and the organisational recovery will be handled.  The fact that staff and trustees now have this expectation creates an added incentive for her executives to pull together and make the most of these development opportunities.

Key Action Points For Leaders:

  • Get cracking with teambuilding now, and get everything in place so that the team operates at optimum level before the toughest work has to begin.
  • Challenge your executive to deliver, and focus on the recovery not just the cuts. Reinforce key messages about rigorous decisions, treating all staff with dignity, and the importance of refocusing on top priorities.
  • Manage the PR dimension with your staff: investing in your top team is essential, and staff will experience a positive difference in the way these changes are handled. (Make sure you invest in your middle teams too – they will be handling change at the coal face.)
  • Understand that teambuilding isn’t something detached from the primary organisational task. Use the impending changes as a focus for your team development – build the team around the programme of change.
  • Aspects of the team development will require external facilitation, so get help where you need it. On a tight budget, target external input to those essential points where it is most effective. Good consultants can help you think through what interventions are most effective, and where best to invest their energy.
  • Understand that this places huge demands on you as leader to nurture and reinforce high-level cooperation in your top team. Make sure you are supported too.

Inspiring reading: David Casey, When Is A Team Not A Team? in Personnel Management, January 1985

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