Leading and Evolving Your Executive Team

Normal, predictable and thankfully, manageable stages of teams

“I guess I am not a good leader.”

There are times when someone I am coaching – who happens to be a fantastic leader – will turn to me in exasperation and say something along the lines of, “I guess I am not a good leader.  If I were a good leader, my team would not be so dysfunctional.” 

When I’ve heard this, I’ve responded by saying, “Hold on. Teams go through normal, predictable and – thankfully – manageable stages of team evolution.”  Normal, predictable and manageable.  Thank goodness!  Yes, there is a good path forward!

High-performing and self-aware leaders will likely face challenging dynamics in their teams at one point or another.  It is good, therefore, to remind ourselves of the natural evolution of teams.

Your team will go through normal, predictable and – thankfully – manageable stages of growth and evolution as they learn to work with you and with each other.  The key for you as the leader is to be able to recognize the signs that tell you what stage your team is in, and then lead according to the needs of your team in that stage of the evolution.

My favorite model for understanding the evolution of teams is:

I learned this model from Wayne Boss, Ph.D.  Wayne is a long time mentor and friend.  He has been kind and generous enough to let me benefit from his experiences – facilitating team building processes for leadership teams for over forty years.

Let me share with you how I experience each of these stages.

Dependence – “The honeymoon”

The first stage of team evolution is called “dependence.”  This is when you are new to a team.  Often, you’ve chosen to be there!  You are excited.  You are willing to learn how “we do things in this team.”  Over time you may pick up some “pebbles in your shoe” or irritants of some kind, but they really aren’t a problem.  “I’m loving this new team!”  Things are good!

Counter-dependence – “Conflict, turmoil, discomfort – even pain”

The next stage of team evolution can be a very challenging stage indeed.  It is “counter-dependence.”  At this point members of the team are comfortable enough together – or frustrated enough with each other – and have established enough “footing” to disagree.  They start to push back against the leader, or against other members of the team – often in not very productive ways.  Those “pebbles in the shoe” have begun to wear some blisters.  “I’m sick of it” (whatever “it” is), and I’m going to stand my ground and let people know “I’m sick of it!”  Or worse, the resistance goes underground and is experienced as passive aggressiveness.

In the worst situations we encounter, this stage can be described as “team members being braced in mortal combat with each other.”  Fun stuff!  This is often where I get a call for help.

Again, normal, predictable and – thankfully – manageable stages of team evolution.  You can work through this stage.

Independence – “Harmony – mostly”

When teams successfully move through the counter-dependence stage, they enter a stage called “independence.”  It can feel like we’ve made it through the battles.  We know where the boundaries are with each other and we stay within them – mostly.  To me, this stage feels like “leaders working in close proximity to each other, but staying in their own domain.  They occasionally bump into each other and intersect, but mostly they maintain independence.”

I would argue that many, many leadership teams in the healthcare industry that define themselves as high-performing have only reached this third stage in the evolution.  Have you seen it before?  You hear language such as “role clarity”, “decision rights” and “clear responsibilities.”  There is a lot of positive in this stage.  I don’t mean to knock it.  But it really isn’t the highest level of team evolution.  That’s the next level.  That level is called “interdependence.”

Interdependence- “Your win is my win.  Your struggle is my struggle.”

The “interdependence” stage of team evolution is where truly high performing teams exist.  I shared this concept with a client once and he immediately said, “Oh!  Backyards without fences!”  That was his way of envisioning it.  Each backyard has a clear owner, but the lines between them are blurred.  There is a sense of “joint” ownership of the backyards.  It’s like the old days where kids would play in each other’s yards but the parents worked together with an understanding of a shared backyard. Any parent could step in to manage key boundaries due to the high level of trust and a sense of working together for safety and harmony.

In organizations this might look like this:  There is a “Medical Staff backyard”, “Nursing backyard”, an “IT backyard”, and “Operations backyard”, etc.  The leadership team owns all of the areas and leads them together.  There is a primary owner of the “backyard”, but a joint sense of ownership over the whole enterprise.  Trust is high enough that leaders are not threatened by a team member raising a concern, or an idea, or even providing some direction in an area that they don’t own.  Clearly, this requires a lot of trust.  It also requires a lot of skill at navigating conflict – the kind of productive conflict that vets ideas, strategies, direction, etc. and leads to joint commitment.

Interdependence is a sense of joint ownership that relies on each leader in the team – based on the synergy created that strengthens and enhances the team’s success.  Honestly, when you reach this point of Interdependence and higher performance it honestly just feels really good to work together.

Interestingly, successful leadership through a turbulent healthcare industry that is transforming itself will require increasingly interdependent teams.

No skipping allowed!

An interesting fact about team evolution is that teams can’t skip the unpleasant stages.  No sooner can a team skip over counter-dependence than a child can look at her siblings going through adolescence and say, “I don’t want all of that drama.  Take me straight to adulthood!”  All teams go through all stages to some degree or another.  So the key for a leader is to recognize the stage that the team is in and lead accordingly.

Another interesting dynamic is that each time team composition changes, the team goes back through the stages, to some degree.  Obviously, teams that have learned to recognize and navigate the stages effectively will be able to accelerate their progression back to Interdependence with each membership change to their team.

My own team experience

I’ve been an executive coach in the healthcare industry for 18 years.  I’ve coached many, many senior executives and their leadership teams.  You’d think that I would be a good enough leader to help my own team go through these stages smoothly.  Think again!  I’m human, and my team is made up of humans.  (Remember – normal, predictable and manageable!)  A few years ago my team got so stuck in the counter-dependence stage that we were not making any effective progress at all.  We spent far too much time managing blow ups, misinterpretations, lost trust, etc.

Fortunately, I realized the stage we were in, and I recognized my role in that stage as the team leader.  I reached out to my mentor and asked him to facilitate my team.  (Note – there is tremendous value in having someone outside of the organization do this facilitation.)  In two days, my team moved productively through counter-dependence and made significant progress towards interdependence.  In that team session, we made requests of each other, commitments to each other and laid a foundation for our team to progress successfully – and quickly.  It was awesome!  We could have struggled along on our own for a long, long time.  Instead, we got ourselves unstuck and have remained so for years.

As we add new members to our team, I watch carefully for the signs of the stages we are in.  Because of a healthy foundation, we are able to move through the stages on our own quite productively.  However, if my team gets stuck again, I’ll be sure to draw on that facilitated help again!  This is true for other executive leaders as they are part of the team. An outside facilitator and trusted advisor is often needed because they can often point out blind spots and self-protective strategies that are at play.

Therefore what?

Are you finding that any of this resonates with you?  Are you wondering how to get your leadership team to a higher level of effectiveness?  Is your team stuck?  If so, recognize that you and your team are normal.  Moving through these stages is predictable, normal and – thankfully – manageable.  If you’d like any support in moving your team forward, give us a call!  We love working with new and “stuck” teams to help bring new self-awareness and tools to help you navigate your team’s evolution.

Begin the conversation.

Photo of Lee Angus

written by:

Lee Angus

President and Executive Coach