Leading "What's Next" Leadership Teams

A Practical Guide for Senior Leaders

A few years ago, I was facilitating a change leadership workshop for a group of Ivy League associate deans who were navigating a significant inflection point at the university. As each of them shared their experiences, one remarked “When I was younger, I would calm myself down in challenging times by reminding myself that there was a group of wise leaders in a room somewhere making great decisions and all I had to do was follow them. Recently I tried this trick again and realized – oh shit! I’m now one of the leaders in that room!” 


Those of us in C-Level roles can relate. Especially as we continue to navigate a global pandemic, being that “leader in the room” can feel isolating and overwhelming. We consistently hear three themes from our senior leader clients: 

  • “I’m rarely working at the right level” 
  • “I’m struggling to balance leading my team with my involvement on the executive team” 
  • “Showing vulnerability is increasingly scary (and discouraged) at the top of the organization chart” 

 It feels lonely… but you’re not actually alone. The most important action you can take to increase your leadership effectiveness is to build a solid, cohesive team of direct reports, and then lean into their talents and capabilities to free up your own bandwidth to fully function in your capacity as an enterprise leader. The good news is that you have an outsized influence on how effectively your leadership team navigates early challenges and the pace at which it develops into a high-performing team. As the team moves through its own lifecycle, your role as senior leader must shift to accelerate the leadership team’s next level of maturity. 

What does this journey look like, and what can you do to shift you and your team to a place of strength? Peter Hawkins, in his book Coaching Leadership Teams, describes several key phases that a C-level leader must move through in parallel to the development arc of the leadership team. I’ve aligned Hawkins’ phases with the classic Tuckman model of team development2 to provide some practical ideas for each step of this parallel journey. 

 Leadership Team in Forming Senior Leader as “Super Manager” 

Any time a team gains new members, a new leader, or a new remit, it returns to the Forming phase of its lifecycle, and the team members seek clarity on the team’s purpose and ways of working in this new configuration. 

When a leadership team is in Forming, even if there were high levels of trust in the past, trust naturally lags because new, unknown people are entering the picture. Team members are more guarded and less vulnerable with each other. In general, everyone’s on their best behavior and trying to make a good impression with their words and accomplishments. Forming often feels positive on the surface, but the team isn’t quite able to have the more difficult, more high-value interactions that will be needed to move the business forward. 

 Hawkins refers to the role of a senior leader with a Forming leadership team as a “Super Manager” – you are essentially still using a functional leadership approach at an enterprise level. When you’re in “Super Manager” mode, you may be:

  • Getting down into the weeds to learn the organization and achieve quick wins (especially if you’re new);
  • Spending disproportionate bandwidth providing technical leadership in areas where you have no previous experience;
  • Allowing your leadership team to “drop off” problems with you that you then run around frantically trying to solve; and
  • As a result, sacrificing valuable time that should be spent in planning, reflection, or building your own relationships with your peer leaders.

What can you do to accelerate the team’s progress in Forming and get yourself out of Super Manager mode? Here are three practical actions:

1. Most importantly, invest in accelerating trust and psychological safety on the LT so they can move past the Forming stage. You can do this by:

  • Providing opportunities for informal interaction, ideally face-to-face whenever safe.
  • Investing meeting time for round-robin discussions – we at IPL aren’t huge fans of cheesy, gamified ice-breakers, but starting with a safe opening round like “What were your impressions of yesterday’s all-hands meeting” works well.
  • Looking for small ways to demonstrate your own vulnerability by asking team members for their perspective and/or sharing your knowledge gaps.

2. Explicitly get out of the business of solving your team’s problems for them. Spend time with each of your leaders to contract with them, by initiative or process, how you will or will not be involved.

3. Review your calendar critically and remove yourself from any meeting where a member of your leadership team can step up and be the decision maker – and empower them to do so. Challenge yourself to find four hours a week that you can re-allocate to strategy, reflection, and planning.

Investing in the above steps will equip the team to move on to Storming and enable you to move into the role of Team Leader.

Leadership Team in Storming Senior Leader as Team Leader

As a team moves from Forming to Storming, leaders become more comfortable – and more frustrated – with each other (and with you). The strains of new ways of working and new pressures begin to show in team tensions. The leadership team members see themselves primarily as advocates for their function and their people, and they wrangle for a perceived limited amount of support, priority, resource, and recognition. As a result, they are in conflict with each other, while relying on you for mediation.

Hawkins calls this phase “Team Leader.” At IPL we call this “Leader as Parent.” When you’re in this mode, you’ve moved from managing the parts of the organization and are more focused on the business as a whole – but you also may be:

  • Struggling to break down functional silos and create more alignment and collective leadership among the team
  • Successfully delegating work to your leadership team, but still taking on responsibility for everyone “getting along”
  • Caught in triangulation as LT members engage you to resolve their interpersonal and inter-functional conflicts

The most important thing you can do to help a leadership team storm productively is to invest time in creating team norms and ways of working that clarify the guardrails for how the team will work together. During the development of these norms, explicitly get out of the business as acting as referee for LT member conflicts.

One norm that works well is “Avoid Triangulation” – meaning, team members will actively seek to resolve conflicts with the person involved, and other team members (including you) will turn aside attempts to bring others into the situation. Even the most senior leaders aren’t great at conflict management, so you may need to offer some skill-building to support the norm.

Even with good intentions and strong norms, human beings still do what they are incented to do. If your organizational goals don’t reward alignment and collaboration, your leaders will continue to work toward those goals in silos. Audit your goals against the premise“if we don’t all win, none of us win,” and adjust if needed. This is even more important in a highly matrixed environment, where no goal is truly independent.

Fully empowering the Leadership Team to lead the work and own their relationships will facilitate their transition from Storming to Norming, and help you move into the role that Hawkins calls the Team Orchestrator.

Leadership Team in Norming Senior Leader as Team Orchestrator

As the leadership team develops its collaboration and conflict rhythms, it moves into a phase of Norming, where team members are co-creating strategies, aligning their responses and decisions, and beginning to manage their own conflicts and relationships. They are not quite self-managing though – they still depend on you significantly for direction and may unnecessarily defer to you or escalate decisions to you that really should be made at their level.

In the role of Team Orchestrator, you have successfully stepped out of triangulation and delegated that responsibility to your LT. However, you also may be:

  • Spending more time directing than you do coaching
  • Acting as the primary representative of your organization to the larger enterprise or to external stakeholders
  • Needing to dedicate more time to your role on the executive team, yet feeling “separation anxiety” from your own leadership team

The challenge now is to shift the team to a higher level of self-management so you can dedicate time and attention to your own role in shaping and influencing at the executive level. This is the inflection point where you can truly begin to lean into the strong, competent team you’ve built and trust them to lead the organization while you increase your impact on the enterprise agenda. One of our senior leader clients uses the phrase “WE ARE THE THEY” to describe this shift – meaning the explicit transfer of ownership for the work, the culture, and the internal and stakeholder relationships to the leadership team.

The most effective strategy for achieving this outcome is to have vulnerable, transparent conversations with each of your leaders. Engage them in helping you identify where you can and should be less directive, where you should remain visible and engaged in the work of the function, and how you can best represent the function at the executive level. Explicitly state your confidence in their ability to make decisions and represent the organization to stakeholders. The trust and cohesion of the team will carry them, and you, through to Performing.

Leadership Team in Performing Senior Leader as Team Coach

Leadership teams in the Performing phase are just that: they are demonstrating high performance in both the WHAT (meeting and exceeding performance goals) and the HOW (demonstrating effective leadership) of the work. But many teams do meet their goals, and in fact pride themselves on never dropping a ball, without truly moving to the Performing stage. A team that is truly Performing is also:

  • Deeply committed to each other’s success and overall wellness;
  • Naturally collaborative and interdependent;
  • Fully owning the management of both their business performance and their respective relationships.

Hawkins calls the role of a senior leader in this phase the Team Coach. In this role, you are fully functioning as a member of your executive leadership team, with the bandwidth you need to

contribute at the right level of leadership. When interacting with your leadership team, you are directing less and focused on developing their individual and collective capabilities through coaching.

Reaching this stage of team effectiveness is highly engaging, yet it is not time to rest on your laurels. No team sustains Performing forever – the relentless pace of change continually forces us back to Forming, and the cycle continues. However, you can build sustainability and resilience in your leadership team by integrating three practices into your leadership routine:

  1. Include in your Leadership Team cadence thought-provoking questions to assess if and why the team is reverting back to Forming, and be ready to support them through this very natural cycle over and over again.
  2. Build in feedback loops and cycles of reflection into the LT’s ways of working to enable continuous learning and improvement.
  3. Sharpen your own coaching skills – it’s humbling to realize that your greatest success as a senior leader comes when you leave your technical expertise behind and turn your energy to unlocking the talent and potential of your team.

Questions For Reflection

  1. Where is my leadership team on the journey from Forming to Performing? What role am I primarily filling today? 
  2. What is the impact of my current role on the team’s ability to move through Forming/Storming/Norming to Performing? How am I enabling this process? Where am I getting in the way? 
  3. What are the most important actions I can take to move myself and my LT through the cycle and build our collective resilience? 

About the Author

Kristy Braden

Kristy is Co-founder and Principal at Inflection Point Leadership, Inc, where she partners with Brad Smith in engaging leaders to “make shift happen” effectively, sustainably, and with joy. In her 20+ years of both internal and external HR experience, Kristy has lead enterprise initiatives focused on organizational effectiveness, leadership development, career development, and employee engagement for clients across a wide range of industries. Kristy is passionate about helping organizations transform individual talent into aligned, high-performing team results. 

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