How to recognize your top team to improve workplace culture

Every member of the leadership team is an expert. They know their lines of business. They hire and develop their work teams. They inspire their people to greater and greater personal and professional accomplishments.

And they fail, time and time again.

Why is the leadership team failing?

Because they and their colleagues at the top of the organization are not connected by shared goals and interests. They are not creating collaborative working relationships—one of the 30 key behaviors for exemplary leadership. They are working in silos. Sometimes they are even actively working against each other.

And so they fail. Take these examples of major initiatives that failed due to lack of leadership team cohesion:

  • An enterprise-wide software system implementation intended to increase efficiency and accuracy has support from finance, information technology and human resources. However, the operational departments in parks, public works and permitting are not on board and resist using the new tool. More than a year after “go live,” less than 50% of the staff is using the new system and many have reverted back to legacy software or even paper-based systems. Instead of improving efficiency and accuracy, they both suffer.
  • The organization sets a high bar for participation in an employee health and wellness program to reduce insurance costs. A couple of department directors are vocal advocates for the program, free up employees’ time to participate, and make their approval known by actively participating themselves. However, the remainder of the leadership team degrades the program, calling it “play time” and even “a waste of time.” Their participation numbers reflect the lack of leadership support and the premiums rise.

The leadership team was clearly not “Team #1” in the eyes of those teams’ members. The leaders saw their highest priority team as their “home team” or the people who work for them, not their colleagues.

And that’s dangerous. Patrick Lencioni, the author of books including The Advantage, The Five Dysfunctions of a TeamThe Ideal Team Player, and Death by Meeting explains the concept of “Team #1.” Lencioni identifies the danger of not making the leadership team “Team #1” in that the top-level organizational team “becomes like the United Nations or Congress where people are coming to meetings and lobbying for their constituents instead of looking out for the greater good.”

Worst of all? The people who work in the various departments—the ones the leaders truly see as their first priority—suffer the most. They are left to fight “bloody and unwinnable battles” with their coworkers in other departments because their leaders are not working as a team. The dysfunctional and even destructive behaviors trickle down throughout the organization.

The Challenge

Helping leadership teams to recognize themselves as “Team #1” can be challenging. You hope that these brilliant leaders see that they are ultimately collectively responsible for the good of the whole no matter which department they lead. Often, however, that is easier said by someone outside the team than done by the team. Leaders struggle to distance themselves from seeing their primary focus as the goals of their work groups. Finding the areas where they share responsibility for results collectively can help break down the silos and begin building “Team #1.”

Some Questions to Start You Off

A few questions teams can ask themselves to help identify collective leadership team goals are:

  1. Is there a cross-departmental process that isn’t working well? I haven’t met a group yet that could answer this question with a solid “no.” Processes that flow across departments include those related to finances, technology, and human resources. Everyone needs to be on board in using Lean methods to streamline operations and remove the pain that comes with ineffective and inefficient organization-wide processes.
  2. Is there a strategic plan being monitored? One of the great losses in productivity and alignment in organizations is the great care taken to develop a strategic plan only to put it on the shelf until the next time it is updated. Strategic planning efforts require and deserve constant monitoring. Taking responsibility for those high-level goals is the work of a leadership team, even when accountability for some of those goals fall along department lines.
  3. Is there an initiative around human resources at play? Many organizations are focusing on employee engagement and development to improve organizational health. Those efforts require all leaders to support and forward actions to support those goals. Inconsistent support can lead to the loss of high performers or even the internal migration of those performers to other work groups that value employee engagement and development.
  4. Is there a new regulatory requirement that needs to be met? Whether you’re a government agency or a private company, you’re constantly adapting to new laws and rules governing the business. Although it’s usually one work group that takes the first stab at interpreting the requirements, everyone needs to be on board in how to meet them.
  5. Is there a significant new product or service in development or pending implementation? That could be a new software system or a new middle school, but both require the whole leadership team to work together to be successful.

A leadership team that has defined its collective results—the one they all take responsibility for—creates better clarity about why they must be “Team #1.” And that ultimately drives leaders to continue to create more cooperative relationships with their peers.

The Biggest Beneficiaries

The biggest beneficiaries of a “Team #1” commitment by the leadership team is for the people who work for them. No longer do they have to navigate the minefield of toxic cross-departmental relationships at the top or spend fruitless hours strategizing on how to “win” a budget prioritization process. They can turn those energies back to achieving strategic goals, improving performance, and developing as team members and leaders themselves.

And that is the sign of a great leader—one who gets things done for the good of the whole.


Want to read more?

Here are links to a few related articles:

3 Ways Senior Leaders Create a Toxic Culture

Onboarding Isn’t Enough

5 Ways to Destroy the Pesky Silos in Your Organization


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.