How to lead as a team

Three-fourths of CIOs sit on their companies’ executive teams, according to this magazine’s “State of the CIO 2003” survey (see the results at But do those teams know how to lead as a team?

According to Accenture Ltd. researcher Robert J. Thomas, few executives excel at working in tandem with their peers on leadership teams — that is, collaborating on complex decisions, engaging in a productive dialogue (in which opposing opinions are discussed rather than repressed), and then leading change as a cohesive group across multiple business divisions or functions. In many hierarchical organizations, “leaders have deep functional or regional strengths and personal histories that predispose them to think in terms of the parts rather than the whole,” writes Thomas, a senior research fellow at the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change, in a recently released report, “Leading as a Team.”

Meetings at companies without these leadership skills can consist of executives updating one another with their different perspectives rather than thinking as an aligned group. CIOs falling into this trap, for example, tend to view situations in terms of the impact on IT, or IT’s potential for having an impact, rather than considering the business as a whole.

In contrast, Thomas says, management teams that have learned to truly act as one group display several distinctive abilities, such as:

— They make decisions that stick.

— They model the collaboration they want others in the organization to exhibit.

— They differentiate the issues or decisions that call for a cross-functional approach from the ones that are best delegated to a single unit or function (for example, where one division has expertise that others lack).

Thomas outlines several steps that executive teams should take toward working together better. Managers can begin by taking a hardheaded look at how well, or poorly, they collaborate. They may need to learn new skills, such as how to make decisions collectively.

One large automotive company that Thomas studied came up with several unconventional metrics to track its progress toward leading as a team. These measures revealed an increase in employee enthusiasm and a changing proportion of cross-functional and global issues on the team’s agenda.

“Chances are, your company will face increasing complexity in the coming years,” writes Thomas. “In such an environment, senior management’s ability to work effectively as a team could mean the difference between extinction and survival.”