An organization’s top executives usually sit on two teams. They are members of the company leadership team, but they are also leaders of their department teams. So, as you circle the conference table, you find the people in charge of Business Development, Finance, Operations, IT, Sales, Manufacturing, and so forth. This is all well and good … until the needs of the company and the needs of a department come into conflict. Then, suddenly, there is a decision to be made: will the leader support the needs of the company over the needs of the department, or will he or she promote the needs of the department over the needs of the company? To put it simply, which is the leader’s first team?
Leaders who are new to the leadership team often struggle with where to put their loyalty when they feel that what is best for the company might have an unwelcome impact on their own department. They identify more with their department than with the leadership team. Even seasoned leaders can succumb to the temptation to make their department’s needs their top priority. When this happens, leaders push for decisions that are going to be best for their individual departments, even though those decisions may not be optimal for the business overall.
Here is the leadership takeaway:
If you are on the company’s leadership team, that is your first team.
Your department is your second team.
Your first commitment must be to your first team.
When we coach leaders, we challenge them to always ask themselves, “What do I need to do to help ensure that the business – as a business – soars?” as opposed to asking, “What do I need to do in leadership team meetings to defend my department’s turf?”
Here’s how this principle worked out in one of our client companies. The company’s leadership team included the person in charge of Manufacturing. This person would regularly position his arguments on the leadership team around what was going to help or hurt Manufacturing. He viewed his department as his “first team.” The result was that he would raise obstacles to certain proposed initiatives, expanded markets, and new acquisitions – all because he felt that these would hurt Manufacturing in some way.
Eventually, the CEO of the company looked at him and asked the hard question: “The acquisition we are discussing would help the entire business to grow. I want to understand why you are so concerned about its impact on your department.” The Manufacturing leader replied honestly, “If we make this acquisition, it may change the way we manufacture our products and affect how many people we need in this department, and I am not sure my role is going to remain the same.”
The CEO’s response to this was admirable. He agreed, and said, “You’re absolutely right. Your processes, your people, and your role are all likely to change.” But he didn’t stop there. He went on, “However, they could change for the better.” Finally, he drove the point home: “You need to be able to let go of the specific world you are in at the moment – the way your department works today. You need to be able to let go of that so that we can all evolve and grow.”
This was a watershed moment for these two leaders and for the entire leadership team. To the Manufacturing leader’s credit, he did let go of his concerns and the acquisition was made. The net result was that he himself ended up with more people and far broader responsibilities, both of which helped him grow as a leader!
This situation shows both sides of the coin: what happens when a leader does not make the leadership team his or her first team, and the transformation that occurs when he or she does. If you want your company’s leadership team to make the tough decisions necessary to propel your business forward, take a moment to go around the table and ask each person:
“Which team is your first team?”