Your Strategy and Team Building Should be Like Yin and Yang (not Apples and Oranges)

user Mark Teitell

“I know it’s critical, but we spend a lot of time on this and I’m frustrated because it feels like we spin our wheels.”

In my coaching and consulting relationships with senior business leaders, this sentiment often comes up when:

  • The leadership team is not truly aligned across strategy, roadmap and execution plans
  • The team lacks the connectedness and degree of trust needed to perform best

These truths show up in both fast-scaling entrepreneurial companies and larger organizations facing disruption. And when teams experience diminishing returns in addressing them, many assume that things are “good enough.” If you’re an action-oriented optimist (like many strong leaders), this is a seductive assumption. But it also threatens everything you’re working for.

The risk comes from seeing strategic alignment and team cohesion as entirely different things. Instead, try treating them as flip sides of the same leadership coin – as factors that directly affect each other. Thinking this way, you can take an integrated approach to break through on both dimensions.

How Low Team Cohesion Limits Strategic Alignment

A team’s ability to effectively strategize depends on its levels of connectedness and trust. This may be easiest to appreciate by thinking intuitively about the inverse…

If I’m uncomfortable being authentic with colleagues…and insecure about my role on the team…will natural self-protective tendencies make me more guarded, self-justifying, resistant to feedback, and competitive? And feeling these ways, despite my best intentions, can I feel true empathy for colleagues?

Following these tendencies, will I collaborate and contribute fully to team strategizing…ask hard questions…truly listen to colleagues…ask for or offer help…let go of a starting position and align with the team?

Don’t take my word for this. Think about times you’ve led or been part of teams that strategize and plan well – have they been higher or lower-cohesion groups? This is more than a coincidence!

How Low Strategic Alignment Undermines Team Cohesion

The counterforce is also real: constrained ability to strategize undermines team cohesion. Let’s take an individual, human perspective again…

Say I’m uncomfortable with the state of our strategies and plans.

Will I worry others are more respected than me and belong to a team-within-the-team that has more context and shared understanding? Or will I lose esteem for colleagues because they’re OK with a degree of alignment I don’t see as good enough?

How will these thoughts impact my sense of connection with others, safety to express ideas, willingness to take risks, and the ability to trust and feel trusted?

Back to your own experience and intuition…where might these forces be currently present in your senior team?

How to Shift the Self-Reinforcing Cycle from Negative to Positive

This is a self-limiting cycle: a team with low cohesion can’t strategize well; and not strategizing well limits team cohesion, which further challenges strategizing, and so on.

Fighting each dynamic on its own is like swimming against a riptide – you expend all your energy and don’t get any closer to the beach.  But as with a riptide, by taking a different route you change the conditions instead of trying to out-muscle the problem.

These mutually reinforcing moves help create a positive cycle of better strategic alignment and stronger team cohesion.

  1. Embed team cohesion building into leadership cadences. Too often, “soft stuff” is relegated to team-building events. But if you view cohesion as critical to “concrete” strategy and planning, then work on it often. Even brief time “checking in” with each other, professionally and personally, builds relationships and enables teamwork. And speaking openly about trust – including how to have difficult conversations when trust is sub-optimal – pays huge dividends. The impact is highest when you put these practices to work within strategy dialogues or as frequent enablers of them.
  2. Have a strategy for how you strategize. Often, as teams get more honest and open, they realize they don’t have a clear framing of what a good strategy process looks like. Whether you’re an entrepreneurial company without a proven way to strategize as you scale, or a larger organization facing disruption and needing a more-nimble strategy approach – getting clear on “what ‘good’ looks like” is a key, yet surprisingly often-overlooked, leadership move. And its easiest to do when the team can have honest, non-defensive discussions about improvement.
  3. Get explicit about current misalignment on foundational things. Ask yourself: Is there a common understanding of our current reality (e.g., the status of product development…reasons for competitive losses…productivity…causes of attrition)? Do we share guiding views about future customer, competitive, and technology dynamics? How much progress can we realistically make and how fast? Are we clear on our roles in driving strategy? On these questions, there are often elephants in the room or sacred cows that team members see but hesitate to discuss. Flagging such disconnects early, often, and well rests on growing team relationships and trust.
  4. Invest in individual team members’ development. A team is comprised of individuals, and their ongoing development has a tremendous impact on team cohesion and thus on strategic alignment. How will it lift your company if leaders keep becoming more self-aware, less impacted by ego, more empathetic, and more able to transcend negative mindsets and harness empowering ones? This type of self-mastery helps individuals do their part to prevent or break out of the negative alignment-cohesion cycle. There are various ways to invest in executives’ leadership development, including coaching. Done well, they’re high-ROI in the end.

Let’s circle back to our starting assertions. The team is not fully aligned on strategy, nor on plans to execute strategy. The team’s connectedness and degree of trust could be substantially stronger.

Declaring that “good enough” isn’t actually good enough, and treating these as interrelated challenges, is an opportunity is to turn an often-negative cycle into a positive one. Your payback is a better strategy, more efficiently developed, and more effectively managed, with a senior team ethos that’s visible to and influential on all the other teams within the company.

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