In January, I have been given the opportunity to work three top teams of 10.000+ people companies. Though in very different businesses (telecom, agrobusiness and services), I could sense similarities in the way that the members of these teams behave and interact. I want to share here three insights.
Sense of physical space ?
I always wonder how people in business chose the venues where they have important meetings. Even in beautiful hotels, you can find terribly unconfortable business meeting rooms. That was the case for one of these three seminars : a medieval castle in a fantastic park, XXL rooms totally refurbished and decorated and even an 18 hole golf course… but a meeting room with an inclined roof (that impeded to stand up in almost one third of the room) and a ridiculous window.
That’s for the meeting rooms. But there is also something strange in the traditional way of setting tables and chairs. The U setting seem to be an universally shared layout. And once top team members have found their position, they would not move from there during the two days of the meeting. Of course, the CEO usually sits in the middle, as if he was in a Board meeting ! Is this just an observation of consultants ? but I am always amazed by how business people disregard the influence of physical settings on the quality of the work a team undertakes. In one opportunity, I have had to really beg to the #2 of a team the authorization to move tables and chairs in order to have a better team interaction.
As great scientist Abraham Moles puts it in his book Psychosociology of Space :
“Space is not neutral, it is not an empty frame to be filled with behaviours; it is a cause, a source of behaviours”.
When will this be taught to MBA students ?
Maybe that’s just a sign of underdevelopment of our country (or a sign that I should chose better my clients ?)… but here are the statistics of the three top teams I worked with in January :
- Total number of team members (3 teams) : 26
- Total number of male people : 23
- Total number of French people : 24
(Note here that two of these three top teams are in charge of international operations in more than 30 countries, not just in France)
This is crazy ! Of course, one could argue that diversity is also linked to the difference of personalities or profesional backgrounds. I agree that compliance with diversity standards can be totally hypocritical. But the great risk is to have around the table people that more or less think in the same way. I have already mentioned in this blog this famous sentence :
“If two persons always think alike, one of them is useless”.
Why are so many companies unaware of this risk at the top ?
CEO… with or without you !
The third observation I made in these top teams meetings is how people behave differently when the CEO is in the room or not. In two opportunities, this has been really striking. In one case, a key conversation aroused between two team members after the CEO had left for a while. It seemed that in presence of the leader, everybody was keen to show the good side of things and give the semblance of alignment. In another case, one team member took the control of the group (in a real dominance mode) as soon as the CEO had left the room.
These social dynamics cannot always be avoided. But, none of these CEOs really want such things to happen. They would probably feel more like the “victims” of such processes than the cause of them. One thing is their intention. Another one is how people perceive their behaviours, and especially their micro-behaviours. Relentlessly breaking that natural reverence towards power is one of the major task of any leader, if she wants to have a really productive team !
I appreciate the fact that these three experiences are too limited to draw general conclusions. Nevertheless, I dare to suggest three things for anyone in charge of a top team (but probably this is valid for any team) :
- Pay attention to external conditions of your meetings (such as physical settings)
- Harness diversity, encourage people to take stands and welcome disagreements inside your team
- Create such a candour climate in the team, that it does not affect the quality of its work, whether you are in the room or not
Now, all of this is based on the hypothesis that a top team is needed in a company. One of my clients made a radical choice a few years ago : to suppress the top team in the first place. But that’s another story…
I completely echo your sentiments. The place where I work is currently undergoing significant transformation and as such there have been many presentations to the executive team. I really noticed the difference that the layout and setting of the meeting room had on the conversation and discussion (with essentially the same audience). The meeting where we were all sat on sofas was far more relaxed and therefore productive and interactive than when sat around a boardroom table. After presenting we also sat on sofas for the discussion and this made it feel more like a discussion than an interogation! Yes there was a cost involved in hiring an external venue but given the number of senior people around the room and the importance of the meetings, the additional cost is worthwhile (and it meant that there was no looking at the blackberry below the boardroom table).
Thank you Charlie for your testimony. I like the Blackberry below the boardroom table 🙂 But like you I prefer the sofas !