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Top Team Tune-up

By Sue Firth

Sue Firth

Sue Firth

Too often I begin a consultancy project only to find enthusiasm is not at fault but instead the process becomes derailed by the struggles the top team are having in agreeing the direction of the change; the strategy for it, or the speed of implementation.

These issues are not only discussed at the outset of the project which is entirely relevant, but continue to permeate the process and never quite become resolved. It means that instead of being able to push for goals with a realistic chance of achieving them, internal wrangling is still going on as to the merits of what they are trying to aim for and why. It is frustrating for them and for the model if we have to ‘get off the boat’ after it has sailed in order to sort this out so my advice is – pack your bags on the dock side and then get on the boat so that it can sail well in the right direction at a speed that has been pre-decided before you got on!

Patrick Lencioni wrote an excellent book about this called ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. Not just for top teams but all the more relevant at this level, Lencioni has drawn attention to the five biggest errors a team can make.

Firstly, he makes a reference to the absence of trust. This is vital, for if members of a top team do not trust each other then they will not say what they really mean. Keen instead to avoid putting their head above the parapet in case it gets shot off, they do not put forward their ideas or opinions because they don’t feel important or valued by the other members.

This absence of trust has a knock on effect as people struggle to avoid conflict due to the belief that it is better to say things to please one another than challenge prevailing opinion. The trouble is, if they leave the room not having discussed their viewpoint then they are much less likely to commit to something and lack of commitment to goals is a problem because they will passively agree but quite possibly vehemently disagree outside the boardroom. The aim regarding lengthy discussion around the goals of the business and resolving conflict is not necessarily to get all round agreement as this is often unrealistic, but to feel that you have exhausted and debated your own viewpoint until the decision you all come to is one you can agree to accept even if you do not wholeheartedly support it. Mistakes are made if someone feels able to walk out of the room and say one thing within it but another is represented outside of it – this so often undermines the process and to be fair, undermines the Chief Executive too.

The fourth dysfunction of a team is when they avoid accountability. This can come about in three ways; firstly they may not have agreed to the direction or goals of the business as with the previous error so they feel within their rights to now disown the result of an attempt to achieve this direction. Unable or unwilling to accept their part within it, they find fault instead and do not take ownership of anything they may have said or done which didn’t support it. The second way they may avoid accountability is by not disclosing or regularly discussing what they are doing within their role. Other members of the team can sometimes be in the dark about what an individual is actually there to do and this breeds a lack of trust and possibly resentment if the ultimate aim (which is to achieve the results of the business), are not contributed to well enough by a member whose absences or lack of productivity is not pulled up for further scrutiny. Carrying anyone in a business is potentially a mistake but never more so than at the top of the business.

The third way accountability can go wrong is when someone senior does not contribute to the greater good of the company by pursuing their own interests thereby building a little business of their own. This may come about by not doing what they are asked, or trying to push something through because they think it’s a good idea rather than policy says it should be done another way. Empire building like this can again cause resentment, encourages prima donna behaviour and completely lacks humility in relation to being aware that the business succeeds on the back of everyone not just a few.

Finally, a team can fall down when they do not pay attention to the results of a business but stick instead what’s in it for them. Concerned with their achievements, or blowing their own trumpet, this dysfunction rests on the back of the lack of accountability because if you are pursuing the latter, then you are often ignoring the former.

In conclusion, managing change rests on getting your top team bought in to the reason for change, they then decide the strategy to achieve it, but then they hand it over to the next level of management who debate how this is done and the best way to get everyone to do it. The progression through a change programme is therefore very similar to a pyramid; at the bottom is the first and biggest piece, getting your top team to work well. Lencioni’s work has helped me recognise how teams can become so disjointed but ultimately if they can talk and agree on what they want to do then it becomes a much easier job

Using a Psychologist as a Consultant for a change management programme may not immediately come to mind, but when you consider change involves people; they are all different and they get emotional about change (all of which is within our field of expertise), then using a Psychologist to guide the success of your programme begins to make an awful lot more sense!


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