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The power of being left out

| July 27, 2021

by Bill Wrobleski

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Bill Wrobleski, Associate Vice President of Infrastructure at Penn State University.  He is a 2007 MOR alum, which he claims is the best MOR cohort of all-time.  Bill may be reached at [email protected].]
I’ve never been invited to my own team’s leadership meeting. Yes, that’s what I said. My direct reports hold a leadership meeting every two weeks, and they don’t invite me. In fact, they’ve come to call it the “Noble Meeting” which is shorthand for the “No Bill Meeting.”
Am I offended? No. Am I concerned? No. Do I feel left out? No. In fact, the existence of the Noble meeting brings a smile to my face. It’s a clear indicator that what we’re trying to do here is working.
The genesis of this leaderless leadership meeting started nearly three years ago, when I issued a challenge to my direct reports. “I want this to be the best team any of you have ever worked on.” It was a simple challenge that seemed to catch their imagination.
They read books together. They held retreats with challenging exercises designed to increase trust and collaboration. They were vulnerable with each other. They enjoyed meals and beverages together. They laughed a lot.
The team also established some basic practices designed to improve transparency and trust. For example, in the past, team members knew very little about each other’s budgets. Budgets were built and maintained by each leader separately. We established a new guideline that everyone had to present their annual budgets each year to the whole team, and quarterly updates would be shared as well. “It’s our budget, not my budget” became a theme.
One of the key breakthroughs for the team came when we realized we were struggling with resource planning. Each director was independently coming to me with requests for new positions, salary increases for deserving employees and other funding needs. No one thought the process was fair or effective. As a group, they agreed that instead of presenting requests independently to me, they would meet together to prioritize requests, and they would then bring forward the most deserving ones.
Our leaderless leadership meeting was born. A once every two-week meeting where my direct reports convene without me to address operational issues, and to reach agreement on what is worthwhile to advance to me for decisions. Then in the off week, the whole group meets with me and we focus on decision making and on discussions of more strategic topics. One week with me. One week without.
The results have been better than I could have imagined. Team unity is high. Decision making is improved. Buy-in across the team has skyrocketed. I can’t help but smile when one director pitches me a proposed budget increase or new position request for another director’s team. Everyone at the table has already talked it through, and the support is genuine. My job is easier, but more importantly, the collective good is optimized.
So, what’s the secret sauce? What’s necessary for a team to effectively operate in this manner? I’ve come to believe the following ideas are foundational to our success:
1) Build trust, or you’re wasting your time.
The first book our team read together was The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni’s key message is that trust is the building block on which good teams are made. Cooperative decision making can only occur when everyone at the table can freely share their ideas and know they will be listened to fairly. If people hold back or aren’t comfortable engaging, it undermines the team and little progress can be made.
2) Never accept poor teamwork.
I realized too late in my career that the single biggest impediment to a successful team is when a person chooses to focus on their own needs, their own style or their own priorities over those of the team. One “bad apple” or one “brilliant jerk” undermines trust on a team faster than nearly anything else. I’ve seen it play out on numerous teams. Everyone on the team realizes the person isn’t bought in. Everyone retreats a bit for safety. They remain polite. They work hard. But there is no real trust and closeness because they are playing by a different set of rules. Everyone sets their expectations a little lower, and rather than thrive together, everyone just tries to get along as best they can.
As a leader, you have to face this challenge directly. Acts of poor teamwork need to be addressed quickly and constructively. In many cases, it will be necessary for you to remove the problem individual from the team, otherwise, you are making a commitment to mediocrity. You can’t make the team successful yourself, but you can destroy it if you are unwilling or unable to address poor teamwork.
3) Be brave.
There is discomfort in giving up power to others. There is discomfort being left out of the conversation. If you’re serious about leading a great team, then check your ego and feelings at the door. Sometimes leadership means sitting on the sidelines and letting others play the game. Sometimes the best results will occur when you aren’t “in the room where it happens.” I’m not advocating ignoring the duties of your job, but instead, to recognize there are many areas where the organization is best served by sharing decision making and accountability with others.
4) Never stop building the team.
I now realize that the single most important part of my job is helping to build great teams. I’ve also learned teams need continued nurturing and development. Ongoing investment in the team is necessary. Make regular assessments of how things are going. Be highly aware of the dynamics of the team and the way the members are interacting. Invest time to develop skills. And most importantly, seek feedback on how you can be a better team member yourself. It’s an ongoing process, but it leads to great satisfaction and results.
As I write this article, it’s Thursday morning, and everyone on my team is in the Noble meeting. I’m not invited. I’ve got a big grin on my face.
Lencioni, P. M. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. Jossey-Bass.
Lencioni, P. M. (2016). The ideal team player. Jossey-Bass.
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: the secrets of highly successful groups. Bantam Books.
Burris, K (2017). Managing Brilliant Jerks: How Organizations and Coaches Can Transform Difficult Leaders into Powerful Visionaries. MKB Excellent Executive Coaching.
Scott, K. (2017). Radical candor: be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. St Martin’s Press.