The Power of First Teams
When our coaches work with leadership teams, one of the first things we often do is show them two photos. The first is a basketball team racing across the court. The second, a set of four golfers smiling and laughing on the green. We ask them, “Which ‘team’ most closely describes your team?”
Almost every team chooses the four golfers. The individual players who like each other and get along, walking the same course together in the sunshine. In the last two decades, no one has ever said they’re the basketball team. The players who seem to move as one, sweating it out on the court together, passing to each other and supporting each other on every play.
That’s because leaders usually aren’t spending the most time with and being the most loyal to the most senior team they’re on. What Patrick Lencioni calls the “first team”. Instead, they’re each focused on leading their functional teams (Finance, HR, Operations, etc.).
Focusing on first teams eliminates fiefdoms and power struggles, drives more business effectiveness
And it’s understandable. Our inclination is to spend the most time with the people we’re leading. The employees we’ve selected and hired, and perhaps have the most in common with. The ones we know and understand best, feel good about, and have the most control over.
But focusing all our attention on them can lead to challenges with our first team. We can lack understanding of our first team members and not feel understood by them. We can come to see them as opponents or our competition. We can sometimes build up negative emotions, stress and anxiety around our first team. And that hurts our functional teams – and the organization overall.
Our inclination is to spend the most time with the people we’re leading. The employees we’ve selected and hired, and perhaps have the most in common with. The ones we know and understand best, feel good about, and have the most control over. But focusing all our attention on them can lead to challenges with our first team.
When we work well with, are loyal and connected to, and focus on the strategic goals of our first team, we eliminate fiefdoms and power struggles. Drive more business effectiveness. Challenge each other and hold each other accountable. Have healthy debate until we can agree on a good solution for the company.
And we support our functional teams best. Our first team provides the resources and the integrated strategic direction our functional teams need. And the atmosphere of collaboration and teamwork that helps them feel engaged and fulfilled.
It’s easy to think our functional teams will struggle without our complete attention. But we’ve found that when leaders prioritize their first team relationships, goals and strategies, their functional teams also succeed. That’s because when we improve our performance with our first team and don’t hold our functional teams back, without a safety net our functional teams rise to the challenge. When we elevate, they elevate.
The CEO’s first team is the Board
Our first team can be the management or executive team. Or if you’re the CEO, your first team is the Board or major shareholder.
As CEO, if we have a poor relationship with our Board or shareholders, we might have no alignment on strategy. No funding. We could spend all our time battling. That isn’t good for anyone. And most people have experienced that.
As CEO, if we focus on and have a great relationship with our Board, we ensure our company has everything it needs to succeed. And our executive team members have everything they need to succeed, too. The approval to pursue strategic projects. The money to hire the best people. The resources to achieve their goals. And the atmosphere of mutual respect, commitment and loyalty that stems from the CEO’s first team.
First teams will be critical to our paths forward in today’s post-pandemic world
Why do most leaders not prioritize their first team? First teams can be a challenge, especially if you’re a CEO and your first team is the Board. You can’t make the Board a team – that’s the board chair’s job. The board could be quite dysfunctional and there’s only so much you can do about that as CEO. That’s frustrating and makes it quite rational to avoid it.
Prioritizing your first team also takes a lot of time, effort, and transparent and uncomfortable conversations. It means developing a deep understanding of one another and working constantly on the relationships.
It requires leaders to heighten their capacity for social perceptiveness, or their individual capability to pick up on subtle cues to understand how the people around them are thinking and feeling. To anticipate how someone will react and use that knowledge to help manage the first team dynamic and increase collaboration. To step back and give space when a first team member needs it. Or step up when they need the support.
Hybrid makes prioritizing the first team harder. We aren’t spending as much time together, so things that would have happened naturally in the past, we need to work at today. There’s also been significant change on leadership teams since the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve had to adapt to new leadership team members more frequently, which can greatly impact first team effectiveness. And geographically dispersed virtual leadership teams are more common today than ever before, which can also impact their performance.
All teams are made up of massive, complex and ever-changing relationships. And keeping on top of them has always been essential. But now, ensuring our first teams are well established, high functioning, and well attended to should be our first priorities as leaders. They set the tone for all our other team relationships and the organizations we serve. And first teams will be critical to our paths forward in today’s post-pandemic world.