I surprised a colleague the other day when I shared Ruth Wageman’s research conclusion that “(leadership) teams do not improve markedly even if all of their members receive individual coaching to develop their personal abilities”.

At first it may be a surprise but when you think further this makes perfect sense. If you don’t have a strong team design, with a clear and common team purpose that everyone buys into then of courseeveryone will keep on getting better… but at their own thing. Without clear direction and someone driving shared learning and collaboration you’ll never get the high performing strong team people seek.

One of the things that I think gets in the way of great team performance is a set of assumptions being made by the CEO and the board. For example: “They’re all grown ups.” “They wouldn’t be where they are without being highly competent and capable. That’s the reason they were appointed.” “They don’t need much direction.”


These assumptions may well be correct but not the last one. More than any other type of team, senior leadership teams need an agreed mission that’s crystal clear to all – and to be kept moving in that direction.

Meredith Belbin is probably best known for the Belbin Team Roles he developed at Henley Management College in the 1970s. What is less well known is what he called the ‘Apollo Syndrome’. One hypothesis was that teams that were made up from people with sharp, analytical minds and high mental ability (Apollo teams), would easily win the team competitions. This hypothesis was demonstrated to be patently wrong, with Apollo teams coming last or near the bottom in terms of performance.

These smart individuals displayed certain flaws when operating in a team environment:

They spent excessive time in abortive or destructive debate, trying to persuade other team members to adopt their own view, and demonstrating a flair for spotting weaknesses in others’ arguments.

They had difficulties in their decision making, with little coherence in the decisions reached (several pressing and necessary jobs were often omitted).

Team members tended to act along their own favourite lines without taking account of what fellow members were doing, and the team proved difficult to manage.

In some instances, teams recognised what was happening but over compensated- they avoided confrontation, which equally led to problems in decision making.

Maybe you recognise some of these characteristics?

Some Apollo teams performed well but only did so when they had a certain type of leader. These leaders sought to impose some shape or pattern on group discussion, and on the outcome of group activities. They focused attention on the setting of objectives and priorities, and shaping the way team effort was applied. They were characterised as being tough, discriminating people who could both hold their ground in any company, yet not dominate the group. More than anything, they were present to the needs of the team.

Senior leadership teams are not taking part in team competitions like those carried out at Henley They do need a certain type of leadership however and it’s all too easy to make assumptions about what they (don’t) need because of their strength and capability. Here’s a quick checklist to test for some assumptions:

Can every team member articulate a common team purpose of what they can only uniquely achieve together – financial and other targets don’t count. They’re measures not purpose.

Is the team clear on the common stakeholders they must serve as a team?

Is the team clear who is actually on the team? (It may surprise but yes, many top teams are not clear on this

Has the team completed a RACI matrix? If they have, when’s the last time this was reviewed? Many challenges raised in coaching sessions can be root caused back to a lack of clarity in terms of accountabilities.

Are the team “just getting on with it”?

If the answer is no to any of the first four and yes to that last one, I’d say that there’s a whole bunch of performance potential that’s just waiting to be released.

Wageman’s research also found that “every CEO in our sample had a strong external focus, attending to great energy to outside the team and to the broader environment, but it was only the leaders of outstanding leadership teams that had an equally strong internal focus – on the development of their team”.

Coaching their team is not a natural strength for every CEO and where it isn’t, that’s when external coaching can really help accelerate senior leadership team growth, and their capability to deliver.