Developing a high-functioning account leadership team

For some account teams, rallying a set of committed, accountable members may be the easy part, whereas coordinating amongst the team leaders themselves is the real challenge. The late Professor J. Richard Hackman, former Chair of Harvard University’s social psychology department, and Dr. Ruth Wageman, also a prolific scholar of teamwork, have conducted extensive studies of executive teams in both corporate and non-profit organizations.  Their work identified some characteristics, which are equally applicable to leadership teams for key accounts, that explain some of the difficulties these teams face:

“For all members of such teams, the team role is the second—and lower-priority—job. Typically ill-composed, these teams suffer from amorphous purposes that result in a default task strategy of mere information-sharing. Interpersonal dynamics within the team often reflect the tendency of members to seek greater status and recognition, as well as to personally lead rather than to share leadership. These motives, moreover, are reinforced by reward systems that measure and celebrate individual leadership accomplishments.”

These dynamics are probably exacerbated in professional service firms, where partners are often expected to treat each other as pure equals, such that even the “leader” title doesn’t really give anyone the belief in his right to clearly direct his peers.  Fortunately, some clear steps can help overcome these inefficiencies:

  • Create a clearly bounded group with an explicit, shared purpose. Start by defining what the leadership team needs to accomplish, which is more than the sum of individual contributions. For example, the leaders collectively might decide to target a certain level of revenue or profitability growth or aim for new types of work that require cross-practice efforts.  Because pursuit of these objectives probably requires trade-offs of time, attention and resources from both the professional providers and the client, such decisions belong to the leadership team.  Once it’s clear what goals the team aims for, then determine which of the possible candidates have both the capabilities and the desire to contribute to the leadership team.  Too often, account team leaders are designated by default: the rainmakers with the biggest books.  But the best leadership teams are deliberately designed to include members with both aptitude and appetite; each is necessary but not sufficient.  Defining who has a formal leadership role on an account team – and who doesn’t – can be emotionally and politically charged. The firm leaders should make it clear that account team leadership is earned not only by producing, but also by exhibiting the right leadership behaviors and dedicating sufficient energy to leading.  High-producers who are not on the formal leadership team may be secretly relieved to have fewer administrative burdens, but their ego will need to be managed so that they still feel like valued contributors in other ways.
  • Agree a set of clear roles and responsibilities. Because the way you divide responsibilities directly effects your client interactions, your choices might well be constrained or in influenced by client preferences. For example, some clients demand a regional and practice group client team structure that mirrors their own team, such as a local account leader in each main market. In contrast, other clients are prescriptive only on outcomes – as in, “Make sure we’re fully informed and always know who’s accountable for what.”  When clients insist on a single point of accountability, otherwise known as the “one throat to choke” model, then the account leadership team needs to reflect this structure.
  • Many professionals avoid a candid discussion of responsibilities, either because they don’t see the value or because they are sensitive about stepping on a peer’s autonomy.  But both concerns are misguided: without role clarity, the leadership team is likely to have higher rework and more dropped balls, and making assumptions about another’s duties and accountability is less, not more, respectful of them as a professional.
  • Finally, make sure that each leadership team member understands that his or her role is both to guide the whole account and to lead the lead efforts from the sub-teams – for example, their region or department.  Just as a main task for your client’s CEO is keeping each divisional or functional leader focused on delivering their own constituency’s number and  on the success of the whole organization, your job as a member of the account leadership team is to help each member see both their collective and narrower ones.  Research shows that members who perceive their roles in this fashion are considerably more likely in decision-making processes to develop shared criteria for a decisions that maximize collective outcomes, and they are more willing to make choices that trade off local for enterprise-wide benefits.
  • Articulate explicit, shared team standards and ways of working that minimize politics. Transparent communication between team leaders is essential.  Each member has a role to play in helping the team to feel as if even the toughest, most awkward situations are discussable. Oftentimes, the items that need to be considered are those that create tensions between an individual leader’s “own” constituency and those of the broad team. For example, Alejandro, Stephanie and Peter were co-leaders of a major client team at a regional accounting firm in the US.  They’d followed the first two principles closely, and were well-equipped with an agreed strategy to grow their team’s profits by 15% in a year and a clear understanding of how each of them would contribute in their own departments of audit, tax, and risk advisory.  Despite early progress toward their target, both Stephanie and Peter grew worried that Alejandro was using his time with the client’s Board ineffectively by focusing too narrowly on audit results. They thought he could instead be using his influence to cement their firm’s reputation for more strategic advisory work, and they were frustrated that he hadn’t opened up more c-suite doors for their groups.  Their own department heads were expecting them to demonstrate the ability to penetrate more senior levels at clients, and this should have been a great opportunity.  As their frustrations started to boil over, both leaders opted out of more and more team phone calls rather than address the issues directly; because of Alejandro’s seniority in their firm, both Stephanie and Peter feared risking a confrontation with him. An external facilitator helped the team identify underlying dynamics and hold a non-threatening conversation about them.  It turns out that Alejandro was equally frustrated with the situation, feeling as if his co-leaders were failing to take enough initiative in the account.  The team developed clear guidelines for how to bring up those sorts of issues going forward, with a clear spot on the agenda reserved for the topic, “How does this new initiative affect your group and your personal priorities?” This example is consistent with research on top management teams in major companies, which has found that outstanding teams are significantly more likely to place members’ individual concerns on the table and to engage in open discussions about the trade-offs and synergies between members’ different sets of responsibilities such as their own department versus the account team as a whole.
  • Coach each other. Create the expectation –not just a tolerance –for active, constructive, timely feedback among account team leaders.  As a team member, you can start this process by requesting critiques from your peers on specific events, such as a pitch meeting you all attended.  Ask for a concrete suggestion, such as “What was the one thing you saw me do that was most effective, and tell me one way that I could do better next time.”  It’s best to warn people that you’re going to  ask them, so that during the meeting they can devote at least a small portion of their attention to the topic.
  • Line up support for the leadership team.  Together the co-leaders should identify the main areas where they could use additional help, and then think broadly about where to source it.   One of the ironies of many professional service firms is that that they exemplify what economists would call a “market that fails to clear.”  That is, there exists both excess demand (overburdened leaders who need help juggling numerous responsibilities) and excess supply (professionals who want greater responsibility so that they can grow and demonstrate skills).  Delegating work to up-and-coming professionals is clearly an important piece of the puzzle, and account team leaders should actively manage the pipeline of future leaders to ensure that they are each optimally challenged.  This step requires frequent, albeit often brief, conversations among leaders to ensure that they are not over-burdening any given associate and are spreading the work effectively.  But co-leaders should also consider how they can tap into business support professionals or other typically back-office staff in addition to client-facing professionals.

What other actions do you take to make your account leadership team high-functioning?  Have you tried any of the tactics above and found them to be off base?  Are there certain situations (or kinds of people) for whom another approach would work better? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Reference: Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A. , Burruss, J. A., & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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2 thoughts on “Developing a high-functioning account leadership team

  1. Although team members may be well intentioned, communication among team members (including leaders) can be problematic. This is especially true when individuals are extremely busy and are having trouble “keeping their head above water” with all their client work and other non-billable requirements. In addition, when a matter is subject to a strict budget (or fee cap), these extra hours may not be able to be billed. What the team needs to understand is that better communication among themselves is likely to improve efficiency and actually enhance their ability to stay within budget. And when done properly, it should result in better results for the client.

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  2. Leaders need to understand the strategy of collaboration and have the skills to facilitate collaborative discussion. Breaking the roll down into the critical components will help effect the transition from an individualistic culture to a more collaborative culture. The broader this “re-education” and paradigm shifting occurs throughout the organization the easier it will be for leaders to implement.

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