‘Teams at the top’ – senior leadership and when to ‘team’ – PART 1

by Contributor 0

‘Teams at the top’ – senior leadership and when to ‘team’ 



According to our recent survey, almost a quarter of our customers use Belbin at the most senior levels within their organization. With 97% of clients agreeing that Belbin helps teams work more effectively together, where do the two meet? How does teamwork operate at the top and what can be done to improve things?

The words of Jon R. Katzenbach in ‘The Myth of the Top Management Team’ were published more than twenty years ago – and they still resonate today. Katzenbach asserted that so-called ‘top teams’ aren’t really teams at all – that they don’t have any of the features needed to make an effective team, and describing them as such can do considerable harm.

What do we mean by ‘team’?

The word ‘team’ has acquired a great deal of baggage from colloquial use. With all the meanings it carries, its currency as shorthand to pinpoint a concept – which, after all, is what language is – loses value.

Does the nomenclature really matter? Yes, it does:

“The terminology is important: when we are undisciplined in our language, we become undisciplined in our thinking and actions.”

The article points out that teamwork is not synonymous with performance. For a lot of senior leadership interactions, it might not be the most effective approach. Rather, the skill for effective leaders lies in determining when teamworking is and is not appropriate.

So, what makes an effective team?

Members understand their own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses;According to Belbin, an effective team is one in which:

  • All required Team Roles (distinct behaviours required for the team’s success) are represented;
  • Relationships within the team exploit individuals’ strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

The executive council

A collection of top-level executives in any organization is not a team at all. They’re effectively a working group with a single leader.

In Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, Meredith Belbin writes: “The bigger the group, the greater the unseen pressures that make for conformity.” Where there is structure, this discourages dissent. Where structure is lacking, the sheer size of a group leads to anonymity. In a group of executives whose primary responsibilities lie beyond the working group (as we’ll explore below), this means that commitment to the ‘top team’ will most likely take second place.


There are a number of requirements for high-performing teams that a working group of high-level executives can’t meet.

Teams need to be small.

Dr Belbin’s ideal team size is four. This allows for all required Team Role contributions to be represented (since each team member has more than one role to offer) and means that decisions must be reached by consensus. (With five in a team, one person might be given a casting vote.)

Teams must be able to set tangible goals.

The objectives for a group of executives (corporate strategy, policy and objectives) are more abstract than for teams operating at lower levels, who can focus more tightly on specific performance outcomes. With goals too broad to offer the focus or mutual accountability that constitutes real team effort, goal-setting for the ‘top team’ can prove a fruitless exercise for result-driven executives.

Teams should be balanced in their composition.

The qualities that lead to promotion may be exactly the opposite of those required for effective teamworking. Top-level executives are chosen because their skills and experience have shown that they are proficient and dealing with their own primary responsibilities. However, it’s exactly those responsibilities which will always take precedence over so-called ‘top team’ work, especially if that ‘team’ is not cohesive.

Additionally, complementarity is not guaranteed. Belbin theory stipulates that a balance of Team Roles – or behavioural contributions – is needed to ensure effective team performance. A ‘top team’, however, is not composed with balance in mind, but is a collection of individuals at a certain hierarchical level within the organization. Whilst they might bring a number of skills, judgment and experience, there is no guarantee that these will be complementary, especially if corporate ‘cloning’ has led to the promotion of executives with a certain behavioural fingerprint. In this instance, an executive group may not be alert to their Team Role shortcomings, or if aware, may be unable to draw on their reports for Team Role resources they are lacking.

Teams rely on mutual accountability.

In a typical hierarchical structure, individual accountability – the ability to take responsibility, make critical decisions and exercise power – is valued. With a view that this alone leads to high performance (and an individual track record to prove it), many single leaders are conditioned to work this way and likely to be distrustful of sharing accountability with others.


To be continued…


Jo and Pete | Belbin