Kelman: Senior leadership teams

Most government agencies and vendors have a top management team. “Senior Leadership Teams:
What It Takes to Make Them Great,” a new book by organizational-behavior scholar Ruth Wageman and three colleagues, notes that many of these so-called teams engage in unproductive and even painful exercises.

The teams meet regularly for dysfunctional activities that the authors label Show and Tell; the Monologue, also known as the Harangue; and the Anarchist’s Ball. Meanwhile, most productive interaction between the leader of the organization and senior managers occurs one-on-one.

One of the first messages of this book is a liberating one: Don’t feel your organization necessarily needs a top management team, don’t establish one just to have one, and don’t waste people’s time with unnecessary meetings.

Why does an organization need a senior leadership team? The book’s answer is that an organization should have one if its top managers need to work better together across sub-unit lines. This might be because the organization needs to do a better job coordinating among units or connecting the dots, top managers need to develop a stronger commitment to the welfare of the organization as a whole, or the organization’s environment and strategy are changing so rapidly that discussions across sub-unit lines are needed to develop better ideas about what the organization should be doing. One or more of those conditions apply to some, but not all, government agencies — probably more now than in the past.

So if you want to set up a productive top management team, what should you do? Again, the message in the book is to avoid pro forma meetings that waste people’s time. Instead, senior leadership teams need substantive assignments to work on as a team.

One common mistake is to make a top management team too big. The authors title a section of the book, “The Importance of Being Small.” A bigger team makes it more difficult to create meaningful team tasks and “accommodate all the voices for…robust discussions.” It also creates opportunities for more relationship issues that must be dealt with. The team should also have a definite membership to encourage joint responsibility for assigned tasks. The authors report that, in their research, only 7 percent of the teams fully agreed on who the team members were.

Top management teams in government face a special issue: The involvement of senior career managers with political appointees on such teams. Too often, politicals inappropriately exclude career folks. That is a big mistake.

The correct reply to the statement that chief information officers should be political appointees so they can get a seat at the table is that they ought to have such a seat as senior career managers.
Finally, it was interesting to see that this book, published by the Harvard Business School Press, was sponsored by the Leadership for the Common Good project at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School. This is a nice recognition by the business side of the importance of leadership in a public-organization context.

Kelman ( is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. 

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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