Right-Sizing Leadership Teams
‘Right-sizing has to be one of the more detested words in modern business language, mostly because the use of it often indicates a lack of courage.
Rather than come right out and say ‘lay-off’ or ‘firing,’ too many leaders announce that they will right-size their organization, as though this will somehow change the reality of what they are about to do, which is to eliminate jobs and let employees go.
Of course, eliminating jobs and laying people off is a reality of business. No one can fault a leader who has to make those difficult decisions as long as they do it with appropriate discernment and gravity.
What is ironic to me is how often executives fail to step up to the plate when it is time to do what the term right-sizing actually means, particularly when dealing with their leadership team.
So many executive teams I deal with are simply too big.
Whether they have eleven or fourteen or eighteen members, they become gangly and cumbersome, making it impossible to be nimble and responsive in their responsibilities to steer their organization through rough waters or even relatively calm ones.
So what is the right size for a leadership team?
Somewhere between three and eight.
Because groups larger than this almost always struggle to effectively use the two kinds of communication required of any team.
Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard, came up with the idea years ago that people need to engage in both ‘advocacy’ and ‘inquiry’ to communicate effectively.
Advocacy states an opinion or an idea, while inquiry is asking questions or seeking clarity about someone else’s opinion or idea.
However, when there are too many people at the table, inquiry drops off dramatically, mostly because people realize that they’re not going to get many opportunities to speak. Hence, they weigh in with their opinion while they have the chance.
When the team is smaller, two things happen.
First, trust can be exponentially stronger. That is simply a matter of physics.
Second, team members know that they’ll have plenty of time to make their ideas heard, even if they make more inquiry than advocacy. This leads to better and faster decisions. Those large leadership teams can often take three times longer to arrive at decisions.
Decisions that prove to be poorer, often due to the quest for consensus.
How does a leader go about right-sizing a team?
First, understand the reason for having such a large team in the first place.
They often put people on the team as a reward or to placate them for another unrelated issue. Or maybe, they fall for the inclusivity plea, trying to demonstrate to the organization that they are open to many different opinions and value everyone’s input.
Once a leader has come to terms with why the team has grown so large, it becomes time to right-size the team.
The key to doing this is to avoid the band-aid approach, which involves painfully choosing people to take off the team, one at a time.
A better method is to create a new team, starting from scratch.
That means if you have twelve people on the team, try forming a real executive team with just four or five and add one or two more from there if necessary.
Then unapologetically explain to the old team why the new one is necessary and why you’ve formed it the way you did.
You can keep the old team intact for other purposes, like communication and development, but not for making the regular decisions that must be made quickly and with the right mix of debate and decisiveness.
One of the things you’ll learn is that the people who are not on the new team will probably thank you.
In many cases, they see and experience the dysfunction of too many members. While there may be a temporary sting at not being on the new one, any good executive will be mature enough to see the benefits to the organization overall.
If they aren’t mature enough to do that, you probably shouldn’t have had them on the team in the first place.