Team-Based Leader Development: Why together is better…

Team-Based Leader Development

Educating executives, managers, supervisors and other leaders remains a major concern for companies eager to keep their organizations afloat or even thriving in a challenging economic environment. Frankly, the limiting factor for most organizations continues to be leadership.

Leader development is not a new concept.  It continues, however, to be practiced in ways that – at best – do little to develop successful leaders and – at worst – damage functional relationships by allowing learning to exist in silos and independent “vacuums.”

The problem is not content. Adequate topical content is a dime-a-dozen and represents time-tested applications and concepts that have not changed much in a couple of millennia. Any of several firms create and publish reasonably valid content.

The principal challenge around effective development is relevancy. The content mentioned above is generic and must be made relevant for a specific functional or hierarchical group, within a specific organization. Then, when properly facilitated, we can at least hope to successfully develop a group of leaders.

The biggest issue, though, in effectively developing a group, team, gaggle, or flock of leaders is making sure they all learn the same things, the same way, and in the same context. Further, they should be able to test relevant applications and concepts together, for best learning and application.

Enter Team-Based Leader Development.

Now, I’m not speaking of team-building, per se, nor am I talking about campfires, challenge/ropes courses, falling-backward trust exercises, or other hardly-effective methods of development.

Those have value in team-bonding, but not real team development. And no, bonding and development are not the same things… in fact, it’s not actually a team just because you call it a team. See our article on The First rule of the Leadership Team.

I’m simply talking about developing a team or group of leaders at the same time, together. At our firm, we see more and more organizations wanting – needing – content specific for their groups; you just can’t get there when sending people out to some public session or seminar trying to be all things to all people.

You need your leaders developed together, learning applications and concepts relevant to your organization. By using team-based leader development, all leaders of a particular level or function learn these things at the same time, in the same room, using each other as learning tools.

The advantages of this approach should be obvious, and include demonstrated successes in:

  1. Improving communication flow within the team and out to the organization. This can occur naturally, and in a less stressful, facilitated environment. Conversations like this…
  • …benefit the organization, by providing calm discussions among leaders of similar hierarchical or functional levels, about just about anything important occurring in the organization today, and
  • …benefit the specific leaders involved, as they not only are discussing new learnings and applications, but they now have the opportunity to discuss things not normally discussed.

For example, without a safer venue, how many mid or senior-level managers would ask a peer “Hey, John, what’s the best way for me to resolve a conflict in my department?”  Or “Say, Susan, I’m having some issues in driving empowerment to my hourly employees – any suggestions?”

I’m guessing those conversations/questions, in the midst of our brutally hectic workdays, would be damned rare.

  1. Fostering mutual accountability for behaviors and results. One of the biggest advantages in having all these leaders in one location discussing the same things is that accountabilities can become institutionalized. It’s one thing to make a casual mention in the hallway; another thing altogether to commit to a group today, then speak with them a month or so later about your progress.

Also, this close-in work environment creates team ground rules that foster cohesion; if we agree in a group that behind-the-back caucusing is not something we’ll do, then having those back-stabbing conversations later just doesn’t feel right. Further, open communications in a facilitated setting inevitably translate to more open conversations in the open workplace.

  1. Faster assimilation, shared accountabilities, and increased understanding. This is the financial “why?” answered. Homogeneous participants learn faster, and the learning is more relevant. Therefore, an organization’s return on those development dollars is quicker, and the skills are more appropriate for the organization’s needs.

Understanding is accelerated; participants can discuss/explain with each other on various points and concepts, making sure that the meaning is the same for all, and that more realize how they can actually be used for leader success.

Participants in team-based development are able to identify their primary strengths quicker, and better understand how building on those contributes to higher levels of personal satisfaction and team success.

In short, all win. And the organization is better for it, all the time.

For additional insight, see the incredibly old-but-still-relevant Houston Business Journal’s feature article, Many companies now leaning toward team-oriented training.

(If link above doesn’t work, you can download pdf version at

Your Job Title is Meaningless! … and it isn’t who you are

Your Job Title is Meaningless

2023’s first leadership newsflash: You aren’t what you do!

And if that doesn’t surprise you, how about this: Your job title isn’t what you do, either.

Have you ever talked to someone who was a little too proud of their job title? Like “I’m the SENIOR Vice President for Beverage Dissemination” is supposed to impress someone. I hate guys like that.

Job titles are a lot like the letters after a name in a signature block. They’re only important to people who are impressed by them. Otherwise, they’re largely meaningless, especially to the people who work for and with you.

My first experience with this was as a young lieutenant when I was appointed as the Resources Augmentation Duty Officer. I guess they figured if I could say it, I could be it, and very few people knew what the job entailed. What I did was plan for and tell people how to protect planes and people in case of a disaster – including nuclear. And I was damned good at telling people what to do.

My job title wasn’t what I did… and what I did wasn’t who I was.

Years ago, I worked with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict and Interoperable Capabilities (PDASD SO/LIC & IC for short). Try putting that on a business card. I’m not sure even he knew what he was supposed to do, except whatever the ASD SP/LIC & IC told him to do.

My point is this: Leaders don’t need a fancy job title to lead. They don’t need to be the Chief anything or the Vice President of anything to be a positive influence on, give a shit about, and help others succeed.

And their role in the organization is less important than who they are.

Good leaders know who they are – what their purpose is, what they believe in, and what they stand for… and what they won’t stand for. And none of that should be focused on self. They may not fully realize it at the time, but when a leader believes in people and cares more for the success of others than their own, everyone around them can tell.

Case in point: When I was the commander of a flying squadron, my purpose was to do everything in my power to help my teams deliver exceptional service to our clients. That was the measure of our success. I believed in them and their abilities and my confidence in them showed. They knew what I expected of them and what I wouldn’t tolerate. And it created an environment in which they were wildly successful (and made me look good in the process as an added bonus).

See, I knew the title wasn’t what I was supposed to do, and what I did reflected who I was.

At a time when job titles were so important to my peers, the sign on my door said simply “Kevin.” People didn’t come to me to be commanded; they came to me to be led.

Enough about me. How about you?

Does your desire for the next higher job title interfere with how you’re leading your team? Does your team know that you care about them and their success more than you care about yours? Does what’s important to you reflect in what’s important to them… and vice versa?

It’s a new year, so how about we start off with a new job title. If being a good leader is important to you in 2023, dare to be just Kevin. Or Bill or Julia or Ginny or Todd. Know who you are and dare to be yourself.

Or this year will be just like the last and the one before that.

How about it?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Quiet Quitting– and more leadership malarkey

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: this “Quiet Quitting” stuff is just a load of crap. Nothing more.

Don’t fall for it, thinking you now have some incredibly useful excuse for why people aren’t performing as you think they should. Sorry – no cigar.

It’s a made-up phrase to describe an age-old problem. Likely invented by some consultant or academic trying to sell you something. (wasn’t me, promise)

First, employees playing hide and seek with their efforts and attention is nothing new. It’s likely gone on since we had employers and employees.

Quiet Quitting Think common phrases like “whack a mole,” “duck and cover,” “keep your head down” and “staying off the radar.”

When I was in the USAF, we had a phrase we would use with people, especially as they were nearing a change in station, or were nearing their separation or retirement. We called it ROAD – Retired On Active Duty.

In other words, they had quit working for the most part, and doing just enough to make sure they didn’t get whacked.

Now we say, “he quit some time ago, just hasn’t stopped getting paid.”

This didn’t begin in 2022, so don’t pretend like it’s this newfangled, pandemic-apocalypse-WFH-related shenanigan.

if you’re just now hearing about stuff like this. Well, that’s on you. You’re likely easily bamboozled and equally confused.

Next, that whole “do more than required” has a name. It’s called discretionary effort.

Discretionary effort is that effort exerted or offered by the employee, beyond that which is required to keep their job.

Discretionary effort. I refer to it as the holy grail of leadership. You know you’re doing something right when those whom you lead offer you this added degree of ownership and effort. (Bad news – if you aren’t getting discretionary effort, well, that’s on you too!).

Here’s the rub; since we’re so incredibly bad (global leadership) at setting clear expectations, including written job descriptions, we may not realize… do you know what you call an employee who gives you no discretionary effort, only doing what is specifically required by the organization?

Quiet Quitting We call them a fully satisfactory performer.

That’s right, a fully satisfactory performer. A 2 out of a 3-point scale, or 3 out of 5.

You set the requirements. You set the expectations. You set the minimum qualifications.

And they did exactly as you asked.

So don’t act like they’re doing less than is necessary, or less than what we actually required, because it’s neither of those. In fact, it’s exactly what we asked for.

The reality is that we aren’t very good at setting clear expectations for others, so our expectation has become that employees would always “do the right thing,” even if we weren’t clear on what that right thing is. Even if we didn’t know what it was at the outset.

So don’t blame the employee for “just doing their job.”

If you insist they do something, spell it out. Put it in English. Then manage to those expectations.

Wait a minute… that sounds eerily like typical performance management.

Finally discretionary effort is given in only three circumstances, reasons or events:

  1. The employee is hardwired to do it. Some folks just can’t help themselves and will do a little bit more than expected of them regardless of their environment or for whom they work. They do it because that’s what they need personally to be satisfied when they go home at night.

The upside is, even with crappy leadership, you get the extra, discretionary effort from the hardwired crew. The bad news is, when they decide that that discretionary effort is not valued appropriately, they don’t just lower their effort.

No, they leave.

  1. Leadership trust. People will give us the discretionary effort if they trust that will do good things with it; they have to believe that that we won’t abuse the added input, nor them for providing it.In other words, they want to make sure that they can trust us to not take advantage of them, or take them for granted.
  2. Leadership influence – our ability to help people understand our vision, know the value of helping us pursue that vision, and then personally want to be part of wherever it is that were headed.This leadership influence is critical to the discretionary effort equation.

So, to put a bow on it:  if we hire the right person (#1 above), and we provide a reasonably successful vision to follow, and are capable of positively influencing others to go with us on our journey, the odds are stacked in our favor that we’ll get that coveted discretionary effort.

If not, we can always just blame it on the Quiet Quitting, or Great Resignation, or some other made-up fad of the day to excuse our own lack of discretionary effort.

Oops, did I say that out loud?

Remember, Grace and Accountability can coexist.

Who’s In Charge Now? …and who’s going to do all the work?

I have been vexed lately by organizations that have failed to have a succession plan for key leadership positions. Why do we do that to ourselves??

Maybe a better question is “why do we keep doing that to ourselves?

It seems to be filed in our playbooks as one of the Lessons Not Learned. And I certainly have no stone to throw at anyone who finds themselves in the all too familiar situation, as I’ve watched two organizations I’m involved with lose individuals – one expectedly and one not – who were more important to our success than we realized.

Apparently, we created single points of failure instead of points of success.

Attrition is a normal part of any organization as key contributors leave for greener pastures and senior leaders slip into retirement. Some we know about ahead of time and others catch us off guard. Whichever the case, changes in leadership at all levels are disruptive.

If we’re prepared for the change, the inevitable disruption is short-lived. If not, the gap in leadership talent can have a catastrophic effect. And I’m not just talking about changes in C-level leaders where we’ve groomed a single heir apparent. Instead of grooming more single points of failure, good succession planning focuses on developing a pool of talent with the desirable skills and experiences to fill either specific or a broader range of roles.

Sound simple I know, but I acknowledge it’s not often easy. Identifying “high potentials” is difficult in most organizations because we’re not intentional about openly discussing people with the potential to become more senior leaders. Heaven forbid we develop someone who then replaces us before we’re ready (even though I’ve never seen that happen).

We’re also often caught off guard by departures which is usually indicative of not being as in tune with or aware of our team members intentions or retirement planning. Most of the time, that’s on us.

To make matters harder, we have senior leaders in the organization who are loathe to cause a domino effect by moving internal talent (who has to be replaced, which leaves a vacancy that has to be filled, etc.) and defaults to recruiting external talent. This, too, is disruptive and tends to frustrate the individuals who think they’re ready for the promotion and who will start looking for another job.

Who’s In Charge Now - Succession Planning A few years ago, I worked with a mid-level leader who was hired to corral diverse activities under a single manager. As successful as he was, there was no one individual who could stand in during his absences because they lacked the knowledge of and insight into what was going on with the other managers in the division. Frustrated at being the single point of failure and the Chief, Cat Herder, he left the company with no one ready to take his place.

Then who did his function revert to? His boss, of course, and we can imagine how that turned out.

Two pieces of free advice (physician, heal thyself?): Stop the lip service about succession planning, and start being intentional about growing talented individuals to take on greater responsibility in the organization.

So, where do we start? How about the current and projected organization chart?

Have we forecasted prolonged absences? Are we planning to add another team to handle growth or downsizing to respond to market changes? Are we even thinking about who’s going to replace those we know are going to retire?


  • Make talent identification a regular part of conversations between senior leadership and boards of directors. We just don’t do that enough. The C-level needs to lead the way!
  • Decide on the skills we need to lead the company through current (and I dare say, future?) challenges to the organization. Do we even do that once a year when we half-heartedly participate in strategic planning efforts? Again, those skill gaps need to be a more regular topic of discussion.
  • Organizations that take it seriously will then assess and develop their identified talent to close the skills gap critical for the continued success of the company. This can go a long way to motivating and retaining our future leaders which, in turn, reinforces our corporate culture.

In my experience, both in the military and corporate worlds, we don’t do effective succession planning because it’s hard. No, we don’t do it because we’re too focused on the day-to-day performance of those who work for us.

We can admire the organizations that make leadership transition look seamless, and shake our heads empathetically at those who suffer through it, but what are we doing to make sure the disruption isn’t detrimental to our own company?

What’s it going to take before we do something about our lack of succession planning?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Teams, Gaggles, Flocks and Org Charts–The first rule of the leadership team is…

Just because we lump a bunch of people together at work and call them a “team,” doesn’t make it so. A group, gaggle, bunch, or flock just requires box similarities on an org chart.

Most identified teams, simply put, aren’t.

A couple of decent authors have stated “teams are a group of people that trust each other.” That doesn’t go far enough.

Teams are a group of people that trust each other to do their jobs even when absent. In other words, I know you’ll do what’s best by me, even if I’m not in the room.

Teams aren’t created, they’re formed. Even better, they’re forged.

So, as the leader of this heretofore mislabeled enterprise, how do you know if you are forging this team, as opposed to just creating it? Ah, young Jedi… the perfect question.

There are a few things to look for, both good and not-so-good.


  1. Do team members ask questions/offer opinions (in meetings) on other team members’ responsibilities?
    In other words, are they capable (and willing) to offer their opinion based on non-technical judgment or experience, in areas where they are not a subject-matter-expert?
  2. Do team members disagree (in meetings), and then LISTEN to the responses?
    Can they ask questions of each other without getting a perfunctory “jeeez,” and an eye roll from the owner of the topic?Well-intentioned devil’s advocates can sometimes be helpful.
  3. Are most decisions made by team members OUTSIDE of team meetings?
    Meetings should NOT be the place for a ton of brand-new information-sharing. It should be the place for actions and decisions that cannot be made between one or multiple members outside of a boardroom, on discussion items that have already been mostly hashed before the meeting.
  4. Do they regularly engage outside of required operational discussions?
    Are their routine drive-by conversations about kids, football scores and home remodeling (sorry, just can’t let that one go)? Periodic lunches, maybe even a dinner or other mostly social gatherings?
    People are forever trying and tell me that outside interactions are unnecessary for a high-performing team – to that, I say bullshit. It is
  5. Does the team keep team conflicts strictly within the team?
    If I can go to your subordinate and find out what you really think of your teammates, you aren’t doing your job.The first rule of the leadership team is that you don’t talk about the leadership team outside of the leadership team. No exceptions, unless you want to say fantastically complimentary things about someone, or perhaps praise the dickens out of the teams executive and leadership coach (Oops! How’d that get in there?).


  1. Do team members disagree silently in meetings, then caucus with the Grand Poobah afterwards?
    A sure sign of a dysfunctional team is the inability to offer contrary opinions, and the need to convince the boss outside the arena where decisions should be made, and actions agreed on.This ain’t a political primary – it’s a business and you’re a leader within it. Act like one. Have the guts to offer your opinion, even if not fully developed, where others can hear it and react.
  2. Do team members routinely speak to you about other members’ shortcomings or challenges?
    If the only way you, as team lead or senior-most leader, know that a subordinate is underperforming is for another subordinate to come and tell you… both you and that tattle-tale subordinate are key parts of the problem.If a colleague is performing sub-optimally, tell him or her directly. “Use your words,” as many parents tell their kids. Be respectful and direct, and come armed with specific examples. Ask me about our “Difficult and Courageous Conversations” for leaders. It’s a necessary skill.Or drop it and don’t mention it at all to anyone. Telling the boss first, however, is not option #3.
  3. Do others in the organization know about specific team conflicts?
    An extension of #2. When disagreements exist – when the consensus (including you) is to make Decision “A,” but you still fundamentally disagree – do you shuttle around your subordinates having “keep this between you and me” conversations with each of them about how yours is the best way?Stop that.
  4. Do next-level employees know which team members are “liked” or not by their boss?

    They shouldn’t.There is zero reason for someone who works with you or for you to know that you think less of teammate Brian in HR than of Lynn in Operations. The organization is hurt when this occurs, since those subordinates then carry some of that baggage with them, collaborating less, sharing less, and developing unfounded heartburn for someone merely because of their tribe.And that is because of you.

    Don’t do that.

There’s not an absolute litmus test for high-performing and high-functioning teams, as much as a continuum. One of the highest performing exec teams I’ve ever worked with continues to “work on” being better as a team. It’s a continuous process, requiring proactive efforts by all.

The team leader sets the tone and basic non-negotiables (CPA — condone, permit, allow). All else is done by the team at large and can’t be delegated.

Other than that – easy-peasy.

Stupid should hurt… Learn from your business mistakes.

stupid mistakes happen

I was recently involved (as a participant) in a strategic planning event; the facilitator, Alan Pue, was discussing many of the ways that planning — and its subsequent implementation — can go wrong.

In part of that commentary, he mentioned as an example a firm’s inability to adapt to a necessary change in the market, and how that inability adversely affected their performance. Alan wasn’t sympathetic to their plight, nor even empathetic. In fact, he made it clear that the problem was their own doing, and the resultant pain was of their own creation. They did it to themselves, have no one else to blame, and these lessons — though valuable — can be painful.

I agree.

When we act so dumb in business that we can’t get out of our own way, the resultant pain is our own doing. Sort of like touching a hot stove, we hopefully learn that we shouldn’t do that again.

Stupid should hurt.

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