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Focus on the Strategic with a Self-Correcting Team

  • By Staff Writers
  • Published: 3/5/2018

This is a partial transcript of an AFP Conversations Podcast with host Ira Apfel and Executive Coach and BreakThrough Treasury & Finance keynote Sarah Levitt. To hear the full interview click here

Ira Apfel: Let's start with high-performing teams. How do you define a high-performing team?

Sarah Levitt: No, that's great. I've recently begun to say that a high-performing team is really baseline for what organizations and leaders need. In fact, I just wrote about it this week in my blog. A high-performing team, historically, has meant that ... I like to say that if you picture everyone in a boat, that everyone's, essentially, rowing in the same direction. Everyone has the same goal. Everyone has the same focus. Everyone has the same priority. Really, that's kind of baseline for exemplary performance, and what I'm seeing is that teams really need to be self-correcting.

Ira Apfel: Why is it so important to be self-correcting?

Sarah Levitt: Well, you do. A team always, just like an organization, always needs to be course correcting. Sometimes those corrections are minor. To continue with kind of the boating analogy, you might tack a little bit left or right. Sometimes those are minor, and sometimes you might need to take a very directional and strategic turn. Teams need to be self-correcting because it enables their leader, whether that's the CEO, or the president of a division or a region, or in the world of finance that might be the CFO, for example ... It enables that leader to really stay out of the weeds and to keep focus strategically themselves.

Sarah Levitt: A self-correcting team, one of the essential pieces of it is that they function well without their leader. The leader's there as a safety net, and a guide, and for questions, and their guidelines and parameters around when the team and team members need to come to the leader, but the team functions well without the leader, and in keeping with being self-correcting, the team is able to kind of anticipate problems in advance and, again, course correct rather than get thrown off course entirely by obstacles.

Sarah Levitt: Then the third piece is that they have their own good discretion and judgment, again, so that the leader doesn't need to be in the weeds all the time and can be more focused strategically, so they're able to use their own judgment, and there is trust. There's bidirectional trust, so the leader trusts the team to take care of things that they need to and to come to the leader when necessary, and the leader and the team trust the leader to kind of let them execute it as they need to.                         

Ira Apfel: Why is it so hard to build high-performing teams?

Sarah Levitt: Well, one of the things that I see is that, and this is going to sound almost counterintuitive, is that leaders and teams may not know what the target is. They may have a rough idea of KPIs or measures, but they don't have a really good sense of what the target is beyond that or how they're going to get there, specifically what the roles and responsibilities are of the people on the team. That is critical, to kind of know what people are ... what their purview is, what they're accountable for, because without that, the leader can't help support the team, and the team members kind of can't step up. So that's one of it is definition, one of the challenges, the real kind of definition and understanding around roles and responsibilities and the target for where team members are going.

Sarah Levitt: Then the other, we hear about this a lot, is communication, which I like to say is this overused word that we don't really kind of know what it means in the practiced and practical sense, but without clear communication on expectations, it's really hard for a leader to delegate, and without that delegation, there cannot be a high-performing self-correcting team.

Ira Apfel: Tell me a bit about your experience of building high-performing teams, and what do you struggle with?

Sarah Levitt: I'll give you an example, actually, in the financial world. I was working with a senior financial official of a Fortune 1000 company was invited in at kind of the most challenging time of the year for him and his team of about eight or nine direct reports. They were due to kind of deliver the financials to the CEO of the company, and this was traditionally the very most stressful, challenging time of the year. Historically, there had been lots of labor intensity, kind of duplicative work.

My client, the senior financial official, was often in the weeds trying to solve the problems, and so in our work together, what we did was try to extract him from the weeds, but again, in order to do that, there had to be kind of clear communication, delegation, and responsibility on the part of his team, and so I worked with them over a course of time to really smooth out, not just the places where they were having challenges, but extract their own internal best practices. That can be something that a team and a leader has a hard time doing, in other words, identifying and recognizing what's going well and how to leverage it so that they can use all of that mind share to, again, to course correct and smooth out the bumps that are happening to be more efficient and, ultimately, raise their performance.

Ira Apfel: Previously, you had a business, and I'm sure you had to build some high-performing teams there. What was that like for you?

Sarah Levitt: Yeah, so I started and ran a greenhouse operation and absolutely had a team, and I often will relay to my clients, and I write about this too in my blog, I'll often relay to my clients some of my experiences there. One of the things I really lived, so this wasn't theory, but one of the things that I really lived was giving employees a sense of meaning, and context, and contribution for their work and how incredibly important that is. We all like to know, on some level, that what we're doing matters. I like to say we like to know the end of the story.

Sarah Levitt: Even if an employee's effort did not lead to a positive result, let's say, in the end, just that they know what happened is important. With my clients, I talk about kind of the black hole where good work has gone, and it's never heard from again, so when key members do something well, to really be sure to identify it because it not only gives them praise, which is great, it's fine, but it also tells them what you want more of, and it essentially describes and illustrates the standard of performance to them in a way that's very real.

Sarah Levitt: One of my favorite questions to ask with regard to contribution is a very simple question, and I use this all the time: What do you think? It's an incredibly simple question, but it elicits and asks team members to use what I call their muscles of contribution. It means that you're looking to them to really be leaders in their own right for the organization.

Ira Apfel: When you're talking to a finance executive, what unique challenges does he or she present to you?

Sarah Levitt: Most often, I see that they may have been overlooked for development themselves, so they have made their career in their technical arena of expertise, which is finance, and they have, essentially, ascended the ladder to ... for example, a senior financial official, or a corporate treasurer, or CFO, but they have not either taken the time or been given the time or the investment on leadership development, and so what I often see is these folks just haven't had the opportunity and that, with an investment of some leadership development, they can be extraordinary leaders, actually, unexpectedly so. They can be extraordinary leaders. It's just that they, perhaps, have not had the opportunity to develop themselves because they often are ... As financial people, they're very detail-oriented and eager to kind of learn.

Ira Apfel: It's interesting that you mention that. It's almost as if if they can just balance the budget or make a good forecast, that's enough for them to do their job.

Sarah Levitt: What I find is that, and again, the folks that I work with are already doing well, and they kind of want to take their game to the next level, and whether it's in finance or another arena, because I do work across industry, these are folks who have ascended, and they are eager to continue to develop themselves.

Sarah Levitt: I'm thinking of one client, a CFO who came to me for one of our meetings and said to me, "You know, Sarah, I almost didn't come because I've got so much to do." Then, by the end of our time, he said, "Wow, I can't imagine not having been here. This was so helpful." It's the time and the space factor as well to be able to extract themselves, and all leaders do this, to be able to extract themselves from the crunch of being in the weeds and the daily to get some of that reflection time. Particularly, and this counterintuitive, the crazier and more chaotic things get, the more important it is for a leader to have that space to reflect and, frankly, strategically think.

Ira Apfel: You've been coaching now for quite some time, and I'm wondering what's changed in that time, both in terms of what your clients want, and what do you think they need?

Sarah Levitt: I was just talking to an organization in New York about this, actually. I think one of the main things that's changed, if not the main thing, is that coaching, traditionally, may have been viewed, may have been viewed as remedial, so someone was not performing well, and an outside resource, consultant/coach like myself, might have been brought in to help a poor performer, and so it was used almost in a remedial fashion.

Sarah Levitt: What's changed, I think, is that coaching is really viewed as, and I mentioned the work investment earlier, by the individual and by the organization as an investment in the return on someone's performance and leadership capacity and, ultimately, in the performance and profitability of the organization. The leaders I work with are really high-performing. They want to take it to the next level, and are often very transparent about the fact that they're working with an outside resource. If we think of people in sports or exemplary, superb musicians, all of those folks have resources. They've got coaches.

Ira Apfel: If you had to give them one piece of advice, what would you give them?

Sarah Levitt: I would say ... and this is also in the book. One of the chapters is about framing and reframing and, essentially, how we look at the challenges that come to us. It features Dan Michelson, CEO of Strata Decision Technology, who shares his leadership journey and says that, as CEO, the most important part of his job is to, essentially, frame the challenges and provide meaning and context for his team members. I would say that's probably the most important thing that leaders and team members can do because the challenges are always going to be there. It's a matter of high performance. Exemplary performance is about how to frame the challenge in such a way that it can be, no longer an obstacle, but can be surmounted and made some ... I mean that's where innovation lies is when we meet an obstacle and a challenge and make something else of it.

Want to hear more from Sarah Levitt? Attend BreakThrough Treasury & Finance where she will be a keynote speaker. Register here
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