It’s something I come across quite often. They feel frustration, a bit of consternation, and an uncertainty of how to put it into words, but it is definitely there. It’s the conflict between the desire of the leader for his/her team to function as a “team” and the team members’ unspoken feelings: “But we’re not really a team!”
Increasingly, I think, City Managers want their executive management team to interact together both at staff meetings and outside of staff meeting, as a team. To borrow from Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, these City Managers want their direct reports to take off their “specialist” hats and put on the “generic team member” hats, so that they can function as a team.
I don’t claim to know all of their motivations for this, but I believe they see it as one way to respond to the ongoing pressure that the public sector faces to do more with less. Working together as a team is one way to compensate for this new reality. Not only that, but it is easy to recognize that if someone has the experience to serve as the head of a department, he/she has accumulated a fair amount of wisdom and savvy along the way about municipal organizations. So, I can completely understand why City Managers want their team to function like a team!
However, I notice that it often feels counter-intuitive to the Department Heads for several reasons. First, many of them feel that they did not rise to their position of leadership by being a generalist. They got there by being a specialist. They have stayed in their lane, worked hard, and kept up with trends in their area. Second, they often feel that if they give too much input about another person’s area or idea, it will be taken as an insult. In addition, since staff meetings may be the only time in which they interact with each other, the team chemistry may not be as strong as it is within their respective departments. Therefore, to many Department Heads it seems best to be cordial to others, (and helpful if needed) but to basically interact with the City Manager one to one, just like the rest of the Department Heads do. As one man said to me, “We have enough work already. I don’t want to create more work, just so we can work together.”
An astute City Manager fully recognizes all of this, but I think his/her response might be summarized by the adage, “What got us here, won’t get us there.” The question is, “Given the nature of the situation, how can executive teams function most effectively?” I’ll tackle that issue next time, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and perspective on this issue.