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Teamwork Is Highly Over-rated

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Nowadays everyone thinks teamwork is an essential part of management. Who would question its importance in running any business? The image of an all-powerful boss making the big decisions all by himself is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Or is it? Not when it comes to top-level management. There the idea of true teamwork is more dream than reality. Even if it thrives at other levels of a business, it rarely does there.

A study I recently conducted of companies of many sizes and in many industries found that only 6 per cent of them had top management teams truly mobilised to make big decisions. No less than 21 per cent were run by chief executives who generally made decisions entirely on their own.

Most of the companies, 73 per cent, had top managers/directors that worked as groups but fell short of qualifying as teams. That is, they functioned as collections of diverse people who came together in agreement, but what they agreed on was accepting the decisions of the CEO. They weren't teams that came up with their own recommendations.

Bosses, for their part, tended to think that consulting consultation with the team would help motivate and reassure the top managers/directors, but it wasn't a big part of developing strategy. They ask their top management directors questions and then made their decisions on their own. Why? Because they think that's their job as CEO.

That doesn't make for a very democratic picture of top management. It looks a lot like bosses just surround themselves with yes men. Very often CEOs choose their top management based more on personal affinity than on the managers/directors' specific skills or responsibilities. That sometimes leads to situations that are almost surreal. For example, a CEO whose personally closest colleague is the financial director will be more likely to discuss human resources questions with him than with the H.R. director. He'll be asking the right questions, but not necessarily of the right person.

How does a CEO portray himself as a big fan of teamwork while maintaining a management team/board of yes men? By dividing to conquer. In one of the companies we analysed, the CEO had no fewer than 19 high-level colleagues on his top management staff. That would make real teamwork impossible. The size of the group would even make meetings rare, and when they did happen their sole purpose would be to circulate information. Yet having so many directors makes the boss look like he manages based on wide consultation. In truth, the more directors there are, the less more likely the CEO is to be able to keep a personal hold on the company.

In the most extreme cases, you find top managers/directors with no freedom and autonomy whatever. At one of the firms we analyzed a new CEO came on board and found that some of the managers had never made any decisions. They hadn't even known they had budgets they were responsible for.

A change of CEO like that can present a big opportunity for examining how the top management works. Generally, the way they function is more a reflection of the CEO's personality and managerial beliefs than of anything else.

We were surprised to find that this state of affairs in every kind of organization, large and small. Not only in multinationals is teamwork among directors rare. That's also the case in non-governmental organisations and small and medium enterprises.

When we asked CEOs about this, most of them revealed that teamwork wasn't second nature for them. Some of them had chosen to pursue it, seeing it as a plus for their companies. More may have to. If, as some have argued, the future belongs to businesses that are more participative and democratic, then maybe the days of the all-powerful CEO are finally numbered.

(Céline Legrand is a member of the human resource management faculty at Audencia Nantes School of Management, in France)