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A journey towards team effectiveness

By Stephen Cowburn

“A team is not a group of people who work together, it is a group of people who trust each other.” Simon Sinek

In September last year, a CEO, we’ll call Kathy, recognised that she needed help with her executive team. Specifically, aligning the five team members to the organisation’s strategic needs, adopting a broader view of what the business needed to do to be future-ready and agile in dealing with likely scenarios. She recognised that doing nothing was no longer an option and contacted me wanting help.

It was like turning on a tap. By asking one or two key questions, and careful listening, a story that had been obviously distilling in her head, came gurgling out in a stream of consciousness – self-blame, senior managers over-promoted, a new joiner to the team, a need for this team to be role models to the organisation. It was cathartic and reminded me of the need to create a safe container for this CEO to talk and feel heard and, as so many MDs say to me, to find the space to listen to her own voice out loud and so begin to work things out in a structured way.

This session, which turned out to be over two hours, became the catalyst for change. Kathy developed a strategy for sorting out the over-promoted manager. She wanted a guide to using the team’s business agenda to be the vehicle for operating differently and begin working more strategically as a team. Kathy introduced me to the team, and through facilitation and coaching, we worked on several opportunities and challenges over 9 months. Specifically, these included the team dynamic, a more strategic agenda, creating sustainable learning and, most importantly, encouraging the team to notice what was going on, pause, reflect and have the confidence to offer their perspective for discussion to build the necessary collective intelligence to operate strategically.

Kathy is the heroine in this story. She overcame not only bereavement and Covid but also role-modelling the behaviours she wanted to see in others – being vulnerable, open and comfortable about not knowing, curious, asking questions and encouraging others to do the same.

Psychological safety grew by being the change she wanted to see in others, which created a safe environment for individuals to be open, say what they thought and offer new ideas. The NED, who ratified the changes, said this was a different team that had grown in confidence, and more uniformly aligned with the business plan through a shared clarity on purpose.

Stephen Cowburn | UK Business Advisors (

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