Situation Overview

In 2016, Four Letter Consulting was hired to support the formation of a new leadership team.  This team was comprised of 60 senior leaders, many are subject matter experts in the headquarters with others managing smaller customer facing offices across the country. The organization was 5 years post merger, and little had been done to manage the merging of cultures. In addition, the organization includes employees averaging 15 years tenure, further influencing dynamics between legacy organizations.


The project began with an assessment comprised of 1:1s and observation of team meetings which enabled us to understand existing team dynamics.  Individual meetings were particularly important as a means of establishing credibility, as there was a high degree of skepticism towards outsiders. Findings contributed to both the direction of the team and the trajectory of our work together.


Early in the observation process, we determined that developing simple meeting norms would help set the stage for more effective and collaborative work moving forward. When we came on board meetings were chaotic, and poorly attended. In order for this group to have a measurable impact on the organization, something needed to change. Simple norms were established, driving a small but important sense of progress and building a foundation for team interactions.

Offsite #1: Building the Foundation for Successful Teaming

In the fall of 2016, we facilitated a two day offsite with the Senior Management Team (SMT).  The primary objective was for the SMT to build and strengthen their relationships.  Secondarily, we wanted the team to establish some norms around how they would interact with one another going forward.  Trust had been broken in many instances and these norms would be critical to repairing that.  

Before the event, each member completed an entry in a Team Directory that included personal and professional questions - information about their areas of responsibility and their current priorities, qualities they appreciate in colleagues, what their best friends would say about them...questions that provided insight into the individuals and their worlds.  Answers were provided in a bound book and poured over in the days to come.  Something simple, like sharing more about themselves, highlighted the humanity of the group and enabled relationships to be built anew.

Knowing there was a weak foundation and reticence around participation, we spent the beginning portion of the meeting establishing Dialoguing Norms - how were members of the group going to speak to one another?  How would they share the floor?  How vulnerable could they be. This led to the first large group discussion, focused on confidentiality and how open folks could really be - would comments get back to their bosses or would things stay in the room?  At the suggestion of one of their peers, the group took a leap of faith, realizing nothing could be said that would fully assure confidentiality.  

We facilitated the group through an appreciative exercise where they  explored the best team experiences.  We wanted the group to emotionally connect with how gratifying it is to be a part of a great team and to refine what this group’s ideal team looked like.  This connection was going to be important as we knew the SMT was going to face setbacks. They were looking to change long held habits and would inevitably stumble and step on each others’ toes, and they needed to know and feel it was worthwhile.  

After establishing the dialoguing norms, we focused on establishing ongoing team norms that would have a profound impact on the experience of the team. Four norms were selected, focusing, and the assumption of positive intent proved to be the most impactful.  In an organization often consumed with politics and poor cross-functional working relationships, to stop and assume positive intent was revolutionary and immediately improved how the team functioned.

To close the offsite, we hosted a social gathering and could see a new way of interacting was already emerging. While events in past were often stiff and segregated, we found folks laughing, connecting with new friends and old alike, and deepening their relationships.  

When asked what they will do different, participants shared some of the following:

  • “Hold myself to a higher standard in my communications (verbal and written) and re-double my efforts to determine how my actions will impact others in different locations/departments.”

  • “Relate to my colleagues on a more personal level, which is a lot for me.”

  • “I will make my own impressions of other staff based on our personal interactions, and discount rumors/anecdotes previously shared by others, who may have had their own agendas”

  • “Be more patient with my colleagues and believe they are coming from a place of good intent.”

In 18 months, the Senior Management Team went from a collection of individuals skeptical of the necessity and value of being a team, to a team actively self-governing and driving its own agenda of meaningful initiatives. They have developed subgroups that have tackled major culture initiatives for the organization and the performance assessment process. They have learned to act on what they can control, and rely on relationships to collaboratively influence areas outside of their purview.

With intentional focus on building deeper relationships, professionally and personally, and embracing a greater degree of vulnerability and ownership, this team transformed itself.  

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