The 4 Essential Things A CEO Cannot Delegate: Patrick Lencioni Interview

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Last month I spent time with Patrick Lencioni. I always get so much value when I spend time with him. He is an incredibly gifted writer and without doubt the leading voice in the world today on organisational health.

During our time together I asked Pat a variety of questions, all of which arise from the challenges and issues we encounter while working with executive teams, in South Africa and around the world.

It is a powerful and insightful interview and I hope you find it as interesting and stimulating as I did while making it.

We deal with issues such as:

1. What are the 4 essential things that a CEO cannot delegate?
2. What does it really mean to develop a performance culture?
3. Why are meetings often so unproductive and what can you do about it?
4. How do you get communication to flow in large organisations with lots of layers?
5. How to tell the kind truth upwards and why doing this will double your influence in your organisation?
6. Why do managers wait so long before addressing poor performance and bad behaviour?
7. What are the ideal attributes of a great team player?
8. Why is clarity more important than certainty when you are an executive?

Patrick Lencioni Interview

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Is your team in need of clarity?

We recently worked with an executive team that was working very hard but not seeing the results.

Perhaps you are part of a team like this? You are dedicated, work long hours, are constantly online, perhaps even take conference calls at 2.00 am, but your company is just not seeing the results.

What is missing is clarity.

Clarity means knowing what to focus on to get results. Clarity drives consistent behaviour and it eliminates unnecessary activity. Without true clarity you end up having too many priorities (which really mean none at all) and your behavioural standards are unclear.


This leads to confusion about what is most important and how to behave. Instead of the concentration of effort on a few things done really well that everyone supports, precious resources are scattered and diluted on too many things.

That’s exactly what was happening with the team I was working with. Some regions were doing better than others but overall when you added it all together, the sum of the parts was disappointing.

Effort was not being rewarded with results and it was taking a toll on them.

The confidence and energy in the team was low. What hurt the most was that good people were leaving for the competition and they felt powerless to stop it.

The real problem was they were working hard but not together. They did not have clarity on what was most important for the organisation. Each person had their own version of the goal but they were not the same. Due to these different goals the harder they worked the more they moved apart.

The pressure was on. “I need to get everyone rowing in the same direction” the CEO told me.

To do this we first needed every executive to see that their number one priority was to act in the best interests of the whole organisation. Their 1st team was the executive team and not the functional or regional teams they were leading back in operations. So often in the team at the top we see a lack of understanding on this important concept.

Individuals think that if their department is winning they are achieving their goals, but unless the business as a whole is victorious no one can be.

This was very hard for some. They had so much invested and they kept putting the hat back on of the team they were leading. What they lacked was the clarity around the bigger picture – the business’s single purpose and how they should contribute to it.

To find this clarity the team set about answering the six critical clarity questions.

These are the questions that get everyone at the top on the same page, focusing on the main goal and purpose of the business. They also ensure that each person’s effort is assisting the main cause and that the resources of the company are being properly channeled.

Through this process the team was now asking the right ultimate question – ‘how do we as executives unlock the full potential of the whole organisation?’ The moment this happened the energy of the team went up.

One of the six questions asks – ‘what is most important right now?’ What is the team’s single most important priority in the next 6-12 months? This question creates the focus and concentration of resources that leads to a breakthrough in performance.

For this team they felt that they had lost their ability and belief to close really big deals. This was a major contributor to their disappointing results and everyone believed passionately that this was their collective number one priority.

Within a few hours we had written up the main goal and identified five key activities that everyone was involved in to achieve the goal.

The excitement in the room was tangible. The rallying cry of the team had been set and the momentum and tone of the team had shifted materially. They couldn’t wait to get back to their teams and communicate the outcome, anxious now to get the whole organisation committed to the main cause.

So will the team turn the tide on its results?

It’s very early to tell. The task ahead of them is demanding. But everyone on the team is now in the same boat, rowing together. Now they have a fighting chance. They have even had their first big win and the belief is coming back.

Do you want to start this process with your own team?

Please add your thoughts and comment on the article in the space below and we will send you a copy of the six essential clarity questions.

Bees-Team-Trust LeadershipWorks

Is there trust on your team?

A few years ago I found myself working with an executive team where the levels of trust were incredibly low.

The lack of it was thick in the air, like pea soup. Team members were guarded and defensive. Time and energy was wasted on self-protection and I noticed how each person carefully managed their words and actions.

People hid their mistakes and weaknesses from each other, no one ever dared ask for help. Team members avoided spending time together and everyone dreaded meetings. Predictably these were time consuming and ineffective.

Instead of showing boldness the team was hesitant and tentative. Conflicts and grudges simmered beneath the surface, hidden by a thin veneer of fake harmony. The effects seeped into the business. Soon more people became infected and silos began to form as turf wars flared.

The organisation was crying out for leadership but this team was unable to provide it. The company’s best people – the ones they could least afford to lose – began to leave.

Lack of trust is the most severe dysfunction a team can have. Without trust and the willingness to be open about weaknesses, failure and even fears, productive work and growth becomes impossible.

Success is difficult on teams where people distrust each other.

The source of trust is vulnerability.

Recently we surveyed senior teams across South Africa. We used a standard survey of 38 questions measuring the five vital behaviours a cohesive team should consistently demonstrate, namely trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results.

Our research showed that teams who were willing to be vulnerable with each other built trust the fastest.

Being vulnerable means people admit mistakes and weaknesses, they ask for help, they take risks in offering feedback and assistance, they offer and accept apologies without hesitation and they accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility.

They tap into each others skills and experiences and focus time and creativity on important issues not politics and sideshows.

Critically, these team members spend very little time protecting themselves and undermining each other and instead direct their energy and resourcefulness to the work and goals of the team.

What happened to the team?

Well they are not perfect – no team ever is – but they are much better.

The leader came to see that she played a vital role in building trust.

She acted bravely.

She risked making herself vulnerable with no guarantee that others would respond in kind.

She was authentic.

She acknowledged where she had made mistakes and apologized. She was sincere and the team responded to this.

Her willingness to be vulnerable allowed for new discussions to take place. It also gave her the right and the confidence to ask others to do the same. This set the scene for a genuine shift within the team and a marked improvement in the leadership they provided for the rest of the organisation.

We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences on why it’s important to build trust on a team. The first five responses on our blog will receive a free copy of Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Please leave your comment below.


Building High Performance Business Teams – Patrick Lencioni Interview

Patrick Lencioni is a best-selling author, speaker and consultant. He has worked with thousands of senior executives in organisations ranging from Fortune 500 corporations and professional sports teams to universities and nonprofits.

He is the author of the international best sellers The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, which are weekly fixtures on international bestseller lists; his books have sold over three million copies.

The Advantage Small-Effective-Teams LeadershipWorks Patrick Lencioni

Is your team small enough?

Is your team larger than 10 people? If so it is too big.

An ideal team size is between 3 and 10 members. This is true for all teams but especially for Executive Teams. When teams are larger than 10 members, meetings become less effective, time is wasted seeking consensus and the necessary conflict and spirited discussion required to generate real clarity is hard to have – all leading to important decisions failing to be made and windows of opportunity closing.

An Executive Team we worked with found it very difficult to make the hard decisions about team size and membership. At one point there were between 15 and 18 people on the top team.

The CEO thought that including everyone was a great developmental opportunity and it would improve morale amongst his leaders. He also thought it would help with communication, increase buy-in and speed up execution from the next layer of leaders. The result was the exact opposite.

Meeting times doubled.

There were just so many opinions to be heard and considered that team meetings became protracted and laborious. Members quickly became disillusioned with the ineffective meetings and team structure.

Then they fell into the consensus trap.

With the large group size making firm decisions became almost impossible and instead of getting buy-in, members started checking out. Soon team members only paid attention in meetings when a topic relating to their business area was being discussed. The rest of the time it was screens up and masks on.

Frustration grew.

This CEO feared conflict – deep down he wanted to be liked, especially by the people he was leading and he hardly ever forced clarity or closure on issues. He preferred to take the popular route and so deadlocks were never broken for fear of upsetting people. A fear of conflict was also one of the main reasons why this company’s team size issue had never been resolved. He simply did not want to alienate or disappoint people around him and so uncomfortable decisions were never made.

On a smaller team people are expected to weigh in and contribute … there are no places to hide. Issues can really be discussed. Now the lively debate and conflict that’s essential to gaining commitment can occur without worrying about its effect on the perceptions of others (we will talk about healthy conflict in August’s blog post). You can make sure that all points of view are thoroughly aired but also that decisions get made without being bogged down by consensus.

In the end, this turned out to be a great learning experience for the CEO. Ironically trying to be inclusive, at the wrong time, coupled with the need to be popular ultimately hurt the credibility of his leadership team and his organisation’s ability to produce results. He discovered that the next layer of leaders were looking for the Executive Team to lead, which meant having the difficult conversations at the top before communicating to the wider business. They needed the top team to clarify their thinking first before coming to them.

This did not mean they didn’t want to be consulted, but they did not expect to do the thinking for the Executives or get entangled in issues and dynamics that the top team had been unable or unwilling to resolve for themselves.

In the end his biggest lesson was that team size and membership is a critical issue for the productivity of the entire business as a whole.

Reducing the size of a team can be difficult. But how much is it worth to your company to be able to make important decisions quickly, to not miss out on important opportunities and to get unqualified commitment from your Executive Team members when communicating and executing those decisions?

Are you willing to do what it takes to optimize the size of your team? We would love to hear from you if this is something you are working on or have stories to share. Leave us a comment below or send us an email to

Next month we will deal with the issue of trust, why it’s such a vital ingredient and how to build it on a team.

Advantage Model: Successful Environment

Your biggest responsibility is to create an environment of success.

Your most important responsibility as an executive is to create an environment of success inside your business.  We call this organisational health and it is so valuable that mastering it should neither be delayed nor delegated.

There are four simple but demanding steps to get your organisation healthy. We say they are disciplines because although common sense, they don’t come naturally. To master they require courage, patience and perseverance.

Discipline 1 | Build a Cohesive Leadership Team 

Your first step is to get your leaders, starting with the top team, to behave in a functional, cohesive way. If your leaders are behaving in dysfunctional ways that dysfunction will cascade into your organisation and prevent organisational health. At the heart of building the team are five behaviours to master – trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results. If your team at the top sets the example in these five behaviours you set a new standard for the entire business.
Discipline 2 | Create Organisational Clarity

The second step is to ensure your leaders are aligned on the direction and purpose of your organisation as a whole. There are six simple but deceptively difficult questions, from why the organisation exists to what is most important right now, that you need to answer. It is surprising always how much confusion there is. Executives are often not on the same page and send conflicting messages into the business or only really care about the areas they lead and manage.

Discipline 3 | Over-Communicate Clarity

This step ensures that people one, two or three levels below the top team have complete clarity about what they should do to make the organisation successful. As a leader you are patiently and consistently repeating yourself as to what is true and important. People need time to process and absorb but they also need to see that you really believe in what you are communicating and are going to stay the course.

Discipline 4 | Reinforce Clarity

Finally you must ensure that any process in your organisation that involves people, from hiring and firing to performance management and decision-making, is designed in a way to intentionally support and emphasise the uniqueness of the organisation.

There is one other activity that really matters, and that is meetings. By making a few simple changes to the way meetings happen, your organisation will be successful in sustaining all the gains made in the four disciplines above.

Turning an unhealthy company into a healthy one not only creates a distinctive competitive advantage and improved bottom line, but it also makes a genuine difference in the lives of the people who work in your business and those they serve.

To get started download The Table Group’s Organisational Health Survey from our resource centre and use the statements as a starting point to reflect on the health of your organisation.

Competitive Advantage: What sets your company apart?

What sets your company apart?

All the competitive advantages we’ve been pursuing during our careers are gone. That’s right. Advantages such as strategy, technology, finance and marketing are gone.

These disciplines have not disappeared. They are all alive and well in most organisations. And that’s good, because they’re important. But as genuine differentiators that set one company apart from another, they are no longer anything close to what they once were.

That’s because virtually every organisation, of any size, has access to the best thinking and practices around strategy, technology and related topics. Companies use the same consultants, they go to the same conferences and business schools and managers leave one business for another taking their ideas with them.

Information and knowledge is all around us and it’s become almost impossible to sustain an advantage based only intellectual ideas. It is no longer just the best idea and smartest people that set a company on a winning course.

There is one remaining, untapped competitive advantage out there, and it’s more important than all the others ever were. It is simple, reliable and virtually free. It’s called organisational health. A healthy organisation has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment. As a result, productivity and morale soar and good people almost never leave.

None of this is touchy-feely or soft. It is as tangible and practical as anything else a business does, and even more important. Healthy organisations can actually execute on their strategies because they create high performance environments that tap into every bit of talent, resourcefulness and intelligence available to it.

The truth is that the smartest organisation in the world, even the one that has mastered strategy, finance, marketing and technology, will eventually stumble and fall behind if it is unhealthy.

So if all this is true then why haven’t more companies embraced and reaped the benefits of organisational health? Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage and global expert on organisational health, thinks there are 3 reasons for this.

Firstly, it’s hard. It requires real work and discipline over a period of time, and it must be maintained. Secondly, it is not overly sophisticated. Leaders who have been trained for years in an essentially intellectual approach to their roles have a bias for sophistication and find the practical simplicity of it disarming. Moreover, in spite of its power and impact on almost every part of the business, it is hard to measure in a precise and accurate way.

But the biggest reason he suggests that organisational health remains untapped is that it requires courage. Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunction within their organisation with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence. They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realising the potential that eludes them.

Can a healthy organisation fail? Yes. But it almost never happens. When dysfunction, politics and ambiguity are reduced to a minimum, people are empowered to design products, serve customers, solve problems and help one another in ways that unhealthy organisations can only dream about. Healthy organisations recover from setbacks, attract the best people, repel the others, and create opportunities that they couldn’t have expected.

At the end of the day employees are happier and much more engaged, the bottom line is stronger, and executives are at peace because they know they’ve fulfilled their most important responsibility of all: creating an environment of success.

How does an organisation become healthy? Next month we will write about the 4 essential disciplines for an organisation to master to become healthy.

Competitive Advantage: What sets your company apart?