Q&A with Bob Frisch on Who’s in the Room?

Is this concept “taboo” in some organizations? If so, how do you even start to address it?
The existence of a small group of trusted advisors surrounding a leader at critical decision points, and that group’s exclusion of some members of the Senior Management Team does have some “taboo” qualities to it. It’s well known, rarely discussed publicly, and even more rarely challenged.

It’s common to see organizations attempt to address the side effects of this gap between the myth and reality of decision making. That’s what’s at the heart of most senior level team building activities. But it is exceedingly rare to see a leader or a team member address the “taboo” topic at the core–that the Senior Management Team isn’t, in fact, the place where most of the important decisions in a company actually get made.

When did you decide that a book needed to be written about this issue?
I’ve spent most of my professional career facilitating strategy discussions for executive teams. When it comes time for the periodic strategy offsite, invariably a block of time–typically half a day–is set aside for a team building activity. I’m often asked to sit in while the executive team works with a psychologist, coach or organization consultant.

While those sessions can be helpful in terms of lubricating the interpersonal dynamics of a group, they invariably failed to generate any lasting results in terms of strengthening the functioning of the executive team as a body.

After literally decades of seeing this happen, and hundreds of conversations with executives who felt ‘out of the loop’ when key decisions were made, I decided to survey the literature on executive teams and conduct a series of interviews with both CEOs and their Senior Management Team members in order to see if a more effective solution could be found to improving executive team effectiveness.

As you mentioned, there are a large numbers of books that talk about making teams perform better. What makes your book distinctive?
I suppose it starts with my background. Almost everyone working in this area of executive teams–psychologist, coach, organization development expert–is what I call a ‘behavioralist.’ They focus on the behaviors of individuals and of groups.

As Managing Partner of a firm focused exclusively on designing and facilitating strategy offsites, my colleagues and I spend all our time helping leaders and their teams align around crucial decisions. While the typical strategy consulting partner may attend a few such meetings in the course of a year, it’s pretty much all I do. So I’ve spent literally thousands of days with scores of management teams in 15 countries on 5 continents as they struggle with their most critical issues.

While all the books and all the experts will point to the behaviors and relationships of those executives as the key to an effective team, I’m afraid my direct experience with these teams leads me to take a strikingly contrarian viewpoint.

It’s time to stop looking at personalities, and start to focus on the structures and processes that underlie decision making. To break the “taboo” and get to the core of the topic, and thereby unleash the power of the leadership team.

What’s a high-profile example of a senior team/kitchen cabinet conflict, and how could it have been avoided?
Conflicts between leaders and members of their senior teams are common, but rarely made public.

RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, has very publicly blown their dominance of the mobile communications market. There’s an example of not only a senior team/kitchen cabinet conflict, but of an unusual organization–dual CEOs who don’t seem agree on a strategic future for their organization.

The New Yorker recently wrote about Indra Nooyi, the CEO bringing Pepsi into an era of nutritious and healthy eating. Many powerful people on her leadership team got where they are by creating, manufacturing, marketing, selling and distributing soft drinks and salted snacks. I’d bet Indra faced significant dissonance between what she and her closest advisors see as Pepsi’s strategic future and the opinions of some on her team. One analyst said “They have to realize that at their core they are a sugary, fatty cola company, and people like that.” Put in some softer language and I’d bet some of Indra’s direct reports believed the same thing.

Unlike RIM, however, Indra seems to be keeping the leadership team intact and unified.

What should be different at RIM, or is happening beneath the surface at Pepsi? Each situation is different, and the prescription usually lies in the unique dynamics of each team. But Who’s In the Room? contains some general principles that should be kept in mind. In this case, the most important one is to work with the Senior Management Team to forge a common view of the future. Not happening at RIM. Appears to be the case at Pepsi, to Indra’s great credit.

You’ve written articles for Harvard Business Review, but this is your first book. What was the writing process like?
It was actually pretty similar. The book obviously took longer, since there is so much more content, but we tried to keep the same high standard expected of an HBR article throughout the entire book. One major difference, and the great thing about a book, is that there’s space to explore concepts in a fair amount of detail. An author can provide more examples, explanations and anecdotes than the limited length of a magazine article allows. It’s like moving from a small apartment where every object needs to be considered relative to the space available, to a rambling house where there are attics, basements and closets to stuff away more objects.

But the biggest difference actually comes after the manuscript is completed. Once HBR decides to publish a piece, the hundreds of thousands who subscribe worldwide will be sent the article whether they want it or not. It’s part of the magazine. But a book is different–people have to make the effort to acquire a book, or download a sample chapter to their Kindle. So the process of publicizing and marketing a book–of simply raising awareness to the target audience–becomes a real focus, especially for a first-time author.