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Ed McMahon of Core International: “Know your team’s mission, or purpose”

Know your team’s mission, or purpose. People on a team need to have an overarching, long term goal or objective — a purpose — to provide context for the work they do. And they need to understand how the work they are doing individually, contributes to that longer term objective. Teams don’t have to spend a lot of time […]

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Know your team’s mission, or purpose. People on a team need to have an overarching, long term goal or objective — a purpose — to provide context for the work they do. And they need to understand how the work they are doing individually, contributes to that longer term objective. Teams don’t have to spend a lot of time on this core idea, but it is essential that the team understands and buys into this very foundational principle. They need to understand “why we do the work we do”. Undefined or unspoken, the lack of purpose can create confusion, lead to competing priorities, slow down execution, and contribute to power struggles as team members with different beliefs about the team’s purpose seek to influence others.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed McMahon.

With over 20 years’ experience in executive management and senior consulting roles, Ed McMahon brings his highly collaborative and pragmatic approach to the work he does with clients. He has a broad range of consulting experience in a variety of industries including health care, telecommunications, technology, manufacturing and distribution, and professional services. Ed is a recognized expert in corporate leadership and team effectiveness, governance, corporate structure and performance management. He has taught Leadership, Teamwork and Human Resource Management and HR Strategy for the MBA Program at the DeGroote School of Business. He has an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, and a BA in Psychology from the University of Windsor.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I started my career in the advertising agency business, and then technology trade publishing, with a stint in product management for a global consumer products company.

While I was working in publishing, I was introduced to “the internet” and was fascinated by the opportunities for reshaping business (even though my first interactions with the internet were pre-browser; every site was a grey background with blue underlined hypertext links!). That interest, combined with my product management experience contributed to me making a career shift, and I entered the world of management consulting. I spent several years in global consulting firms, all of which were rapidly expanding their internet-focused business transformation practices. In 2000 I wrote and published a book (Bricks to Clicks, Stoddart) and helped number of organizations figure out how to incorporate the internet into their business.

I eventually got to the point where I was in executive leadership roles in consulting, managing the business of consulting and overseeing large technology implementation teams, and not doing the work I love, which is helping people solve difficult issues — especially issues related to executive team performance and organization structure.

So, I left the big firms and started my own consultancy because I wanted to focus more closely on the real engines of success for any company — how the various teams at work throughout the organization are functioning, and how the company itself is organized and ensuring everyone has everything they need to be as successful and fulfilled as possible. I really do believe that most people show up at work wanting to make a positive and productive contribution — if they can do so, they will.

My big firm experience taught me that while implementing new technologies and fixing business processes are important, the real key to every successful business is people. You need to have the right people, in the right roles, doing the right work, at the right time. And you need to put some effort into looking at how teams within the business are working.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

What a great question!

I think in the context of teams and leadership, one of the most interesting stories for me didn’t emerge with a great deal of fanfare. It was just a quiet moment of leadership and team building that galvanized a team and created hugely positive momentum that carried them forward for about two years.

My colleague and I were conducting a strategic planning offsite with the CEO of a Canadian subsidiary of a very large US-based financial institution. At the time, online banking had only recently solidified and taken hold as a viable way for consumers to manage their financial affairs.

Our client (who has now become a friend!) was the CEO. On the second day of our session, the hotel experienced a complete power failure. So instead of being able to conduct the usual boardroom-based planning session we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to how we could productively use the time this executive team had committed to being together.

In the end, we gathered in the hotel lobby with the team and a couple of flip charts. Our objective was to explore ideas about “the future of banking” and where this organization could find and exploit some source of competitive advantage.

For about an hour there was quite a lively discussion about possibilities. The team was very engaged, and they were building on each others’ ideas. It was really quite something. At one point however, the conversation just seemed to expire. People stopped putting new ideas forward. It was one of those “there’s no energy here” moments that even the best teams sometimes experience.

And then, from out of the dark (literally) the CEO’s voice: “What about these?” he asked. People spun around to look at what he was talking about. He had taken out his mobile (a Blackberry) and lit up the screen. He was holding it up for everyone to see. “What about mobile phone banking? Where do these fit? Is this an opportunity for us?”

The team picked up on the idea, the conversation restarted in earnest, and out of that moment came several ideas that later emerged as products for the bank, enabling them to offer new credit products and allowing their customers to use their cell phones to conduct transactions. Later, this CEO would go on to lead a Canadian bank started by one of the country’s largest Telco’s.

What was fascinating and inspiring for me about this was the CEO’s approach, his timing, and the confidence he placed in his team by asking them what they thought the future held. Almost certainly he already had a point of view on where mobile technologies and banking would intersect. But instead of telling people where they “had to go” he inspired them to create the future themselves.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have always been a big fan of technology. I bought my first computer in 1977 — pre-DOS — and to this day I am continuously look for ways to incorporate technology into the work that I do. In my early days as an independent, I invested in a few tools that I thought would leverage technology to my advantage. However, I soon learned that if we do not choose wisely, sometimes the tools can, unfortunately, make things more complicated.

I remember one executive leadership offsite I was setting up for with a colleague. We had carefully planned how the two days’ worth of session would go, and a lot of the work relied on technology I was bringing to the session. As I was setting up, I was sort of bragging to my colleague about all the technology we would be using. “Check this out, Ian. All these gizmos and gadgets to showcase our work… I feel like James Bond”. After several minutes of watching me wrestle with one particularly fussy device, my friend commented: “Um, Ed, James Bond would have been done 10 minutes ago…”

We both had a good laugh, but it was a valuable lesson for me.

Keep it simple. Simple is good.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

You’re absolutely right, and there are mountains of research that back this up.

People stay in roles they find both intellectually stimulating and purposeful — work that gives purpose to their life and that aligns with their own values and sensibilities. Most of us have been on a team

where we see one person or another “dialing it in” — that is, doing a job they have little or no interest in. This can be corrosive in terms of the team dynamic and absolutely devastating in terms of retention. Working in a role that you don’t find to be meaningful isn’t sustainable. Eventually it grates to the point where people get disaffected, then disconnected, and then they quit. Sometimes it’s the person in the role, and sometimes it’s someone else on the team who quits out of frustration.

This doesn’t mean that every aspect of every role has to be absolutely wonderful — people are aware they sometimes have to do things they don’t particularly like (such as perhaps, filling out time sheets, in a consulting firm). But on balance, does their work give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning?

When people are in the right role, they tend to stay with the organization and they always demonstrate higher levels of engagement — which is key to retention — than people who feel they are doing work that is meaningless.

Finally, I think it’s important that people have the right decision authorities with respect to their work. That is, they have the authority to make the decisions that directly affect the work they are accountable for.

Four Seasons Hotel’s reputation for delivering a great customer experience is legendary. A big part of the reason for this is that Four Seasons staff members have complete decision authority when it comes to ensuring an outstanding customer experience. If they decide to hop in a cab to go to the airport to return a left-behind teddy bear (true story) they don’t have to ask for permission, and they don’t have to worry about being offside with their manager. The decision authority is clear, and people can (and do) act to ensure that perfect customer experience.

Contrast this with some restaurants you may have been in where your table wait staff announces that they will be “taking care of you this evening”. If you had a substandard meal and asked for a price reduction for instance, can they do that on their own without asking anyone? Or do they have to seek permission from the floor manager or GM? Because if they do have to ask someone, they don’t have the decision authority to fully “take care” of their customers. They know the statement is false, and so do the customers.

These little disconnects can create problems not only for the business overall, but for individual role holders who see and live the contrast between what they’re told, and how the organization actually works.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

I think there are two critical practices, one of which is a lot more difficult than it used to be, owing to the pandemic: communication and team “together time”.

One of the most common mistakes team leaders make is under-communicating. Our advice to leaders is “there’s no such thing as over-communicating.”. if you’re thinking about whether or not you should send out a quick email to communicate an important piece of information, you should probably err on the side of caution and send it. Don’t fall for “everybody knows THAT”.

This is particularly true when dealing with changes that affect an entire team, or an entire organization.

Often, by the time a significant change initiative approaches the start line for execution, leaders have been thinking about it for a long time — perhaps several months or years. They have had time to think through the implications for their own work and satisfy themselves that the project is good for the organization. They have often discussed the detailed workplan with their peers in some depth, and they often assume everyone who works for them has the same level of knowledge. Most often, those other stakeholders do not.

But this same notion also applies to more mundane and routine work-related communications. We often find, when we’re working with people in our client organizations, that they are unclear about which decisions they get to make, and what they are truly accountable for. The only way to address these issues is to communicate more, and often.

Team “together time” is a second important practice. This can range from regular team meetings (always with an agenda, and hopefully at about the same time and with a fixed frequency) to spontaneous smaller group get-togethers, to one-on-one meetings between a leader and someone in their organization.

Naturally, face-to-face meetings are largely impossible in the current environment, but a significant number of leaders have discovered that meetings previously held face-to-face can be held virtually, with a little extra effort.

Working life is a social construct and humans are uniquely social creatures. Being together with the other humans we work with is important to us. A regular team meeting, even online, can do wonders for the group dynamic.

See my article There’s more to work than work (here) for more on this topic.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

Know your team’s mission, or purpose. People on a team need to have an overarching, long term goal or objective — a purpose — to provide context for the work they do. And they need to understand how the work they are doing individually, contributes to that longer term objective. Teams don’t have to spend a lot of time on this core idea, but it is essential that the team understands and buys into this very foundational principle. They need to understand “why we do the work we do”. Undefined or unspoken, the lack of purpose can create confusion, lead to competing priorities, slow down execution, and contribute to power struggles as team members with different beliefs about the team’s purpose seek to influence others.

One of our clients recently asked us to help with their team, whom the leader described as “just stuck”. “We spend a lot of time talking about whether there are certain things we should be doing. Why this and not that? People seem very confused about exactly what it is we do”.

This team had been together for a few years and over time I suspect, the assumption that “everybody knew” what their collective purpose was, grew to the point where it was no longer discussed. And yet as we talked with these team members individually and collectively, it became clear that everybody didn’t know. After several working sessions to clarify their mission, the team found collaborating much easier as they were now united behind a common purpose. It turns out that there was not a great deal of disagreement over the mission — they simply hadn’t talked about it for a long time. Once they did, it became clearer and more present for everyone.

Know your team members. I‘m not talking here about knowing everyone’s birthday, favourite color and/or significant others’ or kid’s names. I suppose this is nice if you can make it work. But it’s more important to know (not guess at) what they are interested in; what their career aspirations are; what they value; what knowledge or skills they would like to acquire along the way.

It’s also important to have a sense of each team member’s unique abilities and their best method for participating in team activities. Some team members like to have the podium and the marker and the whiteboard — their way of contributing may be to talk ideas through out loud. Other team members may have a different way of engaging with the work of the group — an approach that might seem more reserved or detached. They might like to process ideas internally and engage when they have silently thought things through a bit.

There are several tools to help people understand their cognitive preferences. We use one such tool to help team members understand their own preferences for gathering information, making decisions, and then planning and acting on them. We then work with the entire team to explore these different preferences and create a higher level of understanding among the entire team.

We call this approach Collateral Teamworx™ and we have used it successfully with numerous clients.

You can use our Team Effectiveness Assessment to see where your team is on a number of important dimensions of team performance, here. And while you’re at it, you can have a look at our Team Effectiveness Model here.

Know your organization. This may sound too obvious to be important, but I believe it is critical for the success of both the leader and the team.

As organizations grow (especially as they grow quickly or become very large) knowing who does what can get more difficult. Sometimes the people in roles are not clear themselves about the scope of their role; other times it seems almost impossible to find the person who can address the specific issue at hand.

Knowing who the “go-to” person is for a decision or piece of work helps the leader help the team. Often the process for clearing roadblocks and accelerating the pace of execution (a key part of the work of any leader) lies in understanding who needs to be consulted and/or brought onside so that an initiative can proceed.

Working with one of our telecom clients, we were discussing “how things get done” with a person whose title was “Senior Network Architect”. In describing her role to us, she related that part of her work involved making recommendations to network engineers about what kind of equipment was most compatible with the network overall. If there was a network expansion underway, she was to be consulted about which equipment to deploy.

“Do the network engineers have to take your recommendations?”, we asked. “Or can they decide whatever they like once you’ve provided your advice?”. “Well,” she said, “that’s not really clear. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It depends.”

You can see where this is going. Inevitably the question “who does make the final decision?” will come up, often after the project has stalled, or decisions have been delayed or needlessly escalated. By clearing up the decision authority, and being clear about who must be consulted, or who gets to decide, leaders can accelerate the work of their teams.

In this case, we clarified. The Senior Network Architect became accountable to provide the best possible advice, based on her expert knowledge of the existing equipment and options for additional hardware. The network engineers became accountable for consulting with and listening to the Senior Network Architect. The final decision about what equipment was ultimately selected was left to the network engineers. And with that decision was the accountability for the outcome. They could choose not to take the Senior Network Architect’s advice, and as they exercised their choice, they became accountable for the outcome.

Once these finer points were clarified, “who does what” became very clear and the work of the team went much more smoothly.

And according to the CEO (whom we interviewed one year after the reorganization) “we get stuff done now in 90 days, that used to take us 9 months. Because everyone knows who’s accountable for what work, and who gets to make which decisions”.

Know the difference between management and leadership. Leadership, broadly speaking, involves setting and communicating long term objectives and communicating effectively to inspire team members to act in a way that is consistent with achieving them.

Management on the other hand, is often associated with assigning work and setting up systems and processes to monitor whether the work is being done.

Management looks at “are we on track” and leadership looks at “have we established the right direction”? They are both important. Team leaders need to recognize that they need to provide both management and leadership for their team to be effective — and for them to be successful as well.

And they also need to be aware of which approach is needed, and when.

One of our client CEOs was a very smart, very capable, very intuitive leader and manager. He seemed to know instinctually when it was best to inspire, and when it was best to hold an executive’s feet to the fire.

During our working together, we explored a twice-annual meeting that was held with this CEO’s senior executive team. The purpose of the meeting was to make decisions about direction, as well as to allocate capital and set priorities for infrastructure projects. Big decisions with high stakes.

During one of our discussions, this CEO had something of an epiphany. He realized that out of habit, he was both leading and managing these meetings; both calling for his team to align around the longer-term strategy and setting up the decision framework for the issues that were being discussed so that his team could get comfortable with a decision.

At one point he turned to us and said: “I’m going to have to stop going to that part of the meeting, aren’t I?”. It was quite a moment of self-awareness, as well as an accurate summation of the situation with his team. This CEO recognized that for the meeting (and his team) to be successful, he had to choose a role — leader or manager — to enable his team to succeed.

He chose to be a leader.

Know what you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld was an American politician and administrative official. He became somewhat famous for an answer he gave at a Defence Department briefing in 2002 which included in part: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I believe Rumsfeld’s answer at this event (while a little difficult to process) does contain an essential truth, and some good advice for leaders: be aware of your blind spots.

Sometimes when we are leading a team, we think that we’re supposed to know everything. As leaders mature, (in my experience) it becomes easier to accept and acknowledge that there are probably things we just don’t know… and that perhaps our ignorance about the boundaries of our knowledge create risk.

I think it’s important for people in leadership positions to be able to accept that there are limits to their knowledge, and to take the opportunity to seek input from others on the team so as to arrive at a solution that works for everyone.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Start with the assumption that all your employees are there by choice — that they want to contribute and do good work, and that their intentions are positive. When they’re not performing at their best, are there things that you can do to clear a path to support their best performance? People don’t show up at work not wanting to do a good job!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement centered on tolerance. What I’ve seen so often through my working life is team members (most often wrongly) attributing a motive to an action taken by someone else.

I’d like to see a world where everyone begins by assuming that people we don’t see eye-to-eye with are not bad, or evil, or offside. They just have a different perspective. But they probably want the same things as we do — especially if we’re on the same team or work for the same company!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In the late 18th century Voltaire is credited with saying “the best is the enemy of the good”. This often shows up as “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”.

I like this idea. It reminds me (constantly) not to spend too much time trying to make things perfect. Leaders need to be able to find the “good enough” solution and execute in a timely way. Delaying in the hopes of finding the “perfect” killer solution elevates risk and is a gift to your competitors; at some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in — the price of the next iteration of improvement outweighs the returns.

In agile terms, this has been simplified further, I think, to “fail fast”.

Thank you for these great insights!

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