Is Your Team Small Enough?

Reduce your team size and build a culture of straight talk and shared accountability

Reading time 3 mins

The ideal team size is between 5 and 10 people.

This is true for all teams, but especially for the one at the Top.

Recently I worked with an Executive Team that had 15 members.

The CEO wanted to improve communication and speed-up decision making.

He believed having a large team would serve this purpose. He also felt it would improve morale and be a great developmental opportunity.

The result was the opposite.

Meeting times doubled. Spirited, passionate discussions stopped taking place.

Superficial knowledge was going unchallenged. Before long, the louder, more extroverted people began to dominate meetings.

The vital Executive Culture of relevant, penetrating discussion simply did not exist.

The large group size made building trust more difficult. What’s more people only engaged in those topics that involved them. Meetings became long, de-energising affairs.

The combined effect of all the above meant that important decisions were not being made. Valuable opportunities were being missed.

This team had a problem.

The real achievers were frustrated. One of the stars on the team confided in me that she was ready to leave.

Instead of buying-in, people were checking out.

On a high-performing Executive Team, everyone is expected to weigh in.

Frank views must be expressed. These must be debated and subjected to the critical analysis of others. Deadlocks must be broken and closure reached on important issues.

All this, while still maintaining the relationships required to work together.

The best teams have mastered this ability.

It’s why team size is so important. With more than 10 people around the table, it is difficult to have this kind of rigorous and inclusive dynamic in place.

This was a huge test for the CEO. A test, he had to confront head-on.

The company too had its challenges.

Their industry was changing rapidly. There was massive competition from bigger, more dominant, global players. They had to move fast to stay alive.

Building a cohesive, highly responsive, and credible Executive Team was vital.

There was an added complication.

I discovered that deep down he feared conflict.

This was actually the main reason why the team size issue had not been resolved. His aversion to conflict meant that the uncomfortable decisions about who was on the team were never taken.

He did not want to alienate, upset, or disappoint those around him.

What happened?

There was no overnight shift. This seldom happens. But today real change is underway.

Working with him, the CEO came to see that his most important job was fixing the team. Getting the team size right and deciding who sits in the key seats was something that only he could do.

Today, the team size has been reduced. The right people are now in the key seats. It’s a major achievement.

This has unlocked many positive benefits for the business.

  • There is a different spirit in the Executive. A new culture of straight talk and shared accountability is taking hold. This has set a fresh tone for the rest of the business.
  • Silo thinking has made way for a new era of working together. There is a key initiative in place to dismantle the bureaucracy strangling innovation and creativity.
  • The Executive and the next layer of leadership are collaborating as partners. A new way of working, based on trust, openness, and two-way communication is in place. Productivity and morale have greatly improved.

One year ago this business was inward-looking.

Ironically, being inclusive at the wrong time, created frustration and resentment. This, coupled with the failure to make key decisions, damaged the credibility of the leadership team.

Today there is hope.

The energy of the business has shifted. Now they are focussed outward. Most importantly … serving the customer has become their #1 priority again.

What’s the lesson?

  1. To be healthy an organisation needs a credible Executive Team. Getting the size and composition of this team right is the 1st step in establishing this credibility.
  2. Taking the step is an essential challenge that cannot be avoided or delayed. It may feel hard and difficult to do so. Some people may even get upset and leave. But it’s a risk worth taking.
  3. The real risk ultimately is in not doing so. There is too much at stake. The productivity and spirit of your business depend on it!
    We would love to hear from you. Please comment below.

What about your team … is it the right size? Does it have a culture of straight talk and shared accountability? Can real feelings be aired?


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  1. Clyde Thomas 29 June 2015 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Meetings so often feel like they go on too long and keep me away from the work I need to be doing. People never seem to say the hard things that would cause a change in the way a business operates and succeeds and instead all just agree with one another. I think the lack of conflict in meetings can definitely be holding back a companies progress. I love that you gave us a strong tangible solution to allowing more conflict and disagreement to take place and cannot wait until August’s newsletter to hear more about generating healthy conflict in meetings.

    • Grant Ashfield 9 July 2015 at 2:17 pm - Reply

      A lack of conflict in meetings definitely hampers progress. It leads to people agreeing but not really committing. We call it artificial or false harmony and it’s a fast (and slippery) road to mediocrity. Real commitment requires emotional buy-in and clarity and for this people need to trust each other and be willing to take risks in how they show up and contribute. There are real rewards for doing so – personal growth, better results, greater recognition – yet sadly we still see so many examples where team members hold back or check out!

  2. Ian Thomas 29 June 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    It would be interesting to combine this idea of small teams with another idea that I have heard of; holding meetings standing up. This may be part of the solution to the enormous amount of time wasted during these discussions.

    • Julie Hulme 9 July 2015 at 7:47 am - Reply

      Hi Ian,

      I can tell you that I have implemented this very successfully in the past, in an operational setting of course. I have not found it to be appropriate for an exec team, but I can tell you it is a way to get more energy into meetings.

  3. Heather 29 June 2015 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Your example reminds me how quickly we often forget why we add members to our teams. Executives (leaders) agonise over hiring new talent, seeking out the best contributor for the role. We appoint new team members with trust and respect for their experience, ability and skills. And yet, through inclusiveness and wanting to ‘keep the peace’ we set aside that diversity and lose the true value of the contribution that was waiting to be made by the very person we were relying on to do so.

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