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Group Dynamics

Dear Dave
My partner and I are both in our late 50’s. We have had a fruitful and totally enjoyable business relationship between the two of us. In anticipation of someday retiring from our practice, and not wishing to see the firm sold to outsiders, we designed a strategy and program to gradually transfer leadership and ownership to five, long-term key individuals who are now in their late 30’s to early 40’s.

We took the first step in our transition plan a little over a year ago and reorganized the day-to-day operations of the firm into four project teams and one administrative team, each lead by one of our hand-picked successors. The idea was for me and my partner to step back from the details, focus on big-picture issues, and coach and support our second generation as they took over the reins.

While we’re generally pleased with the progress to date, we get a little concerned at times by the relationship between our five successors. They are each individually excellent people, but when you put them all together in the same room, and discuss an issue where there is not an easy or obvious answer, it can get a little heated and uncomfortable. My partner and I never had a problem in exploring options, resolving issues and coming to agreement between us. Our successor group seems to be struggling. Should we be concerned at this point, or is this to be expected?

Dear KC
I would not be overly concerned—you’re still very early in the process. It can take many years for a group to knock the prickly edges off its interpersonal relationships and find its collective personality. After all, you and your partner only had each other to contend with (not five), and you’ve had many more years in which to achieve the peace and harmony you enjoy. Here are some things to keep in mind that should help.

Be sure the company has a well-defined sense of direction, priorities, and goals and objectives to serve as a focal point to channel and focus your leadership group’s efforts. Having a clear central agenda in and of itself can go a long way toward reducing conflict in an organization.

Next, don’t you or your partner hesitate to intercede when an issue has gone too far. Your strategy to step-back and coach the group is an excellent one, but you must deftly balance between letting the group learn to work things out, with stepping in when letting something continue becomes counterproductive. Think of you and your partner as control rods in a nuclear reactor, and your leadership team as the core. You extract the rods in order to let the reaction warm-up to an appropriate temperature in order to do its work but, when it gets too hot, you will want to quickly lower the rods into the pile in time to cool things off before the situation spins out of control and irreversible damage is done. As the group matures, you should gradually see the frequency of your interventions abate.

Within the group itself, teach the new managers that it is perfectly OK to disagree with each other, but be sure the disagreement is always expressed as being with the idea or suggestion, and never perceived as a personal attack against the person with whom they disagree. Also, it’s a healthy process to condition your managers that should they find themselves in contention with a point being expressed, they cannot object without contributing a workable alternative solution to the suggestion being made.

Finally, even if an objection is raised to a point or an issue within the group environment, they must always speak with one voice outside the group.

Wahby and Associates