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How CFOs Can Assess Finance Team Dysfunction

Incoming CFOs can diagnose the issues that hinder the teams they’ve inherited, including moving to a culture of shared accountability.

Finance executives often lament that they have inherited a team that is unwilling to make and own their decisions. Instead, they find that their team “delegates up” decisions. This behavior, of course, defeats the purpose of having a leadership team. If you can’t delegate, you can’t focus your energies and time on more strategic issues.

Still, that’s just one of the common dysfunctions that come up with surprising frequency in our customized Labs that map out a CFO’s first 180 days. Based on those sessions and our transitions research, there are three dysfunctions that can impede team performance for incoming executives:

· Collective delegation up: avoiding accountability

· Collective lethargy: low energy, little engagement, lack of commitment

· Organization silos and conflict: delaying or undermining collective success

While there are other inhibitors of team performance1, many incoming leaders initially grapple with how to intervene to address these specific team inheritances. Tackling these issues is not easy and will require identifying the root causes of the team’s current performance. Only then, can a new leader zero in on appropriate responses, which can range from changes in people, culture, organizational connectivity, information-sharing, and individual empowerment.

From Delegation Up to Shared Accountability

“Delegating up” is a behavior that is usually driven by a shared belief system. If you observe this collective behavior in your team, it is important to identify the prevailing beliefs that drive it and understand the conditions that led to its acceptance.

For example, there are often situations where the previous leader is very controlling and has created an intimidating culture. If prior leaders excessively punished or publicly ostracized those who made small mistakes or independent choices—or managed through a culture of fear—then team members will feel unsafe to make independent decisions and take ownership of them.

Shifting this sort of a culture takes time. As an incoming leader, you have to constantly communicate the need for team members to make their own decisions. If they make decisions but delegate up, you need to push those decisions back down. You will need to celebrate those who model the desirable decision-making behaviors. Most important, you will have to create an environment where the team can vigorously and honestly debate issues and make choices without fear of retribution. Culture change, after all, is not easy.

Assessing Your Team Inheritance

· As an incoming executive, you inherit a leadership group that may or not function as a team. But how do you know? The following questions can serve as a practical starting point for team assessment. They may also help focus your attention on areas that should be addressed to develop a high-performing team. What net promoter scores would your clients assign to your inherited team?

· How would you rate your team? 1) high performance; 2) medium performance; 3) broken; 4) not a team. Why?

· What is the most important thing to improve or change client perceptions of your team?

· Does your team have clear shared team goals? If not, what would you like those goals to be?

· Do key leaders on your team have clear roles and performance expectations for their roles in accomplishing team goals? If not, what would you like the roles and expectations to be?

· How will you work to elevate interpersonal engagement within the team?

· Do team members feel psychologically safe to contribute effectively? If not, what steps will you take to create a culture of safety to contribute?

· What can you do to increase communication, engagement, and exploration by your team?

· Is your team diverse and inclusive? If not, how will you create a more diverse and inclusive team?

Address Team Dysfunctions Early

As a new CFO, the team you inherit may exhibit numerous dysfunctions. These may include mistrust and lack of information-sharing, silos among team members, or even outright conflict. It’s critical to address these problems quickly and set the tone and operating model for your team.

Sometimes, this can be done through direct conversations with those concerned. At other times, more drastic actions are warranted, from assigning a shared office to two individuals who do not work together, to letting someone go. Effective HR support can also help by recruiting candidates who demonstrate and encourage ownership of decisions.

Quickly addressing inherited dysfunctions is likely to gain you respect. Allowing them to linger will likely undermine your credibility among your team and peers.

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