Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Most people quite naturally understand the notion of roles on a leadership team. One person facilitates the meeting; another keeps time; a third takes notes; and so on. In coaching, these are examples of external roles--that is, functional duties that are openly assigned to various members of the team. Every leadership team has a set of external roles that need to be filled, or populated (in coaching vernacular). The roles are easily transferable; that is, they belong to the team and not to any specific individual. For that reason, any person may (and usually will) take up a role that someone else vacates. For example, Kenny may take over the role of taking notes when Anna is out sick.

I know this explanation may sound a bit obvious, but I'm laying it out in order to point to another level of team roles that function in much the same way. These are called internal roles.

  • Who is the one who keeps things light-hearted and fun on the team?
  • Who is the one who dares to blurt out what everyone is thinking but is afraid to say?
  • Who is the one who makes sure everyone is heard?
  • Who is the one who is always trying to speed things up?
  • Who is the one who is always trying to slow things down?

Each of these questions speak to an internal role that may exist on a leadership team. Just as every team comes with a set of external roles that need to be filled, there is a parallel set of internal roles the team needs filled as well. What those specific internal roles are depends on the unique dynamic of that particular team, but they are vitally important to the healthy functioning of the group. Many problems that arise on leadership teams are the result of poorly populated internal roles--for example, a team that tends to be too combative and argumentative needs someone to be the cool-headed mediator, but there's no one on the team who is particularly good at filling that role, so the team regularly degrades into a fight and gets stuck there.

Knowing which internal roles are needed on your particular leadership team can help a leader more quickly recognize what's "not working" when a team breaks down or isn't functioning as powerfully as it could. Chances are, the problem may be that you have a vital internal role that's not being filled, or that's being filled poorly. You might also have someone on the team who is experiencing role nausea--that is, they've been filling a particular internal role for a long time and have grown weary and frustrated with it all. In such cases, it's helpful to talk with your team about the internal roles that exist (or need to exist) on the team and discuss how the team wants to fill them. This sometimes may mean bringing in new people to fill needed internal roles that the current team is struggling to populate effectively.

What internal roles are present on your team? What internal role or roles do you typical fill?

No comments: