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Who's in the Room?: How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them

ISBN: 978-1-118-06787-1
208 pages
January 2012, Jossey-Bass


Is your company run by a team with no name?

At the top of every organization chart lies a myth—that a Senior Management Team makes a company's critical decisions. The reality is that critical decisions are typically made by the boss and a small group of confidants—a "team with no name"—outside of formal processes. Meanwhile, other members of the management team wonder why they weren't in the room or even consulted ahead of time. The dysfunction that results from this gap between myth and reality has led to years of unproductive team building exercises. The problems, Frisch shows, are ones of process and structure, not psychology.

In Who's in the Room? Bob Frisch provides a unique perspective to this widely misunderstood issue. Flying in the face of decades of organizational psychology, he argues that the solution lies not in addressing behaviors, but in unseating the senior management team as the epicenter of decision making. Using a broad portfolio of teams—large and small, permanent and temporary, formal and informal—great leaders match each decision to the appropriate team in a fluid, flexible approach that you won't find described in management textbooks.

Who's in the Room? is based on interviews with CEOs at organizations ranging from MasterCard to Ticketmaster to The Red Cross.

  • Understand and embrace the way decision-making actually happens in their organizations
  • Use these "teams with no names" to best advantage
  • Engage the Senior Management Team in the three critical tasks for which it is ideally suited 

Organizations will get better decisions and superior results by unleashing the full potential of their Senior Management Teams. And bosses will see a dramatic drop-off in people coming into their offices asking, "Why wasn't I in the room?"

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Who’s in the Room? 1


1 Most Companies Are Run by Teams with No Names 7

The Myth of the Top Team Illusion and Reality

The Problem That Isn’t There, But Won’t Go Away

2 Team Building Won’t Solve the Problem 21

When the Shrinks Go Marching In

After the Shrinks Have Gone

3 Don’t Blame the Boss 29

In Search of the Ideal Leader

Inside the Box

Do the ‘‘Rights’’ Thing

4 Four Fundamental Conflicts at the Heart of Senior Management Teams 41

Mission Control Versus Knights of the Round Table: Functional Specialists or Reflections of the CEO?

The Team Versus the Legislature: The Representative from Finance, the Senator from Operations

The House Versus the Senate: Are Some More Equal Than Others?

The Majority Versus the Majority: The Impossibility of Deciding

Maybe the Problem Is That There Is No Problem

5 Case Study: How One CEO Transformed His Top Team 57

The Past as Prologue

Moving from a Single Top Team to Multiple Teams

The Team That Sits Together Works Together

Tailoring the Structure to Suit Your Needs as a Leader

6 Best Practices: Design an Organization That Delivers the Outcomes You Need 73

The Three Centers of Gravity

Flexing in Five Dimensions

The Portfolio and the Payoff


7 Engage the Senior Management Team in Three

Critical Conversations No Other Team Can Have 93

8 Align the Senior Management Team Around a Common View of the World 99

The Starting Point: Aligning Around Trends

Clustering Trends into Drivers of Change

Understanding Capabilities and Assets

Walking the Boundaries of the Company: TestingWalls and Fences

Defining and Selecting Opportunities

9 Prioritize and Integrate Initiatives to Hit the Strategic Bull’s-Eye 119

Asking the Nearly Impossible: Prioritizing Initiatives

The Real Source of the Difficulty

Changing the Conversation

It’s All Relative

Hitting the Bull’s-Eye: Making Initiatives Work Together

10 Move from ‘‘Should We Do This?’’ to ‘‘How Do We Do This?’’ 145

It All Depends: Why Initiatives Fail

Putting on the Brakes: The Value of Parochialism

The American Red Cross: Managing Dependencies at the Speed of Disaster

Going from ‘‘Should’’ to ‘‘How’’ Fixing What’s Actually Broken

11 Tailor Your Portfolio of Teams for Top Performance Now 167

Thinking It Through

Putting the New Approach into Motion

Repurposing the SMT

Who’s in the Room?

Acknowledgments 179

The Author 183

Index 185

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Author Information

Bob Frisch, managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, has worked with organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to German mittelstand family businesses to the U.S. Department of State. Bob's work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fortune.
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“Great guide for any leader to use in mapping out his or her advisory teams”
—800 CEO Read

“Authoritative and pragmatic look at how to make the right calls”
—Julian Birkinshaw, Management Today

“Offers real-world strategies for making the best of how organizations seem to work”
—The Leader Lab

“How to structure organizational teams in a way that is both more realistic and more productive is at the heart of Frisch’s book”
—CIO Magazine

“What you really want from a book on organizational decision making and leadership”
—New York Journal of Books

“You’ll know his advice is working when you see a dramatic drop-off in people coming into your office and asking, "Why wasn’t I in the room?"
—Matthew May, Amex OPEN Forum

Who’s in the Room? falls in the great category…due to the book's ability to jar your perspective of how teams do and should operate.”
—Michael Wade, Execupundit

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Press Release

December 05, 2011
Who's in the Room?

Do you know who really makes the big decisions at your organization? If you think answer can be found on an organization chart, think again.


 In WHO’S IN THE ROOM? (Jossey-Bass; January 24, 2012) Bob Frisch sets the record straight on how big decisions really get made. The truth is that it’s rarely the formal senior management team who’s in the room with the leader as they think through major issues, but instead a kitchen cabinet—an ad hoc, unofficial, and flexible inner circle of advisers that doesn’t even have a name. Yet most executives can name its core members.

 Organizations can get derailed by the gap between the way decisions actually get made and the way we’re told they’re made by org charts, process flows, group charters and job titles. The senior management team feels shut out and insecure about their status. Will they be consulted before the next major decision or only informed after? Will their opinions carry any weight?  Confusion, mistrust and even resentment build, the senior team is then declared dysfunctional, and psychologists are brought in for a dose of team building, using the wrong tools trying to solve the wrong problem.


 Rather than trying to solve the conflict as a behavioral problem Frisch points out we need to focus on how CEOs actually make decisions and reorient key processes to reflect this truth. As CEOs (not executive teams) are ultimately accountable for these decisions, they should be able to access the best advice free of the tyranny of the org chart. When viewed in this way, the kitchen cabinet with its small size and confidential counsel can be an effective decision making tool rather than a force working at cross purposes with the senior management team.


Armed with these fresh insights and based on interviews with CEOs of such organizations as MasterCard, Allstate, Ticketmaster and the Red Cross, Frisch shows how CEOs can both build more effective kitchen cabinets (for instance, instead of going with advisors with whom they are comfortable, they should pick individuals who will help them make better decisions, even challenge them) and at the same time unleash the full power of their executive teams so they are, in turn, free to focus on building a shared view of the future, coordinating the resources


 In essence, Frisch calls for reversing the trend of treating groups as accountable for making major decisions.  It’s individuals, not groups, that should decide – with the appropriate teams around the leader providing input and advice, and later ensuring successful implementation of the decision.


 “It’s time to send the psychologists packing,” writes Frisch. “Time to stop hamstringing yourself and selling the members of your executive team short. And time to free decision making and decision makers throughout your organization from the tyranny of the organization chart.”


 You’ll know Frisch’s advice has worked when you see a dramatic drop-off in people coming into your office and asking, ‘‘Why wasn’t I in the room?’’


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