Executive Team Development

Often underused. Frequently unproductive. The executive team is the most closely watched of all.

It has the potential to provide inspirational leadership. Yet often it yields the lowest “per capita” value to the organization. It just doesn’t work well.

Yet an aligned executive team can be a powerful resource.

Alignment does not happen by chance.

The Four Roles of an Executive Team

diagram of the four roles of an executive team

It requires a commitment to the group, by the group. It requires an attitude of ‘we’, not ‘me’.

The chief purpose of a leadership team is to bring together senior leaders of diverse functions in order to solve shared problems and ensure aligned action and collective responsibility for the organization’s performance.

The unique nature of the executive team demands strong, focused and purposeful leadership by the CEO. A productive team can’t be left to chance. It has to be designed according to the context. And since the effectiveness of the team is dependent on the quality of conversations by the team, great effort should be spent on ensuring meaningful dialogue.

What Can Go Wrong?

Members of the team are often in competition with each other for the top job.

Centrifugal forces drag team members apart – competition for resources overwhelms the need for collaboration.

More so than just about any other organizational leadership group, the “reason to be” for executive teams is not as clear from the outset.

Often, the team leader (CEO) is more focused on the Board and external constituents than the executive team and will expect his/her direct reports to “just get along.”

One very common affliction of senior teams is bloat, which erodes the quality and efficiency of the conversation.

The Design Rules

Purpose. Sharing of information? Insight to solve problems? Make decisions?

Size. Seven plus or minus two.

Membership. Depends on the context.

Roles. Wear the enterprise leader ‘hat’; leave department/functional ‘hat’ at the door.

Rules of the Road. Structure, discipline and room for dialogue.

Remove bad actors. Remove a blocker on the team early.

Execution Rules

Concentrate on the quality of conversations.

Frame meetings. Clarify the purpose of each meeting and the team’s strategy and tools for achieving that purpose.

Coach the team. Provide guidance and reframe as necessary to ensure meeting is achieving objectives.

Provide feedback on what behaviors are most effective.

Leave sufficient time at the end of each meeting to decide what to communicate out of the meeting.

The River Strength Meter: Executive Teams

High Drama Passive Aggression Herding Cats Fit for Purpose Poised for Greatness Championship Caliber

Leadership Alignment: What It Is And How To Do It Well

Senior leaders in an organization don’t have to agree on everything.

But they must be aligned. They must be able to stand behind all collective decisions in public. Misgivings about the strategy or about the competence of colleagues can be shared with the CEO, but should not be aired in public; and certainly not informally with subordinates.

An aligned leadership group is more likely to be a high performing leadership group. How do you know if it is not aligned and how to fix that?

Staff know when leaders are not aligned.

They hear two senior executives disagree about a course of action in a meeting.

Their boss tells them one thing, and the boss of a friend in another department tells that friend something different.

They see an executive put her own ambition ahead of what is right for the organization.

They see an executive put the interests of his department in conflict with the interests of the organization as a whole.

So, what could cause a leadership group to become misaligned? It could be one of a variety of factors:

  • A new CEO arrives and brings new ideas which disrupt the status quo, and unnerve some of the senior executive group.
  • Rapid growth creates tensions as reporting lines or roles change. It disturbs the existing way of doing things.
  • The promotion of new leaders to the executive team can alter the dynamic of the group.

Whatever the cause, the role of the CEO is to fix it. To ensure the leadership group behaves as one.

No Gaps

An aligned leadership group exists when there are no gaps between the leaders.

That means:
  • No variation in the interpretation of the strategy.
  • No tolerance of self-promoting behavior at the expense of the whole.
  • No conflict among the group visible to staff. Constructive conflict can be healthy.
  • No fuzziness caused by organizational reporting lines.

What Alignment Looks Like

Strategic clarity

If there is any doubt or disagreement among the leadership group about the strategic direction, it quickly becomes obvious to others. Small disagreements are suddenly amplified. Staff are able to exploit the gaps between leaders. They can press for departmental or functional interests ahead of the interests of the organization. But, if there is one story, told well, there is no room for staff to misinterpret.

Being personally accountable

Each leader has the courage and integrity to take ownership of the decisions of the group. Not all decisions will be their preferred first choice. But an aligned group agrees to support ALL decisions As IF they were their first choice. And then they support those decisions in public. If they cannot do that, they should not be in the leadership group.

An executive team, shoulder-to-shoulder

Each member of the team makes an organizational contribution, not merely a department or functional contribution. When sitting around that table, they represent the whole organization and put the interests of the whole above their personal or departmental interests.

Leaders as role models of organizational culture

Organizational culture is the aggregated output of leadership actions, particularly the behavior of leaders. Acceptable and unacceptable behavior among the extended leadership group must be defined and measured.

Collaboration among the extended leadership group
Successful collaboration requires good working relationships among the leadership group. This cannot be forced, but it can be encouraged. Collaboration is required to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And leadership groups who behave with civility, even enjoyment, are more likely to contribute effectively together.

The Game Plan – How To Create Alignment

One Strategy Story

This is achieved by an inclusive approach to developing strategy. Not everyone needs to be consulted. But by widening the circle of contributors, the more likely the strategic story will be internalized.

For this to stick, it is vital to ensure that there are no major disagreements among the extended leadership group (direct reports to the CEO, and direct reports to the direct reports) about the direction or choices made by the organization.

Involve this extended group in the strategic conversation. Enable the group to think together in large-scale leadership events. Constant leadership communication will ensure that there are no gaps in the story for staff to exploit.

Executive Team

Executive teams need to be built. They don’t happen by chance. Constructed well, with the right protocols, incentives and relationships, the executive team will earn high praise from others, and will make good decisions for the organization.

For CEOs it can be helpful to think about the large extended leadership group in three categories in order to work on alignment in a methodical way:

The ‘kitchen cabinet’

Those two or three people who are most closely in-tune with your ideas and whom you trust the most. This group makes many of the big decisions together.

The executive team

This group is the most visible leadership forum. Many want to be a member of it, or be in front of it. Any cracks in this group, and it will be detected immediately by others.

The extended leadership group

This should include, at a minimum, direct reports of your direct reports. This group will need constant communication and engagement.

Leaders’ Goals

Be sure to have one or two shared goals/incentives (in addition to the individual goals) for a set of leaders in order to reinforce collaborative behavior and create a focus on the whole organization, as well as the individual parts. Be strict in only permitting leader behavior that is in the best interests of the organization.

Organization Design

The way the organization is designed must be in harmony with the strategic story. Well-designed organizations are ones that have been intentionally built to execute in a way to maximize the strategic output.

Research shows that structure determines behavior, or at least some behaviors. If the organization is built with multiple confusing matrices, leadership alignment is likely to suffer.

Designing organizations requires thinking along two dimensions. First, how the parts are grouped together to ensure the strategy is executed. Second, how those groups are linked together (formally and informally), because once groups are created, silos can emerge quickly.

The River Strength Meter: Leadership Alignment

No Alignment Many Gaps A Few Gaps Still Some Gaps Mostly Aligned Maximum Alignment