Build It and They Will Lead

The Executive Team Series: Number Two of Three

Viewpoint: Developing Leadership Teams

4 ways your Executive Team can be more like “The Fellowship of the Ring” than “Game of Thrones”

An Underperforming Asset

In organizations large and small, private and public, commercial and nonprofit, the top executive team sets the tone and has the power to add (or destroy) more value than any other team in the company. For example, they can engage employees in a new strategy and direction, get an acquisition off on the right foot, and set positive cultural change in motion.

However, most executive teams, by their own admission, don’t add the value they are capable of providing. According to a McKinsey Quarterly report, just 30% of executives felt their time was spent in productive collaboration. According to the Hay Group, of 120 executive teams in 11 countries, fewer than 25% reached their potential.

Lack of teamwork at the top creates collateral damage. Some teams are viewed within the organization as a forum where “good ideas go to die” or a panel of judges that feels like the Spanish Inquisition. The team members themselves don’t receive much value either. Some have told us, “The only thing worse than being in those meetings is not being invited to them.” Conflict at the top can destroy value internally and in the external world. When there is “Game of Thrones” at the top, the company suffers.

A Common Root Cause of Executive Team Underperformance – Benign Neglect

While not all executive team dysfunction reaches “Game of Thrones” levels, most fall short of the committed, do-or-die collaboration of the Fellowship in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” Yet CEOs do not need magical powers to dramatically increase their team’s effectiveness. In the real world, they just need to overcome the benign neglect that prevents them from intervening.

For some CEOs, the human factor prevents them from taking actions that may make them feel uncomfortable—especially if conflict is rampant. Others have not been part of a high functioning team before, so they are skeptical of team development and perceive it to be navel gazing, a waste of time, and bereft of ROI. Perhaps most often, CEOs assume that their executive teams will naturally work well since they are comprised of the most experienced and trusted enterprise leaders in the company.

There is a bizarre irony to benign neglect of executive team development. Since its members are such strong leaders, executive teams need direction, guidance, and clear rules of engagement even more than other teams. Even the strongest of leaders will support a collaborative cause they believe in. In our view, CEOs must actively develop their executive teams—great teams are not born, they are built.

Activist Executive Team Building – Four Practices That Work in the Real World

Here are four ways that CEOs can rapidly build their executives into a higher performing unit:

Get the charter right. Across the dozens of executive teams we’ve worked with, there are a vital few roles for executive teams: Strategy, Communications, Organization Design, Growth, and Talent. Reorient the team’s work to focus on some version of these areas. Great leaders will become even stronger when they have a collective sense of purpose. It won’t take long and doesn’t need to be a slow process. Define the vital few topics and then get on with it by visibly distorting team meetings to focus on these.
Distribute leadership accountability. Identify leaders for each of the team’s charter items. Hold them accountable for making sure that the executive team does the right work on its agenda items. This is vital for instilling a sense of ownership for team outcomes above and beyond the CEO’s own accountability for leading the team. There is no room for “floaters”–each leader should know their role on the team.
Actively work on relationships. Provide a mechanism for team members to constructively give and receive feedback to each other. Even in a half- or full-day meeting onsite, CEOs can build in the time and space for team members to have two rounds of 1:1 feedback (15 minutes each). Formal peer feedback can be implemented on an annual basis.
Infuse process rigor. Clarify basic team management practices; such as how agendas will be built, how pre-reads will be handled, how decisions will be made, etc. Rigor can also include quick and easy practices such as immediately debriefing the discussion of major topics in real time (e.g., How did we do? What did we miss?), pulse check surveys of the team through an email asking for comments, etc.


Company The Intrigue
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Build It and They Will Lead – Examples

Company Executive Team Building Practices
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The River Group Executive Team Strength Meter

Teams at the top of the organization are positioned to have substantial impact. The question is whether this impact will be in the form of value creating leadership—or value destruction through collateral damage to morale, culture, and engagement.

Like the strength meter of a website password, CEOs can assess the strength of their executive team using the scale below: