There is much written and talked about when it comes to highly effective leaders. There is also a wealth of research and models that show how teams can become “high performing”.
Yet leadership is often singled out as an individual endeavor. Companies create talent programs and coaching arrangements to ensure individuals get leadership development. Some organizations go so far as to develop specific leadership levels or general leadership culture and the results to date are mixed, at best.
When we look at leaders and how they work together and perform as a team, we see huge amounts of un tapped potential in their hands and a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their companies. Using leadership teams as our unit of analysis, beginning with the Chief Executive and their Executive team and as well as the various global function teams such as Sales, Finance, Supply Chain, Manufacturing, Marketing and R & D, we must ask, “how many of these leadership teams are playing at their best?”
We often get a pause and sometimes not even a direct answer. Responses range from, “they are the board, they do as they please” to “actually, they aren’t really a team,” in a hushed voice, as if afraid someone will hear them.
Take a moment to write down your thoughts to the following questions:
- How many strategic and executive leadership teams do you have in your organization?
- What percentage of them are truly playing at their best?
- If these leadership teams could improve the way they work together and the results they create by 10, 20 or 30%, what impact would this have on their organization?
The possibilities are staggering, yet often the potential remains ignored and untapped.
Over the last twenty years, I have coached, consulted or advised over one hundred senior leadership teams on three continents. I am convinced that helping leadership teams play at their best remains the single most valuable investment an organization can make if they want to become a first class performer.
Leadership teams makes a difference. Research shows that the effectiveness of executive leadership teams has a huge impact on organizational climate and performance. All the more reason to give executive and senior team leadership attention and investment. And yet, 50% of senior executives are disappointed with their company’s growth and results.
Powerful benefits come to the organization after leadership teams earnestly agree that they have room to improve and publicly acknowledge the development process they are undertaking. The humility, discipline and courage to work on their leadership team issues is a powerful Vorbild for the entire company. This creates a climate for growth and improvement for everyone.
Leadership teams that learn from and with each other create the conditions for compound learning, and like compound interest, it grows exponentially. If the senior leaders are not setting the example of learning, adapting and changing for the people they lead, who is?
At the end of the day, if each and every leadership team in the organization is not deliberately aiming to become an exceptional team and perform individually and collectively in an exceptional way, why should anyone else?
Through my work with leadership teams in Europe, the USA and Asia and I’ve not found one that didn’t have some potential to develop and improve. In the following article, I’ll share the seven insights to becoming a high performance leadership team. I will share what must go right and what can go wrong when trying to take your executive team to the next level of performance. Before sharing the seven insights, I’m assuming the following are in place with your team:
- the senior leadership team members are ethically and morally sound
- as individual team members they are hard-working, results oriented and have earned their seat at the leadership team table
- each member is fit and competent in the functional aspect of their role
Insight I – Size Does Matter
Let’s start with the fundamentals. Many senior leaders inherit legacies, taking over a large executive or senior leadership team with many members. Many global organizations have their functional senior leaders (CFO, COO, CIO, and CMO) as well as presidents from the respective regions combined into one team. While bringing the top leaders of an organization together may mean you can reduce the amount of executive meetings and ensure a consistent exchange of information – it’s difficult to build an exceptional team with a group this size. What you have is not a team but a committee, one long on discourse and short on aligned, executable action. You decide.
Executives that aim to create an exceptional leadership team waste no time in either reducing the size of the executive team or splitting off the function board and then having a second larger, executive group. The first is used to truly decide executive issues and the second serves as a market exchange and sounding board function. Both are useful, but only a smaller leadership team has the opportunity to be truly exceptional.
What the magic number? Six to eight members from my experience. Often a senior leader will have one “go to” person that serves as their sparring partner (often the CFO) and this can be beneficial so long as other members do not feel second-class.
Insight II – Balancing Act
Members of a leadership team must be able to “balance their act”. There is an inherent tension between leading a business function and being a fully-fledged member of the executive team. There will be conflicts of interest and priorities clashes between what is best for a leader’s function and what is best for the overall company.
Recently a leader described this to me as having a foot in two camps. Exceptional leadership teams understand this is a natural tension and address these issues with a distinct & disciplined dialog. While the balancing act is ever present (even in exceptional leadership teams), creating a compelling, shared vision and developing a sense of team purpose, focusing the team on activities that only it can perform for the company helps create a center of gravity for its members, one that enables them to balance their act.
Insight III – Playing on the Fertile Field
There is a great deal of power in leadership teams, especially in the Executive Team. Exceptional teams know how to balance and channel this power for the good of their stakeholders. Becoming aware of and practicing two competencies, integrity and empathy, can help leadership teams play on the fertile field rather than getting bogged down in the fields of disrespect and broken promises. Quadrant 2, created through empathetic and integral dialog is the only field where leadership teams can unleash their power in a meaningful and highly effective way. Look at the visual below:
Leader teams can get to the fertile field by first exchanging how they understand empathy and integrity. Empathy is the ability reflect back to someone that you understand both the content and the feelings the speaker has about the content. Integrity is the ability to put difficult themes on the table even when it might affect you or your function negatively, keeping decisions confidential until agreeing to make them public, executing on decisions made and holding each other accountable for actions and agreed behaviors.
Mapping how leader members view their current empathy and integrity competencies followed by discussions about how to move to the fertile field can be a significant insight in becoming an exceptional leadership team.
Insight IV – Law of Magnification
Top leadership teams are under a microscope. Their individual and collective behaviors are magnified. It is not uncommon in leadership teams to discover a power struggle or running feud between two or more members. Exceptional leadership teams understand that misunderstandings and conflicts are natural expressions of differences in a team and can, in most situations, be dealt with in a respectful and effective way. They will not tolerate running feuds because they are keenly aware that it will degrade the leadership team’s effectiveness and send magnified toxic messages to the rest of the organization.
Average leadership teams choose to deny conflicts in their team or simply ignore them, thinking that nobody notices them or they simply don’t matter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. After recently confronting a CEO about an ongoing conflict in his team he responded, “I don’t want my senior executives to be best friends, just do the job they signed up to do.” Sadly, this team struggles.
Leadership teams invest time to create core values and these values should help shape the nature and direction of the company. While nearly all leadership teams articulate core values, exceptional leadership teams know it is the operating values that people observe and are influenced by the most.
Exceptional leadership teams are very aware that it is far more important how they walk and talk in the halls rather than what is written on the walls.
Insight V – Source of Growth
Membership in an exceptional leadership team comes with an understanding and practice that the leadership team team is a great source of professional and personal development for everyone in the team. You know right away when you are working with a high performance team by the way they share their successes, failures and the degree to which they express their vulnerability. If I listen to members of a senior leadership team exchange and it sounds like a picture perfect situation or there is little or no expression of struggle or vulnerability, I will show you a team that has low levels of trust or an unwillingness to raise their own bar for performance.
Compare this with a leadership team where the members openly and willingly share what they’re struggling with and who get engaged and supportive feedback from their team members – this is a team that’s on its way to exceptional results. Real leadership teams encourage their members to spend time in each other’s organization, learning from each other’s best experiences and practices.
Exceptional teams (and their members) understand that the team that they are a part of is the most significant resource available to develop themselves and their team and they engage accordingly.
Insight VI – Scrambled Strategy
No word creates more chaos and misunderstanding in leadership teams than “strategy”. As soon as the word hits the table, you hear comments coming from many different directions:
-our strategy isn’t working…
-that’s not a strategy…
-we don’t have a strategy…
-that’s a strategic plan, not a strategy…
-those are tactics, not strategies…
A senior leadership team can only lead its organization to exceptional results when it has a common agreement on the semantics of strategy, otherwise two or more leaders can be speaking about fruit, but if one is thinking apples and the other oranges, well, you get the picture. If a senior leadership team cannot get its strategic semantics aligned, it will never become a high performing leadership team. Here are four strategic pitfalls that mediocre leadership teams fail to overcome:
- failure to separate what (direction, namely vision) from how (the process) to get to the aspired state
- unable to understand the difference between strategy and planning – the planning discussion starts at the bottom and works outwards and strategy starts out at some point in the future and works back
- reluctance to address critical issues, sometimes called trade-offs that an effective strategy must address – exceptional leadership teams readily identify and address them, mediocre teams try to straddle the issues, doing a bit of everything and this doesn’t allow the organization to be distinctive
- lack of courage and discipline to determine what initiatives they won’t invest in. If you add three strategic initiatives to this year’s strategy on top of your existing plan, you’ll dilute your promises unless you agree on what you’re not going to do
Insight VII – T.U.C. (The unique contribution)
Senior team members have a strong action orientation. One reason why these women and men have made it to the top in the first place is that they get things done. This action bias pulls average and even good leadership teams into working on issues that can and should be handled by others in the organization. This creates misunderstanding and confusion by interrupting accepted business processes and fosters mistrust amongst the next levels of management under the senior team. “Why is he doing that now, doesn’t he trust me?” are comments expressed when senior leaders move out of their unique contribution zone.
Real leadership teams know they will be tempted and challenged by issues that are important to them and the company but are not be theirs to deal with. Certainly in times of trouble or urgency such matters must be considered.
Exceptional teams prepare themselves for such situations by addressing the following questions with discipline, focus and rigor:
- Who are our stakeholders and what do they expect of us?
- What sets us apart and how will we know when we’ve been successful?
- What must we do as a senior leadership team that cannot be done by any other set of people?
Exceptional leadership teams resist the temptation to “dip down” into operational issues that should be dealt with elsewhere. It is part of being a real leadership team.
Leading or being a member of a senior leadership team is an ambitious endeavor. It could be tempting, after earning membership into a top team to looks elsewhere when exceptional performance and results aren’t showing up in an organization. (A strong indicator of mediocre leadership teams is they can usually find a reason for non-performance or lack of effectiveness in an area of the business other than theirs.) But as easy and tempting as it might be, real leadership teams know that this is not an option, as they know with both head and heart that to grow their organization and the talents that report to them, they have to first grow themselves.
Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through his transformational growth process called Executive Ownershift®. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best. You can follow Dan at LinkedIn, at his blog or receive regular growth updates through his web site at www.dannorenberg.com