One of the worst uses of the term, “team,” is in relationship to the group of executives who report to the CEO. For many of the firms I work with ($20 million to $200 million in annual revenues), there’s little beyond the “report to” issue that binds these groups together as a team. This is often frustrating to CEOs who expect more from their highest paid lieutenants.
Countless hours and dollars are spent at offsite retreats and with expensive consultants and industrial psychologists exploring interesting dimensions of individual and group dynamics, often with no sustaining and positive “teaming” effects once the group returns to their day jobs.
What’s a CEO to do?
The answer for many is to simplify this situation by resetting expectations for teaming and laser focusing on the few issues that demand close coordination across this group of experienced and highly compensated individuals. While resetting expectations may sound like capitulation, it’s more of a case of choosing what not to do and focusing energies on the few combined activities that will move the performance meters in the right direction.
Resetting Expectations—Letting Go of Visions of Camelot
For many CEOs, there’s an idealized state of existence where the senior managers without prompting function as a single entity solving problems and making decisions and spreading confidence and good cheer across the firm. In this vision, the managers trust and even like each other and importantly, they protect each other. It’s a nice vision. Nice, but impractical.
In reality, senior managers are often at cross-purposes with each other over budgetary issues and the battle for resources for their teams. By nature of their functions, their time horizons are different. Poorly designed compensation systems fail to motivate integration and coordination, and key performance indicators reflect functional variables that are irrelevant beyond the specific department—interesting and perhaps important, but not meaningful to the group.
And the unspoken reality is that some senior managers view a seat at the table as a license to hunt for more power—whether it’s via an elevated title or favored status when it comes to gaining access to the CEO’s ear. The senior management environment is a ripe breeding ground for competition for individuals used to competing and succeeding in games of power and resources.
While many of the above variables are capable of being tuned and tweaked, a faster path to meaningful collaboration is to focus on the core issues that must bind this group in attitude and performance: direction, coordination and values. While I absolutely advocate creating meaningful, integrated measures, goals and compensation schemes, and eradicating destructive power-grabs, those should emerge from a focus on the issues.
Where Teamwork Matters at the Top:
1. Direction.The senior managers must coalesce around the next steps for the firm. Easy words, but a difficult objective to achieve in reality (and the subject of a dedicated forthcoming post).
Whether it’s diversifying and strengthening offerings or making moves to extend within a current segment/customer group or, expanding to cover new segments, a unified front from this group is essential. In teams where this unified view and messaging is missing, the broader organization picks up on the dissonance and morale and execution suffer.
CEOs must facilitate the hard dialog about direction and bring the debates to a close with a clear, unassailable conclusion. Once direction is set, the team is accountable to owning this direction choice together—from messaging to execution, learning and adaptation. This doesn’t preclude amending or shifting in the future, but there’s a point in time when the debates stop, a choice is made and the needed senior manager collaboration begins.
2. Coordination around Strategy Execution. Management groups are capable of developing as teams around the critical and challenging work of bringing directional decisions to life. These are effectively programs or projects with a tremendous number of inter-dependencies between functions. From co-sponsoring cross-functional initiatives or key project pieces to defining meaningful measures that gauge organizational progress on strategies, teamwork at the top is critical. In my experience, the clear and galvanizing purpose of strategy implementation and the transparency required for gauging progress are critical variables for promoting senior manager teamwork.
3. Values. For high performing organizations, the values that define expected and accepted behaviors are visible and very much alive, and their reinforcement starts and stops with senior management behaviors. People mimic powerful leaders, and they are super-sensitive to behaviors that are dissonant from what’s been described as appropriate or ideal. There can be no exceptions at the senior manager level to living and supporting the values of the firm and the behaviors needed to ensure clarity of purpose, rules of engagement and collaboration and accountability for outcomes.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
In three decades of attending, being a part of or facilitating senior management teams and meetings, I have no qualms suggesting that most of these groups sub-optimize. I’ve observed or have been a part of a couple of groups for points in time that looked and felt like real teams in all respects, but those are the exceptions. CEOs have a tough job deriving value beyond functional leadership from their senior managers, and instead of expecting them to spontaneously emerge as a great team, they are better served focusing on driving teamwork in the limited but important areas of direction, strategy execution and values reinforcement. Get these three right and the opportunity for the group to emerge as a real team improves considerably.
Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.
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