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Executive Teamwork - Getting Senior Staff To Play Well Together

Friday 26 September, 2008
Creating a synergestic team of top leaders in an organisation is tough work. Selecting, managing personalities and relationships, establishing and enforcing norms, and developing executive team members is a complex process - but it can be done.

"Teamwork" has forever been a buzzword in the business world. It seems the importance of having employees work as a team has been promoted in every available piece of management literature.

Nevertheless, we at the top have frequently had a hard time "playing well together", despite the fact that the need is pronounced now more than ever.

And when I say "executive teamwork", I really mean any homogeneous group of leaders who would be better served by linking arms in effort than by lobbing grenades over the departmental or functional "wall".

I used to work for a CEO who believed that the definition of a "team" was "a group of people doing things my way". It'd be funnier if it didn't apply so well to so many.

Who cares? Why does it matter, as long as I do my job and am good at it? Some arguments for effective executive teamwork:

  1. External demands 

    Worldwide competition and changing financial markets make it necessary for the organisation to be on the alert at all times - the pressure to innovate, apart from the company's organisational health, are no longer the CEO's sole purview.
  2. Internal demands 

    Diversifying businesses require differently-skilled managers leading varied business units. We can no longer be "all things to all people".
  3. Succession 

    An executive team is usually - and naturally - the best selection pool for future executives, as individual members would have first-hand knowledge of the essential competencies of a potential top leader within their current organisation.
  4. Exemplary behaviour 

    In addition, top executives working well together sends a potent signal down the line.

So why, then, if we understand the need, do top executives often fail to form a real, working team?

Consider the source: Managers who have climbed the ladder's upper rungs are typically strong-willed, ambitious and are experts in their own right.

These characteristics, though obviously allowing them to successfully rise within an organisation, may also pave the way for an unwillingness to show weakness, overprotective behaviour for their functions, and viewing other executives as "competition" in their quest for the Holy Grail: another promotion.

Personality and behaviours can be difficult to change once they are really entrenched, so forming a true executive team becomes a difficult undertaking.

Ultimately, the CEO (or appropriate senior leadership) must establish a climate that is favourable to developing an executive team. They can do this by:

  • Selecting discriminately 

    Normally, "upper management" can be a big group, consisting of the CEO, COO, CFO, various heads of important functional areas, and other political savvy or otherwise valuable individuals. Limiting the number of members to 8-10 enables all to develop healthier relationships, to say nothing of the success of subsequent meetings.
  • Communicating unequivocally

    The CEO must ensure that all executive team members understand the vision, mission, strategies and goals of the organisation in no uncertain terms. There can be no "highway" option here.
  • Ensuring commitment 

    If there is no involvement, there is no commitment.
  • Clarifying roles 

    The CEO must clearly set the mandate for each executive team member. This involves defining strategic responsibilities (not operational), areas of cooperation, interdependence, information-sharing and decision-making processes.
  • Ensuring safety 

    Establishing an atmosphere where members can show their weaknesses, disagree and express their opinions openly without fear of losing face and authority can induce team creativity. It also promotes increased trust among the members.
  • Emphasising shared accountability

    Rewarding solely individual performance undermines the formation of a cohesive executive team whose performance is supposed to be assessed collectively. Collective measures of profitability and other gains are crucial.
  • Having courage to weed out non-performers 

    It's perfect, of course, if all executives would deliver on their responsibilities - but, nobody's perfect. If an executive hinders the team's progress or is disrupting the team's process, then it might be time to let that member go. Make that decision as certain as it would be if they were functionally incompetent.

The payback is huge. Stop looking for a magic bullet - it takes effort and commitment, and in all likelihood, some tough decisions ...

Author Credits

Kevin Berchelmann, Triangle Performance. Described as a Human Capital Expert by The Harvard Business Press, Kevin Berchelmann helps new managers at private equity, Fortune 500 and small to medium sized businesses become top leaders that deliver results. Now you can get access to his FREE 'At C-Level', cutting edge newsletter at www.triangleperformance.com.
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