“We are an executive team in name only.”
“We are all senior leaders at the same company, we participate in the same meetings, but we do not collaborate well as a unit.”
“We have no common objective and struggle with accountability.”
In my work, I regularly hear senior leadership at organizations make these comments. If you are a senior leader who can relate to these remarks, consider how much you and your colleagues really need to:
- Be a relatively small number of individuals with complementary capabilities
- Commit to a common purpose, performance objective(s) and approach to work
- Hold each other accountable
Sometimes being heads of divisions, functions, etc. who meet regularly to discuss operations and actions is enough. This is not a true executive team. But a true team may not be needed to run the organization.
If a true executive team (as described by the bullets) is required, building key pillars in the right way advances a collection of senior leaders to this level. Higher productivity is the result.
Specifically, these pillars are size, membership composition, parameters, and the capability to handle group dynamics. Consider these lessons learned to help you build them.
1. Size is a variable.
When it comes to team size, don’t get hung up on a precise number. The optimal size of the executive team really depends on how you want it to operate.
Over the years, research on teams has suggested that the preferred maximum size is somewhere between six and nine members. While this is a nice guideline, keep in mind that it is just a guideline. In some cases, an organization may need to have more members on its executive team. If this is the case, then expectations for how it will operate need to adjust accordingly. When the number of executive team members is closer to the guideline, it is easier for team members to engage in collaborative work because the size is more manageable.
If the number of members becomes excessive, team meetings often become report-outs, updates and presentations from members as opposed to collaborative working sessions addressing critical issues. If a team larger than the guideline is required, break this big team into sub-teams to work on the issues and then bring them back together to discuss results and next steps.
2. Insight and adeptness determine membership.
With an understanding of size, the question then becomes: Who exactly should be on the executive team? Even with size set, you still may be tempted to include a variety of people a.) to communicate about company operations and/or b.) because they hold senior-level jobs. Resist these temptations.
To avoid the first temptation, use other communication vehicles to share information about company operations (e.g. one-on-one conversations with executive team members). To avoid the second temptation, look beyond their jobs.
Team members should provide insight on critical aspects of the business. Most often, these leaders head up areas (e.g. divisions and functions) that are vital to executing the organization’s strategy. While these leaders can provide the needed insight, insight alone is not enough. These leaders must adeptly represent their business areas and contribute to the work of the team. If they cannot, leave them off the team. I have seen CEOs exclude competent heads of divisions and corporate functions from their executive teams because these leaders were too tactical in perspective and lacked the credibility to participate at this level.
3. Parameters are prerequisites.
With membership established, collaborate to lay out essential responsibilities for the team and define what the team should look like when operating at peak performance (e.g. what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, and how decisions are made). Defined responsibilities, along with a team profile target, become parameters to gauge true team progress. Furthermore, the parameters are much more practical than generic team descriptions that show up in many organizations because members determine them.
4. Members need content and process capabilities.
To operate at peak performance as a true team, members need to do more than communicate. They must be able to effectively handle disagreement. Therefore, don’t try to avoid disagreement; it’s inevitable. In fact, disagreement is desirable when handled well because it leads to better solutions.
If you want to optimally handle disagreement, pay more attention to how team members work together (the process) in addition to what they discuss (the content). Usually, most team members focus heavily on content and give little thought to process.
As you and your colleagues become savvier about the dynamics of the group, you will realize that certain topics positively and negatively affect the way team members collaborate. Once you recognize this, preventive measures can be taken to ensure the intensity of the discussion stays in the productive range.
Preventive measures could include reinforcing pre-existing team meeting ground rules as you point out the volatility of the topic, or establishing guidelines in real time to increase the efficiency for addressing the topic.
Even true teams operating at peak performance will occasionally encounter disagreements that disrupt productivity. That’s okay. Use these three strategies to keep such exchanges in check.
- Monitor how often they occur. If they occur frequently, take a closer look to understand what is behind them.
- Evaluate the degree of severity. If an exchange becomes a very personal attack, this can undermine team trust, cohesion and collaboration. In this case, even one occurrence merits spending a little time to identify the underlying issue.
- Gauge recovery lag. A true team has efficient ways to “hit reset” — decrease excessive intensity and quickly get back on track to productive work. For example, start with the areas where you agree and have neutral team members present the areas where there are passionate differences.
A collection of executives will not become a true team merely by labeling it a team. Appropriate size, membership composition, parameters and the capability to handle group dynamics are pillars that make it happen.
Note: This article originally appeared in Forbes and can be found here.
Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations being published in early 2019. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti
(Photo: Planning, Pixar)