November Executive Board Meeting - Flickr

Who should be on the executive team, and how can we help ensure that the team operates in an effective manner? These are frequent questions that I encounter when working with organizations, and they are important questions given that teams fail about 60% of the time according to the research of Eunice Parisi-Carew.

Many organizations call a collection of leaders an “executive team” in order to foster unity and collaboration. If you have been a part of one of these “teams,” you know this label does not necessarily describe the collection of people to which it is given. In fact, many times these people are anything but a team for a variety of reasons. Two key reasons are:

  • A lack of clarity about what is acceptable and unacceptable in team member interactions
  • The inability to productively handle disagreement (especially when making decisions)

If the objective is to establish an executive team in the true sense of the word “team,” then it is fair to assume this desired team is a reasonably small number of individuals with complementary capabilities who are committed to a common purpose, performance objectives and approach to work for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

With this description in mind, the optimal size of the executive team really depends upon how you want it to operate. Over the years, research on teams has suggested that the ideal, maximum size is somewhere between six to nine members. While this is a good 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 gets too large, team meetings often become report outs, updates and presentations from members as opposed to collaborative working sessions focused on meaty issues. If a team larger than the guideline is needed, it is more effective to break this big team into subteams to work on given issues and then bring them back together to discuss results and next steps.

Regarding who should be on the executive team, it should ideally be those leaders who provide the team with insight on critical aspects of the business. Most often, these leaders head up divisions, functions and other business areas that are crucial to executing the organization’s strategy. While this is often the situation, there is an additional requirement—these leaders must be able to effectively represent their business areas and credibly contribute to the work of the executive team. If executive team members believe a given leader does not provide value beyond what the team has without this person, this leader may not be asked to be a member of the executive team. For example, some companies have excluded heads of corporate functions from their executive teams, because these leaders were too tactical in perspective and lacked the credibility to participate at this level.

In order to help the executive team build momentum that can move it further down the path toward peak effectiveness, there are some foundational elements that are not that difficult to put in place. As a start, ground rules can be established by the team to clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable as team members work together. These are essentially team norms for the members to use during the course of their work. Naturally, these ground rules provide no benefit unless all team members agree to hold themselves and each other accountable to them. Potential ground rules could focus on:

  • How difficult topics are addressed
  • Treating everyone as a peer regardless of title
  • The way to handle disagreements in a productive way
  • How meeting outcomes are communicated to others

Because the work of executive teams often involves making crucial decisions, the process the team uses to make decisions should be clarified. If team members are not clear on how team decisions are made, a productive discussion of differing perspectives often becomes stalled or even contentious, because a path to move forward has not been established. In this case, the senior leader on the team (e.g., the CEO) usually ends up making the call.

From experience, I have found that the decision process is especially important to define up front, because it is difficult for team members to establish a process when they are in the heat of discussion. If the executive team truly is or aspires to be a highly-effective team, the decision process should involve more than just deferring to the most senior leader on the team. Furthermore, having the executive team pay attention to its decision making process often leads to useful insight about how the team functions. For more information, see Enhancing Executive Team Decision Making: Four Diagnostic Models.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: November Executive Board Meeting, Flickr)