Your Executive Team Probably Could Be More Effective—Here’s How
The executive team usually includes some of the most experienced, successful, and savvy leaders in the company. You might expect the group’s performance to reflect each member’s individual ability. But you’d be wrong.
In a recent Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) survey of senior executives, just 18 percent rated their organization’s executive team as being “very effective.”
That’s in part because individual leaders often struggle to balance the conflicts that can arise between their functional responsibilities and their enterprise, or big picture, leadership roles. CCL’s survey found that 65 percent of executive teams experience this conflict.
Could executive teams function better? And if so, would it matter for the broader organization? When asked whether increased effectiveness of their executive team would have a positive impact on organizational results, 97 percent of senior executives answered with a resounding “Yes!”
CCL’s research, paired with decades of hands-on experience with leaders of thousands of organizations around the world, suggests that executive team underperformance is a chronic problem for organizations of all kinds.
Executive Team Underperformance
Effective executive teams do certain things well. Underperforming executive teams can be identified by what they should do that they don’t. The five lacking behaviors to focus on are:
- Not communicating enterprise awareness down the ladder and throughout the whole organization.
- Not driving cross-boundary collaboration.
- Not leveraging diverse perspectives to nurture multi-disciplinary planning and strategy.
- Not fostering “bottom-up” insight, awareness and ideas, resulting in an organization that is too top-down in its perspective.
- Not examining differences in a forthcoming, constructive way.
These five failures are signs of an executive team whose members are too focused on their individual roles. These executives often are unable to collaborate effectively with each other, fail to take an enterprise view of their roles, and don’t work to break down barriers between teams throughout the organization.
Do these behaviors sound familiar? Executive teams can start improving their performance and lead the organization to greater success by first rethinking the role of the CEO as a chief development officer for his or her executive team.
Upskilling the Executive Team
Executive team members frequently fall victim to a simple, common problem: The skills, experience, and traits that got them on the top team frequently aren’t enough to be a top performer on the team. That’s because executive team performance requires a different perspective and new behaviors from these senior leaders.
CEOs typically select executive team members based on functional expertise: Does the CFO, for example, have the skills, knowledge, and experience to properly manage and lead the Finance function for the enterprise?
But getting to the C-suite shouldn’t be the end of a leader’s growth and learning. Rather, executive team members now must be able to collaborate in ways that support the entire organization, its strategy, and its goals.
CEOs must find ways to help executive team members communicate clearly and openly with one another, solve problems together, break down organizational silos, convey leadership communications to every corner of the company, and serve as the model and designers of team interaction for the entire organization.
How the executive team crafts the behavioral DNA will drive collaboration—or foster conflict and division. Either way, it’s the CEO who ultimately has to engineer this team’s DNA so it best serves the goals of the organization.
Keys to High-Performing Executive Teams
CEOs, working with their executive teams, have five critical tasks to develop top-performing executive teams:
- Get the diagnosis right. CEOs need to understand what drives each executive team member, and what motivates them to work together (or not). Executive team members also need to develop this knowledge.
- Get the leadership mental model right. Leading at the enterprise level requires executive team members to lead beyond their personal sphere of influence. High-performing executive teams understand and explicitly agree on what it means to lead at the enterprise level.
- Get the mindset right. Executive teams that function most effectively have a shared growth mindset. They understand they need to learn, think, and lead across the enterprise—not just in their functional area.
- Get the interactions right. Successful executive teams adopt specific, explicit “interaction rules” to foster strong collaboration and strategic focus. Executives must be transparent, be comfortable learning “in public,” be able to be vulnerable, and have strong dialogue skills.
- Get the “diffusion rules” right. Executive teams are effective when their thinking, actions, and decisions are conveyed across large numbers of people—from the C-suite to front-line workers. Effective executive teams distill a common cultural DNA across the organization.
The First Team
Executive team performance is about more than just how effectively the executive team functions as a group. The executive team is an organization’s “first team.” How its members collaborate serves as an example of behavior for every other team in the organization.
Individuals and teams at all level of the enterprise look to the executive team to set the culture of the organization: the beliefs, behaviors, and values that dictate how people interact, work together, and solve problems. The executive team’s behavior is far more powerful an influence on company culture than any document that merely describes what the culture should aspire to.
Ensuring the executive team is performing at a high level is one of the highest-leverage investments a leader can make in his or her organization.
To learn more about the differences between high-performing executive teams and the rest—how to close that gap—download the free CCL white paper “Are You Getting the Best Out of Your Executive Team?”
Alice Cahill, Ph.D., is the director of, and Laura Quinn, Ph.D., is a senior practitioner in, the Organizational Leadership Practice at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Lawrence R. McEvoy II, MD, is an executive-in-residence at CCL and former CEO of Memorial Health System in Colorado.