Whether in times of growth and prosperity, or times of struggle and uncertainty, the entire organization looks to the executive leadership team for direction and as a model of how to lead. These top teams become the link for creating extraordinary organizations capable of continuing to achieve better and better results. Their behavior individually and collectively signals the behaviors expected of everyone in the organization and can be a powerful model of how to deliver customer and investor expectations. In short, a strong executive team provides is a powerful asset for demonstrating reputation to all stakeholders.
Senior executives are tasked with balancing the representation of their individual business areas with the need to work together as a leadership team to set and enable vision, strategy, culture and priorities for the enterprise as a whole. The two focuses often feel like competing agendas, but each of these areas is valuable to the success of the whole organization. In my experience, far too often senior executives struggle to balance the need to optimize their individual business areas and represent their needs to their colleagues with the need to work together as a leadership team focusing on the success of the whole organization and on critical initiatives where synergy and alignment are required.
Talent is not enough to be a successful executive—talented individuals who do not work well with others will not be successful in creating an enterprise that delivers the results customers and investors expect. Frequently, talented individuals that have demonstrated extraordinary levels of competence and impact get promoted to C-level positions and they are willing to fight to stay there. Moving from storming to norming and performing can become a nightmare if these individuals don’t understand the meaning and the essence of being part of a leadership team.
The relevance and impact of the individual contribution and group performance of the top team is a given in academic research. It is clearly linked to the organization’s financial and customer results, employee results, and even investor decision-making. What is surprising in our work in this area over the last 25 years is the number of top teams that underestimate the impact their particular dysfunctions have on their organizations. Far too often they tend to minimize their own problems and don’t recognize or acknowledge the effect they have on their organization’s ability to consistently deliver good results. In other cases, where they do recognize or acknowledge the issue, they don’t know how to solve it and move forward productively.
Differentiating Roles Top Team Play
There are three responsibilities of top teams that no one else in the organization can assume. It is absolutely critical for an organization’s performance over time that the top team be able to work together to achieve these outcomes.
- Crafting the Strategic Agenda: Top teams are responsible for establishing the enterprise strategy (how many businesses do we have and how are they connected), defining a direction for each business that establishes boundaries for what the organization will do and will not do to generate revenue and growth, and clearly articulating the value each business provides to customers that is different from competitors. In addition to aligning on these key directional decisions, high performing top teams set goals and priorities for the organization, allocate resources that build differentiated capabilities, and ensure the strategy is clearly and consistently cascaded to every level of the organization. For this effort to have impact, top teams need to understand when will they act as a team and when as a group of leaders. Team priorities are not necessarily equal to organization strategy.
- Ensuring the Behavioral Agenda: Leadership teams need to make sure that the organization culture is consistently delivering the right customer experience each and every time. By clearly identifying and deliberately demonstrating and reinforcing the behaviors required of employees in order to deliver the desired customer experience, top team establish a customer-centric culture. Additionally, they need to project confidence and optimism, create meaning and purpose, and earn trust by demonstrating care so that people will follow them. Bottomline, the top team needs to be the guardian of the organization’s culture.
- Constructing the Appropriate Ecosystems (Operational Agenda). In order to ensure that the strategic agenda becomes real, top teams need to create the conditions for execution, continuous improvement and renewal. They are responsible for making sure that structures, systems, and processes in their individual areas and across the enterprise are designed to make sure the most important work of the organization happens as effectively as possible. They oversee people, performance, communication, and work. They provide focus and direction, remove barriers, discuss the undiscussables, sponsor significant changes, and resolve conflicts. In doing so, they manage the execution agenda and help define 3 P’s (purpose, priorities, and pace).
Success Factors for Top Teams
This is difficult and challenging work. To be successful, they must stick together as a team. They must be present and available with each other, and their stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. They must be able to effectively balance the tensions between leading the whole organization and leading their individual function. As individuals they must be able to connect, communicate, nurture, deploy and follow-up.
The best top teams take collective responsibility and are able to challenge, maintain and improve their own effectiveness. They meet regularly and dedicate time to how they can improve. They have a clear purpose that guides them and motivates them individually and collectively. They attend to team governance by looking for ways to improve team processes to make sure they are getting the right things done. They build relationships that strengthen commitment to the overall team without avoiding challenging discussions. In sum, they are constantly learning and growing in their effectiveness as a team.
More clearly than any other team, the actions of top teams have a significant impact on value creation. RBL’s research shows that almost 1/3 of the decision to invest in an organization is based on investor confidence in leadership, driven significantly by their confidence in the quality of top team leadership. Even though each top team is unique, stakeholders inside and outside the organization are able to clearly see the differences in a great team compared to an average or poor team.
Senior leadership teams that actively work to become more Results-Based are able to build investor, customer, and employee confidence. More importantly, they deliver extraordinary results. When things are going great, these teams congratulate each other while simultaneously challenging each other to improve and reach new heights. When things are challenging, they encourage and challenge each other, coming up with solutions and paths forward they could not imagine on their own. Think about the last time you experienced this or saw your leadership team behave like this. Hopefully this is the reality in your organization right now.