Your Executive Team: The Business Accelerator Hiding in Plain Sight
These are difficult times. While change is always with us, its velocity seems to be accelerating amidst an economy doing us no favors and a...
These are difficult times. While change is always with us, its velocity seems to be accelerating amidst an economy doing us no favors and a world buffeted by political, cultural, and demographic shifts. Digital transformation is upending traditional business models and finding the right talent continues to be a struggle that negatively impacts employees and customers alike. It’s difficult to survive in this environment, much less thrive.
I’ve never met a board member, CEO, or president, though, who is satisfied with survival. It’s simply not enough – you want your legacy to be one of positive impact for those you serve, for the colleagues who have tied their livelihoods to your company, for owners (be they public or private), and for communities who depend on your services and products. You want to thrive.
Thriving requires a continual re-evaluation of strategy and execution. It demands a steady eye on the future, along with the willingness and wherewithal to define and move toward it. At the same time, thriving requires the discipline to live in the present to ensure your team members, customers, and broader constituencies are readying themselves for the “next” in the midst of the “now.”
However, the realities of the present often cloud the path to the future. If your situation is compounded by significant financial challenges, it often means driving a turnaround. And turnarounds are usually accompanied by painful choices needed to move from floundering to survival, a necessary step before thriving is possible. When faced with challenges of this magnitude, most CEOs take a close, hard look at their executive talent. They wonder if they have the right leaders to manage capital in a capital-scarce environment, to improve profitability, and to make the difficult choices to ensure the viability of the enterprise.
I would suggest these questions need to be revised with an eye to the future:
- Do I have the leaders needed to rethink the strategy as we stabilize?
- Do the people around the executive table have the skills and experience required in a landscape that will be different than the one they expected?
- Do we have the mix of leadership and talent to simultaneously manage the present and transform for the future?
- Are individual leaders willing to leave the comfort of the known shore in order to find a new land, realizing that “what got them here, won’t get them there”?
While these questions are necessary, they’re not sufficient. I’ve observed that too many CEOs don’t consistently look beyond the individual executives to the executive team as a whole and ask: Is my executive team as aligned as we need to be?
You may be the CEO or board member asking these questions. Let me suggest that – especially in difficult business conditions – you need not only the right executives but also a cohesive leadership team that is aligned in three key areas:
1. Define the most critical, collective priorities for the executive team as a whole
Most CEOs look at me funny when I raise this, sure that their executives are clear on the organization’s “must-win battles.” When they ask each executive, though, to describe what those priorities are and how the executive team is driving them (without reference to a document), they usually uncover some gray areas. Often, they find that each executive on the team is crystal clear on their individual business priorities, those aligned with their individual area of responsibility (or “day job”). They’re usually pretty clear on the overall strategic priorities, too, especially if they’re preparing for or just finishing up with strategic planning or a board retreat.
What tends to be less clear is what the executive team must collectively prioritize – even if it means individual executive priorities may be delayed, canceled, or otherwise negatively impacted. And the decision rights that define how those trade-offs get made are usually implicit (which means everyone on the team has a different expectation, leading to frustration when those expectations aren’t met). As a result, each executive on your team tends to believe – understandably – their priorities are most important. Compounding the issue is that every one of your driven executives has a list of priorities that, added up, make for a very long list of organizational goals.
Do the work, first, of clarifying the most critical priorities for the enterprise and, second, how you want to leverage the team as a whole to work on them. Do you want your team to make decisions, including trade-off decisions, or do you simply want their input and counsel on specific topics, with decisions handled by a smaller sub-group? There isn’t a “right answer” here: it depends very much on your business context and strategy, your leadership style, and your team.
A brief case study: One new CEO my colleagues and I worked with was clearly facing a turnaround in the business. He had made some changes to the executive team, bringing in new people (both internal and external), and wanted his executive team to be defining the strategy in order to prioritize enterprise focus during the storm. He also wanted them to be making decisions about trade-offs between parts of the business as their strategy evolved. This was a vastly different approach than his predecessor, who preferred to ask the team for input and then finalize the strategy with a small group, informing the team afterward; the previous CEO also kept financial trade-off decisions almost purely between him, his CFO, and the board. By changing the work of the team, the new CEO fundamentally changed how the team, as a whole, spent its collective time: both in meetings and outside of them, they now focused on the strategic priorities they had aligned on and made decisions accordingly.
Clarifying business priorities and implications for the entire leadership team essentially creates a “job description” for the team – and therefore defines the role of “executive team member,” which is usually fuzzy for executives focused on their individual accountabilities. Clarity on the “day job” doesn’t unleash the power of the team’s collective intelligence; they need also to understand the role they play as a member of the executive team. Working with your team to make this part of the executive job description clear creates a common understanding that, once established, enables faster and more effective decision-making.
2. Clarify implications for leadership behavior
When the work of the team changes, the behavior of each team member must change, too. The new CEO introduced above very consciously refocused his executive team members on the enterprise as a whole, above and beyond their area of responsibility. He changed the name of the Executive Leadership Team to the Enterprise Leadership Team and, during an alignment session with WittKieffer, engaged the team in aligning both on the work of the team and on setting and committing to team behaviors that would enable that work.
Culturally, this was a big shift. Many executives on the Enterprise Leadership Team were accustomed to discussions with the previous CEO only about their business area. A bit of an autocrat, he did not take kindly to bad news – so people were slow to tell him. Trust on the previous team was low, as executives learned that challenge and questions were not welcome (not that anyone ever said that, mind you, but the signals that disrupt psychological safety are easy to feel). Now, when the business was shifting its business strategy amid a turnaround, the new CEO was adamant that “bad news didn’t get better with time” and, instead, each executive was expected, encouraged, and celebrated for speaking honestly, seeking advice and help, and supporting one another.
This was a tall order for a team accustomed to self-protection. In addition to establishing team behaviors through facilitated discussion during a workshop, executives also spent time to better understand one another on two levels. As business leaders, they invested time to understand the challenges and opportunities in each part of the business – areas they’d been blind to in the previous regime, where each executive led their area but only the CEO had visibility into the whole of the business. However, to foster the trust needed to deliver on the work of the team, executives also needed to understand one another as human beings. Team members committed to – and followed up on – regular informal discussions with one another to deepen interpersonal understanding and deepen the connections begun in team off-sites.
3. Align on communication
Human beings are wired to pay attention to social dynamics – noticing and adjusting to signals sent (often unconsciously) by those in “power” meant the difference between life and death in days of old. In difficult times, when those around you (be they in your workplace, your network, or your industry) are facing job losses or restructuring, we pay attention as though it were life-threatening. Change and disruption, in times like these, are scary even for those who typically enjoy it. Expect the antennae that pick up even the faintest whiff of danger to be alert.
All too often, the executive team sends messages that are slightly – or very – different. These differences get noticed and interpreted as misalignment on the leadership team. When this occurs, a critical sense of stability (“Well, I’m not sure what’s happening, but the leadership team seems to know what it’s doing”) is lost and the antennae sharpen further. People begin to compare notes and a dangerous cycle begins: people focus more time trying to figure out what’s happening inside the organization than on driving positive outcomes by focusing outside, on customers and competitors.
The power dynamic is different, but the same phenomenon occurs between the board and the executive team, especially in difficult times. As your executive team interacts with the board, are they hitting on similar themes? Are they demonstrating awareness of enterprise priorities and clarity on how they support it, both individually and collectively? Signs of alignment (or misalignment) emerge both in formal board meetings and, even more so, during informal discussions over meals – and the board notices. Alignment builds confidence and support; misalignment breeds doubt and skepticism.
Once your team has done the work on strategic priorities as well as implications for where the team spends its time and how team members interact, aligning on communication is fairly straightforward. The CEO mentioned above took 30 minutes, at the end of longer meetings, to ask the team three questions: What did we decide? What are our next steps (who, what, by when)? What will we communicate? This discipline ensures alignment, execution, and the ability to truly communicate with one voice. At the board session in which the CEO and his executive team shared both their strategy and the turnaround plan (a hard message for any board to hear), executives were so aligned they could speak not only to their own priorities and how they impacted the organization but also to each other’s priorities. They demonstrated confidence in one another, and in the power of the team, both in their formal and informal interactions. The alignment on the executive team gave the board faith that the team not only knew what they needed to do, but that they could execute on the strategy the board approved.
During difficult business cycles, there’s no time to waste; therefore, some leaders decide executive team development is optional. Doing the work of alignment with your executive team, ironically, is more important during disruption, because it accelerates decision-making and execution. It builds muscle too, enabling executives to understand their roles within the context of the enterprise, to appreciate the roles of others, and to make decisions quickly. These muscles are also required to execute strategy, accelerate growth, and embrace innovation – leverage the discipline required in a downturn to build the strength the team will need as you grow and evolve. Finally, executive team alignment reaps an unexpected benefit: engaging your team differently makes the lonely job of CEO far less isolated. You’re not alone – you’re in it with a team that can accelerate performance, has one another’s back, and has yours. Taking the time to get this alignment right – especially in the three key areas outlined here – enables the speed your organization must demonstrate to move from surviving to thriving.
Susan M. Snyder is Executive Partner, Leadership Advisory, for the executive search and advisory firm WittKieffer.