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Are You Ready for a Working Team of Executives? 

How It Usually Goes


Executive teams meet regularly, have discussions and update one another. The atmosphere is pretty good, but it is clear this is just a status meeting.  Usually boring, these are certainly not about joint decision making. It is clear that members have their own positions and responsibilities.


The highest-ranking executive is ultimately responsible, and targets help if he or she wants to settle something individually. Members respect the others yet concentrate as much as possible on their own affairs. 


But what happens when coordination is needed within the chain?  Is it necessary to strengthen cooperation?


Team development at this level rarely gets priority. But the moment a system-wide need or crisis appears—when you realize it will be irresponsible to assign it to a single executive—the organization requires an integrated, attuned executive team.  But will it be there to shape the future of the organization?


Complexity, Accountability and Crisis


In practice, critical issues are handled one of three ways:


  1. The executive does it all, using other executives individually and only as needed.


  1. The executive creates a task force with other executives, where they meet as professionals and give advice.  But each executive remains responsible for his or her own team.


  1. The key executive and the other executives form a team. In this team they share commitment and accountability for shaping the strategy and achieving the results of the organization. There is more equality and less jockeying for position.


Increasing complexity demands strong and powerful cooperation at the top.  When tops are isolated from one another they become less flexible, more pulled apart from one another, less able to sense the environment and respond appropriately.  That’s why it seems that there are more crises today.  A narrower view makes it easier to be shaken and fearful.  Integrated, the executive team strengthens.



What Else Is Possible


But this requires a different kind of work. It becomes paramount that team members know each other's strengths and weaknesses, personality traits, motivations and moods. While ego is hardest to beat back, the creation of strong integration practices and new meeting and informing habits can lessen the impact.


Executives are often rational. They talk about emotional intelligence (EI), but they do nothing more than manage processes, control projects or even attempt to control their control. Feelings and emotions are hardly mentioned. Until something goes wrong.  And then we find out that everyone—from colleagues and employees, to suppliers and customers--shows up with lots of feeling and emotion.  Because now they are threatened or angry.  So, emotion matters after all.


How about a different approach—one where we admit that emotions count and deal with them up-front?  A high-functioning executive team develops and works their EI.  They evolve into a team that can reflect on the behavior of one another, cope with diverse agendas and deal with the wide variety of informal roles that are present— Who is the fighter? The jester? The victim, prosecutor, savior or provocateur?   This, in turn, makes them more capable to guide and shape the interests and needs of all their other stakeholders.


A well-functioning team is aware of its past, because history delivers—in the course of time—specific group myths.  This forms the basis for that collective WE feeling. These business myths, even in the form of gossip, can be extremely influential. They contribute to the maintenance of a particular social order.  And people watch.  So how the executive team behaves can make or break a company culture and ultimately, its performance


How do you give shape to executive team development?


To develop an executive team with a high EI it is important that the team members go out together on research adventures and walk unknown roads with each other. Some of this is self-research, so that eventually team members understand the behavior of their colleagues better.


As the picture suggests, this effort focuses on integration.  It is the willingness to cross boundaries, learn from one another and shape the direction together.


Some of this is eco-system research—where all executives probe more deeply into how the outside environment works and how that shapes their own work. By connecting the dots, there is less isolation, more strength and a stronger base to work from.


How do you make this happen?


  • By sharing life stories in which meaning is given to the way a team member is behaving in the group


  • By walking trails that lie beyond the obvious


  • By paying attention to the pain in the team's system


  • By revealing what sits under the waterline and is not directly visible—but can bring negative impact on the team’s performance


These efforts can be shaped in two ways


  1. Changing the routine practices of the how executives meet and work together.  In particular, this means adding time to develop, to reflect, to guide and to shape.


  1. Engaging in group processes that continually emphasize and develop the relationship side of the work


A few sample interventions:


  • Retreats outside the door (reflecting, entering the depth, gaining insights)


  • Coaching


  • Large group meetings that bring people from all sides of a challenge together


  • Case clinics—frameworks for conducting peer-to-peer coaching that deepen relationships and reveal unseen opportunities


The Bottom Line

The executive has to want to.  This takes a shift in attitude and desire on the part of the executive team to do things differently. 


There are other ways to run a business besides the hierarchical methods we have been using for the past hundred years.  It takes guts, but maybe more than that, it takes reaching a breaking point where the executive team knows their current approach is busted, broken. 


That’s the time to consider reinventing your organization, starting with how your executive team works.

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