How to Keep an Executive Team on Track

Associations are most effective when the C-suite works together, but a recent study suggests divisiveness abounds. Shaking up meetings and prioritizing communication can help.

Teamwork makes the dream work, the saying goes. But sometimes teamwork itself can be a fantasy.

According to one recent study from the Bridgespan Group, C-suites are often divisive places: Only a fourth of executive team members say they agreed that their CEO “effectively addresses team dynamics and performance challenges.” Less than 20 percent say their team “focuses on the right work,” and only 17 percent agree that the time they spend in executive team meetings is used well.

The hours the executive team [spends] together are the most expensive on the payroll.

That has all kinds of negative consequences, of course: Infighting and disagreement can make organizations less agile and less capable of doing the progressive, productive things that truly matter for an organization. More pointedly for the CEO, though, failing to create cohesion within the executive team can erode the leader’s trust and authority.

“Managing an executive team effectively … requires that CEOs must understand their own decision-making style and preferences,” the study’s authors write. “Lack of clarity or inconsistency here can create problems for the team, such as when a CEO seems to guide a team toward a consensus decision only to exercise a pocket veto if the decision wasn’t what the CEO personally preferred.”

That’s not to say that senior VPs don’t have to take some ownership of the situation as well: The reason those cross-functional executive team meetings happen is because you want to bust silos and identify interdependencies, and meetings aren’t useful if those relationships aren’t discussed. Moreover, the study’s authors write, the executive team plays a critical role in sorting through priorities to figure out what issues merit attention and action. As they point out, “the hours the executive team [spends] together are the most expensive on the payroll.”

The communication problem may be particularly acute when an organization is in transition. Leaders get used to a particular management style from one executive, and it can be hard to shift a mindset with a new one. Beth Brooks, CAE, discussed this with me about boards last week for my story on the leadership turmoil at USA Gymnastics, but that can be just as true with senior VPs who’ve grown comfortable with the prior exec.

Some of a team’s issues may be built into its structure: A lack of diversity can create a homogeneity that gets things done but also has plenty of blind spots, and often important voices aren’t included in the mix of executive teams. (Around 20 percent of those surveyed don’t agree that their teams have the right perspectives and competencies.) But resolving those problems often comes down to communication: A third of respondents say that meeting time isn’t used effectively, and more than half say that outcomes from executive team meetings aren’t well-communicated.

To counteract that, it may help to tinker with what your meeting processes look like, from changing up the duration and location of meetings, to better preparation, to making sure that they end with clear decisions made. And though everybody has input in that process, the study ultimately pinpoints the CEO as the person who needs to make sure change happens. The authors identify six dynamics that the leader needs to support: shared ownership, trust, constructive conflict, collaboration, accountability, and equity and inclusion. While the entire team ought to embrace those dynamics, it’s “a process the CEO leads and models.”

The good news for the harried CEO is that more productive leadership of a team means you may have more capacity and trust to delegate responsibilities without abdicating your own authority. Giving executive team members opportunities to “steward” matters such as budgeting or talent development can shore up the kind of communication a team requires and give senior leaders more leadership experience.

All of which is a good thing—if everybody is willing to come to the table to talk about it.

How do you fend off dysfunction within the senior leadership team at your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

(viafilms/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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