Only the CEO can set the tone and tempo for the top team. If there are secrets, hidden agendas or delusions of grandeur, then you probably know who’s to blame. By contrast, if the senior executives support one another, are willing to share ideas and bound by a common goal beyond quarterly targets and personal ambition, there’s very little they won’t be able to achieve.
In some ways, the ultimate goal of a CEO should be to make themselves surplus to requirements. As steward of an organisation, their ideal legacy could be described as having forged a cohesive team that is relentless in its focus to do the best for its customers, employees and wider stakeholders. Plenty of barriers exist in terms of making this happen, such as:
• An over-riding fear of change, caused by insularity of thinking
• The senior leadership team failing to sufficiently challenge both each other and the CEO
• Executives ‘dropping down’ to address day-to-day issues, rather than thinking about the bigger picture
• Domineering, command and control style CEOs.
Susanna Dinnage, Executive Vice President and Managing Director for Discovery Networks UK & Ireland, comments: “Everyone needs to feel responsible and accountable. We should feel a sense of failure if someone says: ‘Well, this doesn’t involve my area, so I won’t provide input.’
“Executive teams are about collectively owning the direction and growth of the business. Responsibility for a functional area is a given – without the framework of a clear strategic direction you run the risk of silos, poor effectiveness and even dysfunction. A united and ambitious executive team is a huge competitive advantage.”
Steven Cooper, CEO for Personal Banking at Barclays, says: “If they don’t share the same goals and values, they won’t want to support each other, which is pretty unpleasant.
“If someone has strong values that aren’t aligned with the rest of the team then you probably need to remove them.”
Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye, says: “First and foremost comes the alignment of the executive team. They need that shared focus to motivate and bring them together.
“In the simplest terms, this will be to work together to deliver the strategy and achieve success for the business.”
The freedom to put across a different point of view cannot be underestimated. Paul Willis, Managing Director at Volkswagen Group UK, comments: “I’ve seen too many examples in businesses where people get wedded to their own ideas… They fall in love with them and nobody can say a bad word. That is not the sign of a high-performing team.”
There has to be two-way, open conversations. Beverley Eagle, Head of HR at Veolia Water Technologies, comments: “There are those who listen and those who wait to speak. You can see people who are desperate to get their point across and therefore they’re not really listening.
“People are put in an organisation because of their expertise and knowledge and therefore should be given the opportunity to express that. You need to utilise [everyone’s] skills and experience.”
The CEO has an ongoing responsibility to keep their senior team honest, making sure they are collaborative, willing to learn and ‘right’ for the business. Paul Matthews, Chief Executive for the UK & Europe at Standard Life, says: “A team needs a CEO who is focused on humility and long-term delivery… it means sometimes taking a step back and letting other people lead.
“Other times, when things are difficult and no one wants to put their head above the parapet, that is when a good leader [steps up]… It’s also [important to be] open when you are wrong.”
Sir Brian Bender, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of the London Metal Exchange, says: “There’s an assumption that if you pick a group of highly-motivated people, they will just work together well but actually we’re all different… you need to invest time in building the team.”
It’s hard work and takes excellent interpersonal skills. Steven says: “It comes down to understanding what’s going on, supporting each other and also having a bit of social time; being open and candid with each other.
“If you don’t share what’s going on, you end up in situations where people go off doing their own thing and keep it hidden. It’s not great from a business perspective and it’s a really unhealthy dynamic.”
Ultimately, building and developing the executive team is a constant work in progress. Vanda Murray, Criticaleye Board Mentor, Senior Independent Director at manufacturing company Fenner and Non-executive Director at distribution and outsourcing group Bunzl, says: “Getting the right team to deliver the strategy is a prerequisite to a successful outcome… strategies change and evolve, so you might need new skills along the way. In fact, it’s probably certain that you do."
If the leadership team is moving in the right direction, they will possess the ability to think about strategy and how the business can achieve its objectives faster.
In other words, what they’re supposed to do.
I hope to see you soon.