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Speak to chief execs about what makes an effective leadership team and they’ll say that you need mutual respect, trust and for each member to present a united front externally, even if there may be discontent behind closed doors. Obviously, results make a huge difference too.

It falls on the shoulders of the chief exec to create the right dynamic. John Park, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for UK&I at McDonald’s, comments: “A strong team starts with the leader. You have to know that you’ve got the right CEO, who has… a clear vision and… the whole team behind them.” 

Brian May, Finance Director at Bunzl, agrees wholeheartedly. “Leadership is very important for a world-class team. You can have the best players but if you haven’t got the best manager you generally don’t win anything,” he says.

In the top team, attitude and dedication are as important as ability. Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS, says: “There is no point in having someone who is on there because they thought it might be interesting or they fancied a change. They have to be passionate about the area they are responsible for.” 

According to Martin, the highest performing teams he’s seen are the ones that keep building on their success and have the hunger to achieve more. “It gives everybody confidence. It gives them the ability to push forward and once you’ve got that momentum it’s very hard to stop. And that’s exactly what you want.” 

However, alignment among execs mustn’t be confused with a state of harmonious agreement. Paul Lester, Chairman of Essentra, says that, when the mix is right, “there should be no fear of sensible challenge in any meeting, whether it’s the whole team, part of it, or face to face”. 

Lively debate is essential in any top team, says John. “There absolutely has to be that challenge of each other around the table, but you need to know that once you step outside that room you are pulling in the same direction.” 

Planning for the Future 

In a poll conducted by Criticaleye at our CEO Retreat, attendees identified a lack of time spent discussing strategy as the primary reason for failure in the leadership team. This was followed – perhaps unsurprisingly – by a lack of alignment on commercial objectives.

Phillippa Crookes, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, works closely with leadership teams to look at ways to ensure execs are not overly inward-looking. “A lack of strategic thinking can usually be attributed to the pressure of hitting quarterly targets, as well as a basic lack of bandwidth. 

“However, it is something that needs to be addressed and the CEO, with the support of the board, must find time for the senior leadership team to sit down and discuss the forward agenda and build alignment around it. Failure to do this exposes an organisation to serious risk.”

Susan Martindale, Group HR Director at Mitchells & Butlers, notes that it’s up the chief exec to demonstrate that strategic thinking is a priority. She explains: “The CEO has an enormous responsibility to do that. The HRD can help in terms of looking at the options available to build the strategic capability of the wider exec team.

“I really do think that the CEO needs to create the space and the environment that enables you to get away from the day job and think about where the business is going and what it needs to achieve over the next two to three years.”

Andy Clarke, Chairman of Spoon Guru and former CEO of Asda, states that strategy is vital but 90 percent of the focus needs to be on execution. “With my team [at Asda], I looked for that strategic content from all of my board members. Some of them were more strategic than others and, frankly, when there was need for additional support then we brought it in.”

For Dave Newborough, speaking about his former role as HR Director at E.ON UK, strategic capability in an organisation was directly related to leadership. He explains that a lot of effort was put into building this out, so people understood that successful leadership was about being a great coach, walking the talk – so you’re authentic in your behaviour and values – and identifying and developing other great people. 

Indeed, the most progressive organisations are the ones that are always thinking about the next generation of leaders to come through the ranks. 

These comments are taken from two Criticaleye films: What makes a successful leadership team? and Developing the strategic capabilities of the executive team. For more of our films about leadership and performance, click here

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