Why Certain Executive Teams Fail

By Joe Connelly

Products are becoming more complex, services more demanding, timescales ever shortening, and pressure on Executive Teams at an all-time high. And it does not look it will be changing anytime soon.

Owners and board of directors choose a CEO of the company, and then it’s their responsibility to construct a world-class executive management team that will create a winning strategy and execute it flawlessly. Quite the job, and it certainly takes a special breed of person to actively seek out a CEO position in today’s “instant results” economy.

There are many CEO’s who seem to effortlessly handle the day-to-day challenges of all stakeholders and thrive under the constant pressure. They are strategy aficionados, expert tacticians, and more importantly they know how to attract and maximize the performance of a highly talented executive management team. They have the insight to manage the many different personalities and skills sets of financial wizards, marketing mavericks, technology pioneers, sales drivers and human resource architects.

When a team is firing on all cylinders it is a force of nature – things magically get done and get done very well. If you have ever been part of a team like this you will know the feeling of effortlessness that appears – great results are achieved, within a well architected but free-flowing company environment. Everyone seems to know their place, their responsibilities, and everyone are playing to the strengths of the individuals, while still aligning for the greater good.

A past colleague once likened it to all the members of the Executive Team in a 100 meters race, but instead of trying to win the race, each member races down the track at the same speed, with nobody ahead and nobody behind – all cylinders of the Executive engine firing equally well at the same time and finishing together.

For every brilliant executive team there are many that are less than brilliant, and in fact many teams begin to slowly break apart inch-by-inch until changes are pro-actively or reactively required. Sometimes, changes are not made, which reduces the cohesiveness and ability of the entire organization. I am sure you know from your own experience companies who have collapsed due to management intransigence. So what are the typical reasons for Executive Team break-up and what are some of the well-practiced tips and tricks that a CEO can employ to create a winning Executive Team:

Hire the Best. Resist the urge to hire people because they are cheap or because you think you know better than them. Instead hire the best, most-experienced person you can afford who has skills and knowledge that you don’t have. Ensure they are individually strong in their area of responsibility, and are good team players. Everyone will likely have a strong character at this level so ensure that their ego is not bigger than their position.

Develop a Winning Strategy. A strategy should be created with input from everyone on the team, even if much debate and review are required. All members of the team must sign up to this strategy exactly as agreed, with no dissenters or “side projects” undertaken. Synergy is created, momentum developed and performance driven through everyone working together to a common plan. I cannot tell you how many times I have worked as part of an Executive Team where there is some degree of misalignment. Quash this and win as a team.

Create an Accountability Framework. This is necessary to ensure each department, Executive and major strategic objective are being actioned and delivered as required. Accountability should be viewed as a positive and necessary aspect to high-performance, and not as a punitive or micro-management approach to leadership. Proper accountability once instituted, can provide early warning systems to pro-actively alert management to certain challenges, and allow crucial time to put fixes in place so overall goals and performance are not impacted.

Let Executives Have Their Say. Often the best ideas come from other departments or through team brainstorming. Encourage everyone to have his or her say. Don’t let the “talkers” take control and hog the direction of the company. Strength comes from the multiple opinions, debated openly, and the best ones chosen no matter the source. Have a decision-making methodology that is clear – the best teams today seem to operate with consensus decision-making, but when that is not possible then the CEO stepping forward to make the decision. As an old CEO colleague once said “a plan is the plan until the plan changes.”

Live the Company Values. Values are often described as the hidden-DNA of a company, however more appropriately should be referred to as the ”highly visible, always transparent, most-often used tenets of a company” both internally and externally. Executive Teams will encounter frequent and unusual tests around values. As an organization gains momentum and starts rapidly growing, theses tests come even faster. It is paramount that the values are upheld as consistently as possible by all, since the slightest deviation can signal the start of significant challenges ahead.

Construct a Transparency Model. High-performing executive teams operate with total transparency. This sounds cool in theory but practice can be daunting. An accountability model as described earlier is certainly key, but so too is pro-actively discussing the real challenges within the team in a highly timely manner. If there is “an elephant in the room” then transparency is not being followed. No matter how big the elephant might be, even an elephant can be eaten one bite at a time. Proper transparency and accountability systems will allow individuals to see for themselves whenever they are letting the side down. Often times a little extra help from the team will allow the individual to be get back on an even-keel again.

Commiserate and Celebrate as a Team. You won’t often hear this advice but it is vital. Teams that stay together for a period of time will no doubt witness the highs and lows of business. The best Executive Teams will always take ownership of a challenge together, and know that public acknowledgement of a failure can be the best way to steel an organization for greater longer-term success. These organizations also know that opportunities should be sought to celebrate together, since a dynamic begins to form unconsciously amongst a team that truly believes it is winning – confidence increases, teamwork flows more easily, and a raw belief shown that is necessary to win against the competition. So, celebrate often and celebrate as a team – it’s contagious.

Executive Management is a team sport. Respect, listen and challenge your colleagues. Debate enthusiastically, but agree with commitment. Live the values of your company completely. Help other team members as they navigate their own challenges. Put consistent effort to developing and growing the team spirit, capability and performance. But most of all enjoy the rare feeling that arises when an Executive is in full flow – hitting or beating budgets, creating and delivering exciting products and services, having fun and excitement, and ultimately giving your life and the life other even more meaning.

Joe Connelly is Founder & CEO of Salesleadership.com, a worldwide Executive Sales Coaching and Consultancy company, with offices in Canada and Switzerland. Joe can be reached at [email protected]