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The Executive Team: Colleagues or Competitors?

When someone asks you about your team, who do you think they’re referring to?  Probably the people that report to you, right?  But what if I were to suggest a different definition?  What if I were to suggest that your team, the one you should think of first and the one that should get your greatest loyalty, is the team you’re ON – the executive team?

I’ve had the opportunity lately to work with the executive teams of several large, very successful organizations, and I’ve noticed something that, to me, is a disturbing common thread.  While their behaviour in executive team meetings is polite, while they cooperate when required and deliver when expected, they don’t connect.  Their interactions are sanitized, orderly, “nice.”  They don’t get messy, they don’t drop their guard.  They don’t challenge each other for the good of the business. They don’t seek to understand each other. And they don’t have each others’ backs.

I think that most people who work in organizations really want to believe that their leaders are a dynamic, committed, cohesive group of talented executives driving forward together to ensure the business grows and prospers and is resilient against all possible threats.  And, to be fair, those sorts of executive teams do exist – and the performance of their organizations reflects that cohesiveness.

The executive team that tolerates each other is more common, in my experience, yet toleration is not sufficient for high performance.  In good times there’s a missed opportunity in having just a surface level, polite and collegial relationship amongst the top leaders of a company as opposed to a committed, trusting, respectful connectedness.  When the going gets tough, though, you need to know who you can count on – and the entire team needs to think and move as one, totally aligned and focused on a common objective.  Turf wars, grudges and personality clashes just have no place whatsoever in a team responsible for the success of an enterprise and the livelihood of its employees.

Look around you.  Do you trust your executive teammates?  Do you know who’d have your back in a crisis, and for whom you’d return the favor?  If the relationship with your executive team colleagues is more toleration than inspiration, what’s in the way of kicking it up a notch?

For perspective on team dynamics and performance, check out “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni, or “Dramatic Success! – Theatre Techniques to Transform and Inspire” by Andrew Leigh and Michael Maynard.

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