BEING on an executive team or WORKING together on an effective executive team?

BEING in an executive team or WORKING together in an effective executive team?

Kristina Vallin

BEING in an executive team or WORKING together in an effective executive team?

Kristina Vallin

My early perception of executive teamwork might have been somewhat naive; to collectively create innovation, future visions, results for the ENTIRE company. To collaborate deeply with each other and be inspired by different perspectives, fostering effective executive teamwork. And indeed – there have been some really nice glimpses of that, but mostly I’ve been SITTING in the executive team. Not WORKING together, using our full potential as a team. Most of the time has been long stretches of very low contact and collaboration between the different parts of the group. Executive teamwork as a veritable reporting bunker instead of the collaborative and effective team that an executive group should strive to be.

Effective executive teamwork

Here are three puzzle pieces that effectively develop executive teamwork. These have truly helped me, both as a member of the executive team and in my role as a consultant helping executive teams to develop further. Puzzle pieces that move executive teams from being decisions concerning Christmas parties and reporting on own KPI:s, to strategic collaboration champions with responsibility for the whole.

Essentially, there are three questions that need to be answered; Why? What? and How?

Why does the executive team exist?

An exercise we at Doings usually do to sharpen the question of why the executive team (or the organization/team/business area/product/brand) exists, we call “R.I.P. The Executive Team”. A somewhat macabre title perhaps, but oh so effective as an exercise. It involves the group members putting words to what would be missing in the organization if the executive team disappeared right now.

The answers to the question can range from clear strategic leadership to cultural role models or enablers. In the next step, the group reflects on whether this is a desired or actual image. If it is desired (which it usually is), then the work is to define the steps to get there. A first puzzle piece in executive teamwork is now laid.

What is your common mission in the executive team?

I am still amazed at how many people never consider what the common mission of the executive team is and where it comes from. If you ask the question about the mission in an executive team, you will probably get almost as many answers as there are members.

In most cases, the executive team describes its mission based on the sum of the individual members’ different roles and missions. 1+1=2. And that is usually how incentive structures are built – to reward silo structures rather than the whole. This means in practice that the individual needs to report on the KPIs they are measured against.

But that is just part of the truth. The other part, and in the context of executive teams, the superior one, is the role as an executive team’s member. It’s something else and more, where 1+1= 33. It’s a role and mission where everyone wears the company hat (the whole), and where my own area (the part) is not primary. And how do you define that mission? It’s valuable to truly formulate the common mission in writing.

The executive team’s agenda

A corporate leadership has a responsibility for the whole, which also defines which issues should be on the agenda. Is this the forum for the Christmas party or rather for the overall culture? Can you critically look ahead? I.e., can you kill your darlings if it turns out to be a successful strategy for the whole company in the future? How do you view your brand and where it’s heading? I.e., how do you want current and future customers and employees to perceive you, and what can you as an executive team give each other to succeed as a whole?

When the agenda reflects the strategic level you as an executive team want to be at – then you have the second puzzle piece in place.

How do you create the results you want?

Who hasn’t been in a situation where awkward silence appears when someone challenges a bit too much, or just speaks their mind? Or, in the worst case, ridicule, rolling eyes, and deep sighs over that annoying person who never just goes along but always has objections or new perspectives.

A secure and stable executive team with the ability to handle disagreements in substance and make good use of each other’s different personalities also becomes a catalyst for results and a secure, creative, and productive organization. The executive team is literally always on stage. And the more openly you stand together and not as solo singers – the clearer you become as role models. So, it matters A LOT how you communicate within the group and outwardly in the organization. And the foundation of that lies within your effective executive teamwork.

Ground rules

A success factor for working with the “how”: i.e., articulated expectations you have of each other in meetings and in communication, is to define your ground rules. It’s a process that requires facilitated dialogue with both reflection, discussion, and decision-making. It can be difficult to see and articulate your own group’s dynamics and to facilitate them when you are a member of the group. Seeking help from a team coach or leadership developer in this process is recommended. Research shows that executive teams that seek support in this process significantly improve their effectiveness.

Ground rules are about ensuring that the culture you want the organization to have, also is reflected in the executive team’s collaboration. And culture is simply how you behave towards each other. So, ground rules are the set of behaviors you agree should apply for your effective executive teamwork, so that you live as you pray.  Et voilà – puzzle piece number three in place! Now you’ve come a long way to get a much more enjoyable, maybe even joyful, collaboration in the executive team.

How do you do it?

Don’t set too many ground rules at the beginning, a handful may suffice. Some tips on ground rules and advice along the way:

  • In the beginning, maybe it’s about hygiene factors in meeting habits? Such as prioritizing your meetings, being present, letting the phone be silent and off, and being well-informed about the topics to be discussed, etc.
  • Ensure to discuss your communication on topics like which platforms to use for what topics, when you can expect responses from each other, how you handle urgencies et c. Also, discuss whether you should be expected to be online 24/7 or if there should be limitations. As mentioned, you’re building a culture for the entire company in how you behave in the executive group – so be mindful and diligent about what you create together.
  • Ground rules mean nothing if they’re not followed up. Follow-up creates security! You must be able to give each other quick and constructive feedback when someone doesn’t play by your rules. And perhaps most importantly – heaps of positive feedback when you see someone struggling with a behavior and making progress.
  • After a while when the ground rules are in place, it’s time to add new ones. Ground rules are alive and should evolve with you as a team. Maybe now you’ve come more to the level of how you treat each other? Maybe the ground rules are now about using your curiosity instead of your preconceived ideas? To use trust before control? To give feedback after each agenda item or meeting, etc.

Do you still think this sounds like a big challenge for your group? Don’t be a stranger – we’ll show you how we can coach your executive team on these issues. It’s fun, challenging, but above all, effective!

Kristina Vallin

Kristina Vallin