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If your executive team are currently not performing as a cohesive team, it could be that the team isn’t a team at all. Dr Jacqueline Conway explains how the creation of a team purpose can act as a north star for your executive team’s focus and structure.

The organisational peak is a perilous environment. It is more complex and challenging than anything that has gone before. And consequently, both executive tenure and corporate longevity are decreasing. To survive and thrive at the perilous peak, executive leaders need to balance their functional leadership, a focus on execution with enterprise leadership, that is ensuring the organisation adapts in our new world. That is what we will be exploring in the Advanced Executive Leadership podcast. Welcome. I’m your host Jacqueline Conway. I’m the Founder and Managing Director of Walden Croft, a consulting practice dedicated to helping Executives and Executive teams anticipate, navigate and lead at the perilous peak.


Have you ever worked in an organisation where people in the senior team are more competitive and collaborative? I know I certainly have, and it’s not uncommon to see each functional area or business unit operating independently inside an organisation. I think we can all probably accept that, and this isn’t a judgement about relationships or communication, because even when colleagues and an executive get along pretty well, the team may not be working as a cohesive whole. Even in teams where people like and respect each other, we oftentimes see executives competing for resources, prioritising their team and their team’s goals over other functional areas and at worst cases leaving their colleagues kind of fairly high and dry in times of crisis.


You typically see this at budget time where there’s a sort of scrum for resources, and you can always tell how cohesive an executive team is by the extent to which they are prepared to make budget decisions based on what the organisation needs, so taking up their enterprise role so rather than looking after their functional area as their major priority, first and foremost. There are many reasons why executive teams don’t perform to their highest collective potential.


But underlying most of those reasons is a fairly single straightforward root cause that we’ve seen, and that’s that the team isn’t a team at all. Instead, they are an executive team in name, they are a group of individuals who each report to the same leader, the chief executive but they meet only to provide status updates on their individual areas.


We hear time and again of the dreaded deck, other people heads of service putting together a PowerPoint deck and entire executive team meetings taken up with people coming in and presenting to the executive team. There’s maybe some conversation, but not much and out they go again and someone else is wheeled in and there’s very little space for really deep discussion and conversation at the point at which the executive would be able to make the best contribution before the person has been sent off to put together this deck. So that’s one of the things that we see and what it’s symptomatic of is that the team simply don’t see their work as inherently interdependent


This may have worked fairly well in simpler times, but in today’s complex world where businesses operate in highly networked and interdependent systems, a top team that doesn’t function well as a cohesive whole and who are not agile and resilient and responsive to shifts and threat in the environment are really not fit for purpose in the kind of disruption that we are experiencing in todays world.


In turn, the executive teams who best harness collective intelligence in the pursuit of organisational problem solving are the ones who know that they’re in it together that do this work together. Time and again, we see greater business success and leadership effectiveness in the executive teams who behave as a holistic entity rather than a collection of subparts. And if you recognise this competing type of behaviour, this siloed look and feel in the executive team in in your own team. You may be wondering, well, how can I shift this towards a more productive and cohesive whole? And invariably the answer is first and foremost to create a shared team purpose, not to be mistaken from an organisational purpose, a team purpose is really an articulation of what this team is here to accomplish for the organisation and it constitutes the things that the executive team does collectively that no other team in the organisation could or will do. It’s really the main reason why the executive team exists as a as an entity. Let me give you an example. One globally dispersed executive team that I worked with got really highly disciplined around their purpose. We worked with them. It was a new team being set-up and they got really disciplined about it and as a group their focus was much more on strategy than execution and they decided that their team purpose sat in four areas. These were first of all around culture, so they said that they were going to design and promote an enlivening culture.


The next was around strategy, so they said they were going to create and course correct the strategy. Next was around stakeholders and for that they said they were going to build and maintain great stakeholder relationships. lastly it was about performance and managing performance and they said they would measure and manage performance.


So that’s a highly disciplined team purpose of just four things that that executive team saw as absolutely core to what they were there to accomplish for and on behalf of the organisation and having defined their purpose, the team then structured their collective tasks and set its agenda for when that team were together and they were meeting in person or virtually and defined the measures for tracking their performance against that particular purpose.


Each team purpose is different. That’s just one example, but the discipline of doing that work helps the team divest itself of all of the extraneous activities and tasks that are taking up the executive team’s time and is typically why they would see they simply don’t have time to do anymore. When we look under the bonnet of that, that’s very often because the things that they are doing is work that can be done elsewhere in the organisation, typically by their heads of service in their functional areas and in other teams and groups within the organisation. If you think that this is something that your executive team would potentially benefit from and I have seen there being benefit in every single executive team I’ve worked with, they have found benefit in this in this process. Then let me just talk to you around some of the steps that you would need to adopt in order to help you determine and clarify your teams purpose.


First of all, determine what kind of team you need to be. In the example I gave earlier that was a group executive team so there was wholly owned subsidiaries within that group and some of the leaders of those who wholly owned subsidiaries were sitting on that executive team. In effect, they had our responsibility for a separate organisation as well as their executive team purpose. The type of team that they wanted to be was very high level and overseeing the same executive director sitting within their own organisation their wholly owned subsidiary organisation might have quite a different sort of purpose, because they’re more into the day-to-day of things. So first you need to determine what kind of team do you need to be.


Are you a strategic decision-making team? Are you focused on governance and oversight or are you a monitoring type team? And then I would encourage you to outline the core areas and activities that the team needs to do together to accomplish your role. It shouldn’t be in large part someone else is remit it should be the things that span all of the remits within the room.


Then I would suggest you identify the interdependencies amongst those team members. Where is collaboration central to the team achieving its purpose? What leadership functions require all the leaders to be at the table?


Create a list of decisions and actions that you want your team to achieve. These should be the mission critical things that can only be done by the executive team.


The next thing I would say about your purpose when you start to define what that might be, is to make sure that it is both clear and consequential, so the most effective top teams, their purpose is really super clear and the clarity comes from both brevity and simplicity, so making it brief makes your team much more likely to be able to remember it on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t have to be etched into a glass wall somewhere in a conference room that frankly, nobodys at  anyway, because we’re all at home.


Making it simple means that the team does the difficult work, the deep thinking beneath this simplicity up front. Very often the simplicity that comes out from the work that we do, the statement that seems fairly straightforward and simple belies deep, meaningful conversations that have gone on before, but the simplicity means that we’ve been able to condense that into something that’s meaningful for everyone.


That’s the clear part of clear and consequential. The next is consequential. It should outline which activities are the main job of the executive team, not the side job of those executives, when their individual functional roles are done because the team members need to see the purpose as the best way to achieve their individual and collective goals and those of the organisation. They really ought to see that as the primary reason that they exist in the organisation, the main way that they add value to the organisation. Now that’s not to say that team members ignore their functional responsibilities when they begin to work as a strong executive team.


The characteristics at this level it’s to manage that inherent tension between functional and enterprise focus on day-to-day and adaptation. So let me just say one additional thing when you’re thinking about creating your organisational purpose. When I begin working with an executive team and I ask them if the team has a purpose, most teams start with a “yes of course we know why we’re here”. Then you ask them, and the thing I often hear back is people replaying back to me what the organisation strategy is now. Strategy is what your organisation is trying to achieve and of course it’s delivery lies on the leadership that’s provided by the executive team.


But your organisational strategy is not the same thing as your team purpose and your organisation purpose is not the same thing as your team purpose. The purpose for the team isn’t what the company is going to do, it’s what the focus of the executive team will adopt and maintain, essentially maps out the team’s collective responsibility in delivering that strategy.


I mean the strategy can and often does change on a cyclical basis depending on what’s happening within the environment, but a good team purpose can remain consistent throughout many rounds of strategic iteration, so it has a lot more longevity.


Let’s compare and contrast for a moment a typical meeting for a high performing executive team and one for a team that’s mediocre. Invariably the difference is in the team members ability and willingness to engage in good quality dialogue. Honest, Frank conversation that stays relational but really gets to the root of what the team is trying to accomplish. Now having a great purpose often precedes a radical shift in an executive team dynamic, because you expect to see the shift away from meetings taken up with functional updates delivered by monologues, and these dreaded PowerPoint presentations by others to ones in which everyone is asking, how can we lead together? how do we get in front of those things that we’re asking other people in the organisation to do? It requires a very different type of conversation, one that’s characterised by really radical candour and deep levels of trust in the executive team. Now the good news is that being skilled at dialogue can be learned, and what’s even better is that when teams become skilled at engaging with each other in this way, the team becomes more productive, and it feels much more rewarding to be in.


It’s quite likely that you may never have asked yourself the question, does my executive team have a clear and explicit purpose? but if you’re the kind of leader to ask yourself, how can my executive team perform better and achieve more than the purpose is probably the 1st place you’ll find the answer.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.