We’ve all been in organisations where the people in the senior team were more competitive than collaborative and in the worst cases where there was all out war at the top table. The impact of this break in functioning isn’t confined to the C-suite. When top teams are not performing well the whole organisation, and its customers, suffer.

There are many reasons why Executive Teams don’t perform to their highest potential. Underlying most of these is a straightforward root cause: that the ‘team’ isn’t a team at all.

Often, they are a group of individuals who report to the same leader but only meet to provide status updates on their own individual areas, or less functionally to battle each other for scarce company resources. They simply don’t see their work as inherently interdependent.

If you recognise this in your own team you may be wondering how you can make the shift towards working as a cohesive whole. The answer is to create a shared purpose for the team.

An Executive Team Purpose is an articulation of what that team collectively are there to accomplish for the organisation. It constitutes the things that if that team were not there, wouldn’t get done.

In one globally dispersed group-level Executive Team that I worked with, they were highly disciplined about their purpose being overarching and strategic in nature. As a group-level team, their focus was much more strategic than execution-based. They defined their purpose as:

  • Design and promote an enlivening Culture
  • Create and course correct the Strategy
  • Build and maintain great Stakeholder relationships
  • Measure the monitor Performance

Following the definition of this Purpose, the team structured their collective tasks, the agenda of what they would attend to when they met in person, and the measurement of their own performance against this purpose. There were disciplined in staying focussed on the core four areas of Culture; Strategy, Stakeholders and Performance. They communicated this purpose to the rest of the organisation and delegated issues that didn’t fit with this to the very able people below them in the organisation.

Here are some things to keep in mind when defining your Executive Team Purpose.

Get everyone involved

The most important thing to remember in defining an Executive Team’s purpose is that all team members should be fully involved in the creation process. You may need an external facilitator to hold the process for the team and it may take more than one session as outputs are refined and revisited. However you go about it, it should involve the entire team.

Below are the steps in determining and clarifying your team’s purpose.

  • Determine what type of team you need to be. Examples are a strategic decision-making team, a governance focused overseeing team, an execution-monitoring team.
  • Outline the core areas and activities that the team would need to do together to accomplish this (note this shouldn’t be a large part of a someone’s existing remit).
  • Identify the interdependencies among your team members where collaboration is central to the team achieving its goal in this area. What leadership functions require that all the leaders be at the table?
  • Create a short list of decisions and actions that you want your team to achieve. This should be the mission-critical things that can be done only by this team?

Make sure it’s clear and consequential

The most effective top teams have a team purpose that is clear. Clarity comes from both brevity and simplicity. Making it brief means your team are more likely to remember it on a day-to-day basis. Making it simple means a short list of not more than 3 or 4 things is best.

The purpose should provide a beacon for the team as they continually review how they are doing in their collective task of leading the organisation. So clarity helps them quickly assess where they area against their desired performance and to quickly make changes as necessary.

Next, the purpose should be consequential: that is, it should outline which activities are the main job of the executives, and not a side job when their individual roles are done. If team members don’t see the purpose as the best way for them and the organisation to achieve its goals, then it’s unlikely to get prioritized.

All of this is not to say that team members can ignore their functional responsibilities when they begin to work as a strong Executive Team. However, a characteristic of this organisational level is to manage the inherent tensions between functional focus andorganisational focus; a focus on the strategic anda focus on execution.

Don’t mistake Purpose for Strategy

When I begin working with an Executive Team and I ask them if they have a team purpose in response I’m usually told about the organisation’s strategy.

Strategy is what the organisation is trying to achieve and of course any Executive Team worth its salt is instrumental in delivering it. But your organisational strategy is not the same as your team purpose. The purpose isn’t what the company is going to do, it’s the focus the Executive Team will have and their specific collective responsibility in delivering that strategy. The strategy can and often does change on a fairly regularly basis, but a good team Purpose can provide remain consistent throughout many rounds of strategy development.

Purpose requires building a capability for dialogue

If we contrast a typical meeting of a high performing Executive Team and one which is mediocre, the difference is typically in their ability and  willingness to engage in good quality dialogue.

Having a great Purpose often precedes a radical shift in group dynamics. A shift away from meetings that are taken up with functional updates in which others sit in silence to ones in which the team are asking “how well are we leading together” requires a very different type of conversation: one that’s characterised by radical candour and deep levels of trust.

The good news is that being skilled at dialogue canbe 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 feels more rewarding to be in. Being skilled at open dialogue is the sine qua nonof Executive Team high performance.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway is an organisation effectiveness consultant with two decade’s experience working with executives as they grapple with disruptive change and relentless complexity. She helps executive teams increases their adaptive capability as they align their culture to their purpose and as they solve intractable problems.

About Jacqueline Conway