The Bottom Line on Executive Teamwork. Nancy Brown-Johnston's New Book the Driving Force Shows Executive Teams How to Succeed Where Most Fail

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While the importance of a highly-effective and accountable senior team in an organization is generally accepted, most executive teams still don't make the grade. Leveraging proven factors, however, leaders can learn to make the transition from being the boss to being a valuable leadership teammate.

An executive leadership team usually consists of successful, smart, hardworking executives who are extremely effective in running their part of the organization. However, these same executives find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the transition from being the “boss” to admitting interdependence and working as a member of a team. Since it is so difficult, should we give up on true teamwork in the boardroom?

“Absolutely not,” asserts Nancy Brown-Johnston, seasoned practitioner and author of The Driving Force: Lessons in Teamwork from Saturn and Other Leading Companies (2004, Xephor Press, “But we must bring teamwork principles to bear on executive leadership teams. These teams are critical when there is interdependence in business operations.” This is especially true today, as synergy and shared ownership are absolutely essential in times of complex change.

Real Teams - Real Work

Real teams do real work. Executives cannot just meet to listen to presentations, to review policy and strategy options, or to set general direction as a working committee. Brown-Johnston points out that their work must include a minimum level of collaboration and true problem solving. Furthermore, in her work and research, she’s uncovered trends to determine specific practices that consistently work, as well as what often derails executive teams.

Ten critical success factors emerged that organizations can capitalize on, as presented in chapter nine of The Driving Force:

Executive Team Success Factors:

  • Limit the membership to eight to twelve members to allow for relationships to mature, and for discussions to be balanced.
  • Encourage disagreements. They are a healthy part of a team’s culture, and when constructively managed, disagreements create energy, insight and creativity.
  • Define the decision-making process and follow it religiously. Most executive leadership teams struggle with making decisions. This significant problem stems from a combination of poor processes and inadequate skills in group decision-making.
  • Track implementation of decisions and action items to instill discipline and accountability within the team.
  • Build in interdependence and a working knowledge across the boundaries of the various functional areas. Members must be able to wear a company hat to address big issues. Eliminate competition for resources to foster true collaboration.
  • Focus on strategic and tactical issues, delegating operational matters to functional areas. Leadership teams often work on the wrong things. They find themselves driven more by urgency than by the importance of issues.
  • Strive for consensus and alignment on all critical decisions. Long-standing groups or members of high seniority can develop an immune system to new ideas, practices, and people. Left unchallenged, resistance wins over progress and innovation.
  • Invest time to develop personal relationships between team members. Without relationships, there is no team.
  • Address inappropriate behavior of members. One player can spoil the team if inappropriate behavior goes unaddressed and uncorrected. Executives rise to their positions based on skill, achievement, and talent. Expecting them to leave their egos at the door, and to function as a peer group with equal authority, is often a big stretch.
  • Never punish team members for expressing unpopular opinions. In an executive leadership team environment, the ability to discuss problems is important. However, when an individual or subgroup are singled out and criticized in front of the team, some members interpret that as punishment for risk-taking.

The Bottom Line on Executive Teams’ Productivity

Unfortunately, many executive leadership teams fail in their pursuit of team effectiveness. For some, long before they are disbanded or reorganized, there is frustration and fatigue among members. At the core of the problem is a proven tendency for the executive team to devolve into a committee making mostly operational decisions, no matter what the impetus for its formation. This actually causes the organization’s productivity to lag while waiting for the “team” to discuss and decide.

On the other hand, a good leader, clear expectations, and discipline can make a positive difference. Effective executive leadership teams are invaluable for strategic planning but can be counterproductive if improperly involved in running the daily business. The top leaders are a critical element in the equation. They must create a vision and a roadmap for the executive team.

“In today’s environment, even the toughest executives now see the value of teamwork, as someone must provide coordination and clear accountability for the organization. And they want to have a part in setting this direction,” maintains Brown-Johnston. In addition to leading by example, they must select the right members to be on the team, as well as insist on having the discipline for strategy development and teamwork. With these elements in place, an executive leadership team has the foundation for success.

The Driving Force: Lessons in Teamwork From Saturn and Other Leading Companies is available at bookstores nationwide, all major online booksellers and at $17.95 ISBN 0-9752638-0-3

Sidebar: Characteristics and Tell-Tale Actions of Effective Executive Team Leaders

1. Facilitative Style:    Achieve results through others;     encourage discussions, collaboration and debates; recognize team results to nurture a team approach; require information sharing across groups.

2. Strategic Thinker:    Strive for alignment; explore the vision, mission, and organizational direction; keep the pieces linked together; articulate the big picture; link team to other organizations or environmental situations to drive alignment; crate a vision and strategy for the organization.

3. Business Focused: Focus on measurable results; build interdependence and teamwork; reward performance.

4. Results Oriented: Demand results to get results; implement plans and monitor performance; delve below the surface to get to the root cause; explore various angles to trigger meaningful discussion and debate; set direct, clear expectations; take personal responsibility for initiating change.

5. Skilled Communicator: Initiate and prompt discussions; encourage dialogue; facilitate debates; spend meeting time wisely; “stir the pot” if necessary to flush out disagreements; evaluate team membership.

6. Relationship Driven:    Show care for members of the team; use a personal touch with the other leaders; create strong relationships and a foundation of trust; encourage learning and risk taking; stimulate a team’s growth; trust and empower others.

7. Sense of Urgency: Balance impatience with high quality standards; do the right things right; model a sense of urgency; create energy in others to generate outstanding results; refuse to protect the status quo; institute continuous improvement as an operating value.

8. Alignment: Engage individuals until issues are worked out; connect the need for change with performance goals and organizational structure; make messages clear to people in terms they can understand and relate to, no matter what their managerial level or background.

9. Tough Love: Confront nonperformance and incompetence; find ways to bring out an individual team member’s greatness; supplement one member’s weakness with another member’s strength.

Copyright 2004 Xephor Press

Nancy Brown-Johnston is the Director, Global Change Management Network for General Motors and author of The Driving Force: Lessons in Teamwork from Saturn and Other Leading Companies (2004, Xephor Press, ISBN 0-9752638-0-3).

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This press release was distributed through eMediawire by Human Resources Marketer (HR Marketer: on behalf of the company listed above.

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Suzanne Lawlor