An executive team is responsible for providing strategic and operational leadership within an organization. This team operates as an interdependent, collaborative decision-making body – strategically executing the company's mission and vision.
Too often, senior leadership teams struggle to find the right balance between their functional, day-to-day responsibilities and their larger organizational leadership role.
In a recent survey of senior executives, only 18% rated their leadership teams as "very effective." Yet, 97% of the executives surveyed said that increased effectiveness of their leadership team would positively impact their organization's outcomes.
So, why are senior leadership teams underperforming? And how can executive teams begin to resolve structural issues to build stronger, more effective teams for the future?
To build a high-performing leadership team, leaders must first identify the structural and relational challenges preventing their team from reaching its full potential. Once identified, business leaders can begin to design a diverse, well-equipped leadership team that drives positive business results.
In this article, we will take a closer look at:
- What defines an effective leadership team?
- What are the most common challenges for executive teams?
- And how to build (and maintain) a high-performing leadership team?
Defining an Effective Leadership Team
A business is only as successful as its leadership team. An effective leadership team is organized, well-managed, and committed to the organization's growth. Their primary responsibility is optimizing the business's performance through deliberate planning and action.
The executive leadership team meets weekly to discuss corporate strategy, resolve issues, set goals, make decisions, and share individual department updates or progress. Executive teams commonly consist of the following positions:
- CEO – Chief Executive Officer
- Vice President
- CFO – Chief Financial Officer
- COO – Chief Operations Officer
- CIO – Chief Information Officer
- CTO – Chief Technology Officer
- COS – Chief of Staff
The best leadership teams place a high value on the diversity and interconnectedness of their organizational departments. Successful leaders execute their day-to-day departmental duties while also focusing on the collective, organization-wide functionality and success.
Roles & Responsibilities of a Leadership Team
#1 – Strategy
One of the primary responsibilities of the executive team is designing and executing a strategy that aligns with the company's vision and purpose. They are responsible for anticipating future needs, challenges, and opportunities and adjusting their plan accordingly. During strategy meetings, executives work to establish a structure that enables the company and its employees to execute strategic goals and produce consistent results.
#2 - Performance
High-performing executive teams focus heavily on team and company-wide performance. Prioritizing results is key to their success. Executives frequently monitor and track team performance to ensure that the strategy is working. If any internal or external forces derail the strategic plan, leaders are responsible for taking the necessary steps to get back on track.
#3 - Collaboration
Collaborative leadership is central to the role of the executive team. Not only do leaders need to collaborate on strategy and make decisions in the board room, but they are also responsible for modeling these behaviors to the entire organization.
The best executive teams promote a collective mindset - prioritizing organizational success over personal interests. This approach keeps people from working in silos and fosters a commitment to and shared ownership over the finished product.
#4 - Leadership
The executive team is responsible for directing the organization and its individual teams to fulfill the company's vision and purpose. An effective team leader values growth and personal development. Executive teams are responsible for teaching, motivating, and inspiring their team to reach their highest potential. Integrity and respect are central to this type of leadership role. Executives work on modeling the behaviors and actions that positively impact the organization and its culture.
Defining Qualities of a High-Performing Leadership Team
#1 - Interdependent
The success of any senior leadership team relies on their ability to work as an interdependent, interactive unit. Executives share accountability for the achievements and shortcomings of the organization. They count on each other to bring the company's strategic vision to life. A highly effective executive team utilizes their collective mindset to motivate others to produce quality results.
#2 – Transparent
Executive teams are required to share information clearly and consistently across the organization. Leaders who cultivate transparency and trust among their team members and direct reports reap the benefits. Transparency builds trust, strengthens relationships, improves engagement, and drives results.
#3 – Emotionally Intelligent
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and control one's emotions. This skill helps individuals handle interpersonal relationships better. Emotional intelligence is a fundamental quality of the executive team as it fosters productive team communication and interactions. It also enables individuals to see the value in different opinions and perspectives. Emotionally intelligent leaders listen carefully, effectively give feedback, and foster a culture of trust.
#4 – Resilient
Successful leadership teams are resilient and proactive. When challenges or periods of dysfunction arise, leaders help their teams solve problems and get back on track. Executive teams also proactively predict and plan for future challenges. By doing so, they can adapt and adjust their course of action. Moreover, leaders can successfully manage external forces like financial markets, media, or competition from derailing their strategic direction.
#5 – Organized
Leadership teams must stay organized to make decisions, implement strategies, and coordinate day-to-day business operations. Solid team organization starts with the executive team meeting. Effective executive teams utilize online tools, like Hugo, to design meeting agendas, record notes and decisions, and outline action items. This type of structure drives productivity and ensures that everyone on the team is aligned and prepared.
Most Common Challenges for Executive Teams
Executive teams face many internal and external challenges that can pull them away from their executive duties and disrupt team operations. Some of those challenges include:
Issues within individual departments frequently pull executives away from their leadership duties. This dysfunction is often caused by ineffective team structures or a lack of competent lower-level management. If an executive is constantly putting out fires in their own department, they are likely unable to engage in high-level strategic thinking and planning.
The CEO is responsible for defining clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations of the management team. Without this, executive teams tend to lack cohesion, clarity, and alignment on the team’s collective work. Ambiguous leadership roles can also lead to damaging relational challenges like an inability to resolve conflicts or make critical decisions quickly.
Lack of collaboration
Another common challenge arises when executives and their teams work in silos. A lack of collaboration across departments can result in unnecessary work or misalignment with the company's vision. As a result, teams become less productive and capable of adapting to big picture changes.
Leadership teams require a variety of experience and expertise from each team member. However, if each senior executives’ strengths and leadership abilities are not complementary, the team will struggle to thrive and build a shared team identity.
No rules of engagement
Executive team effectiveness suffers when the CEO fails to establish boundaries or clear expectations around how team members are expected to behave and interact with one another. In the absence of "rules of the road," executive teams struggle to make decisions, resolve conflict, and build a culture of trust among one another.
No meeting agenda
Executive team meetings help drive decision-making and push the company closer to its goals. The absence of a structured, organized meeting agenda can result in a misunderstanding of meeting objectives, unclear roles, and inappropriate participation.
If your senior leadership team struggles with meeting effectiveness, consider using Hugo's library of free meeting templates to help your executive team stay organized, prepared, and aligned during your next executive leadership team meeting.
Building (and maintaining) a High-Performing Executive Team
Creating and retaining a high-performing executive team requires deliberate planning and consistent maintenance. A solid management team is intentionally selected, well-managed, and consistently evaluated to increase success and efficiency.
The CEO is responsible for selecting a team and developing internal processes for how the team will work together and bring the company vision to life. There are two phases outlined below: the building phase (e.g., tips for establishing an executive team) and the maintenance phase (e.g., strategies for preserving executive team effectiveness).
Building a Team
When building an executive team, bringing together a diverse group of individuals with differing strengths, perspectives, and skills is essential. The executive leadership team should consist of individuals with unique yet complementary skills. You also want to ensure that the leaders you select are aligned with the company's vision and possess the leadership qualities necessary for success.
Define team identity and purpose
Start by clearly outlining the executive team's purpose. Ask yourself: what will the team be responsible for doing or achieving, what is expected of each person in the group, and how is each role interdependent? Then, work to create a solid team identity. A well-established team identity promotes collaborative thinking, team trust, role clarity, and clear participation expectations.
Set rules of engagement
Before anyone enters the board room, the CEO must establish rules of engagement. These rules guide how the team will operate, how decisions will be made, and how team members are expected to interact. Defining rules of engagement helps create a productive, healthy environment that prioritizes respect and curiosity over criticism or passive acceptance.
Develop systems and procedures
Developing a framework for executive team operations enhances the productivity and effectiveness of the team. Utilize software programs to improve the overall management workflow so that all meetings, phone calls, and written communications align with and reinforce the overall strategic goals.
Create ways to measure success
Determine how you will measure the success of your executive team. These measures will likely translate directly to the success of the organization. Design KPIs (key performance indicators) that mirror organization-wide performance measurements. Use these metrics to determine how well the team produces consistent, positive results with their teams and across the organization.
Maintaining a Team
Give everyone a voice
The leadership team is responsible for holding the company accountable for its stated goals and purpose. Successful management teams place a high value on the competencies and strengths of each team member. Ask for opinions, insights, and suggestions from your top executives. Capitalize on the expertise of others to drive innovative thinking, creative problem solving, and organizational growth.
Reinforce the company vision
The CEO is responsible for consistently reinforcing the company vision to the executive team. This behavior promotes a solid, collective agreement about the company vision. It also helps executive team members visualize how their teams' day-to-day operations influence the organization's success. Last, reinforcing the company vision reduces the chance for teams to work in silos, promoting cross-functional collaboration.
Measure executive team performance
There are several different ways to measure the success and performance of an executive team. Start by utilizing the organizations performance measurements like revenue, client retention, or customer satisfaction. Then, look at KPIs specifically related to the leadership team, such as employee engagement, workplace attitudes, alignment with the vision, etc. Consider implementing meeting effectiveness surveys to measure the quality and value of executive team meetings.
Prioritize self-development and growth
Successful leaders understand that reaching the executive level is not the pinnacle of their professional development. Executives who refuse to stop learning have a profound impact on the organization. Effective leaders believe in their own personal and professional development while also prioritizing the growth and leadership development of their direct reports. To them, every day is a new opportunity to learn, inspire, mentor, and facilitate growth.
Model organizational values
High-performing executive teams model actions, attitudes, and behaviors that directly align with the company's values. How executives interact, problem-solve, and communicate with one another sets an example for the rest of the organization. Enlist the leadership team in holding the company accountable for the values and ethics of the organization.
Improve executive team meetings effectiveness
Executive spends more than 72% of their time in meetings. Meeting preparation is essential to avoiding the costly (and frustrating) consequences of ineffective executive meetings. To lead an effective meeting, craft a well-designed meeting plan that is tailored to the meeting's purpose, goals, and desired outcomes. Utilize meeting agendas to improve meeting effectiveness, boost productivity, and drive decision-making.
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