Looking back at all the most successful CEOs I’ve met or read about, there’s one common thread. All of them had great teams of top performing executives whose role was to partner the CEO, not simply report to them.
This is not an accident.
Running an organisation of any size is complex and needs a cohesive, multi-faceted approach that is not possible through one heroic CEO. Today, even a small organisation faces complexity in its markets, communications, finance and talent management. This calls for a strong group of professionals at the centre of things – the best team for the person in charge.
This same principle applies long before you get to the C-suite; the same successful CEOs had a history of creating great teams to work with them at all stages of their career.
How do you create your best team?
I’ve been helping clients with this crucial question since 1984 in various ways. While the world has changed massively in that time, working with a good team is a human, not a technological, issue and the human-centred answers have remained consistent through all the turbulence of the last few decades.
I’ve watched my clients up close and here are three of the ways they ensure success through their team.
1. They design the team.
2. They build strong 1:1 relationships with all of the team.
3. They help the team bond and work well together.
Designing the best team is brutal. That’s because:
You’re designing to circumstances as you see them. Your arrival is just one sign that circumstances are changing and the best team needs to be crafted accordingly. That will usually mean a shift in both technical and interpersonal dynamics in the team. You’ll likely have to fire a technically strong person who simply doesn’t help with the joint decision-making or a good person who’s not up to your tougher technical demands.
Of course the single absolute ‘best team’ doesn’t exist – it’s unique because it needs to complement you. Some people run a team of fast dogs; others need slow power. Each member of the team should balance at least one of your weaker areas. This includes both your technical weaknesses and your interpersonal blind spots. You don’t have perfect EQ and IQ, so build the team’s capability in the many directions in which you are blind. That takes some brutal self-awareness.
The board, the owners, the public, will all have a view on what you should do – and so will the executive team! But they don’t all have the inside knowledge that drives the design, or fully understand that designing the team is one of the most private acts a CEO can do. So they may not help much and it might even be quite a fight to get what you need.
Given this, it is important to have a strong, adaptive framework to ensure you go into the right depth. (This is something I spend a lot of time on with my CEO clients). You won’t always be able to act freely or quickly on your team’s makeup, so most new CEOs act on this within a couple of months of taking on the role or when taking a major change in direction. Act early and fast, but with honesty and grace. Unfortunately this is one of those areas where 80% of the problems come from one wrong choice!
You are in an intimate relationship with each person in your team. Yet you also have power over them. So you need to balance this intimacy and power to be successful.
Develop a swift, open and respectful communication protocol with each of them. This might mean scheduling regular calls, agreeing on ‘out of office’ meetings and sharing some of your personal, as well as professional, circumstances. It especially means creating a resilient working relationship with the one team member who is most different from you, as that person is the key to seeing what you can’t see.
One of my clients took us all to see a movie about the captain of a warship, whose scientist/artist companion was a strange, but necessary ‘alternative mind’ for the difficult decisions the captain had to make. Bringing such a person on board was part of the captain’s leadership secret.
The multiple relationships between members of the team determine your success. That’s because it’s more powerful for you to get things done than to do them. Creating your best team is how you get things done.
When you’re not physically present, their cohesiveness still directly affects the outcome of your work. I’ve been in situations where team members so disrespected each other that they wasted time arguing over who got what car park. This was expensive, to the point that it obliterated the individual brilliance each could offer. Their potentially creative difference became destructive.
This issue is so central to the success of executive teams that I’ve had to build a process around it, that quickly pulls the team together around the shared work, but has room for traditional ‘team building’ or psychometric tools. (See my blog ‘how to interrogate your local alien’).
What’s really important is to enable the team to agree to their own ‘rules of engagement’ – the approach to decisions and how they are communicated. There are several aspects to this. For example, mutual respect for each others’ distinct capabilities does not mean dumping responsibility for that aspect on one person. Each member should be able to inquire perceptively into any colleague’s area of responsibility – this means having, for example, marketing people who are ‘IT literate’ and IT people who have marketing insight.
Invest the time
Take the time and instal processes to encourage deep trust between team members. Your best team will establish an open, trusting dynamic where information flows quickly, difficulties are smoothed creatively and new ideas are able to emerge into action.
Invest in taking the team away from ‘normal’ work. Simply shifting the ‘executive meeting’ to a venue different from the ‘management meeting’ (especially when the two teams are almost the same) can have a dramatic effect on the relationship between members. It’s less an ‘off-site’ than a ‘right place’ (for this kind of work).
Be social, too. Becoming an appropriately social as well as a professional group makes it easier to explore differences and discover common values and interests in ways that don’t happen in the crowded daily schedule. The discipline of socio-technical analysis highlights how much we create social structures at work, mostly unconsciously. Being conscious about these structures is most important at the top.
For some people, this all sounds like simple stuff, but the test is in how the real humans in your best team react. The obvious (eg ‘respect’) isn’t always that easy. And it’s not always clear where you get your return on this investment. It’s hidden. I sometimes imagine having a stopwatch to time the thousands of small decisions made by my client teams. All those short phone calls, quick agreements in the corridor and moments of generous help, lead to approving big transactions or hiring high-quality staff more easily than your conflict-ridden competitors’ teams. Your best team is the one that develops a massively efficient ‘shorthand’ for working with you and each other.
When you take the time to design and run your team well, even at the expense of not doing some other urgent tasks, you create a solid base that over time makes you look like a magician.