Four Ways Executive Teams Can Get Better

In my last blog post, I raised the question, “How can Executive Management Teams best function as teams?”  It’s a delicate balance for several reasons.  First, Department Heads are often more closely aligned with their own departments than they are their fellow Department Heads.  Leading that team requires that the employees see him/her as loyal.  If they perceive the Department Head as wavering in commitment to the department, it could undermine his/her effectiveness.  Second, there is almost always a certain amount of competition for budget funds between the Department Heads.  When budgets are tight, even close friendships might feel the stress. Third, the functions, assignments, and expectations on each department cover such a wide spectrum that Department Heads can sometimes feel like their goals compete with each other—and perhaps even conflict with each other!  Sure, all of these departments fit under the umbrella of the city, but, let’s face it:  That’s a pretty big umbrella!

So, is it just pointless to even try to function as a team?  Is an Executive Management Team destined to be nothing more than a dysfunctional team, and, if so, would it be better to just maintain the silos after all?  Or is it possible for an Executive Team to function as a healthy team without undermining the individual’s leadership of his/her department?  Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not they should try.

Instead, let’s approach it this way:  If an Executive Management Team is going to function as a team, what can be done to make it work successfully?

Here are four suggestions.

1.       Together—Create a Shared Vision—It is probably not going to work for the leader simply to give the team the shared vision.  That kind of approach may elicit their compliance, but it will not inspire their passion, and, believe me, you’re going to need everyone working together to make this happen.  That means the vision must be a shared vision, and the only legitimate way to create that is to allow everyone to participate in helping to create the vision.  Every person on the team needs to feel ownership of that vision and be able to see how accomplishing that vision, in turn, helps his/her team.  Honestly, taking a short cut here is taking a short cut into the bar ditch.

2.       Together—Spend Time Learning—I’ve noticed that when management teams invest the time learning together through leadership development programs that there is a bond created that helps overcome a lot of things.  To function well as a team, each team has to overcome things like a lack of trust, a fear of conflict with each other, and an absence of emotional buy-in.  However, when teams learn together by reading the same books, blogs, and studies and discuss them together to see what applies and doesn’t apply to their specific situations, it helps them to find real common ground.  Of course, this requires spending more time together, but I’m convinced that what seems like a loss, is actually a gain.  Your team will gain in their ability to collaborate and create better and more innovative approaches.  They will save time, not lose time, because they will work together more effectively.

3.       Together—Do Something besides Go to Meetings—I remember a Department Head saying to his colleagues, “I will never feel as connected to this team as I do with the team that I lead because all this team does is talk, and on my team we are forced to work with our hands together in adverse situations, and that creates a bond that is a lot stronger than talk does.”  I knew he was right, and I think the rest of his team did, too.  Is there a solution for this?  Absolutely!  Go do something for someone else together!  Pick a day and serve breakfast together for the rest of the organization.  Go work on someone else’s pet project.  Go get your hands dirty—together—doing something that no one expects you as Department Heads to do.  I’ve heard more than a few people tell me what it meant to them for former Southwest Airlines CEO, Herb Kelleher, to load baggage on Christmas Eve.  It doesn’t seem to be a very “Executive” thing to do, but it certainly made an impression on people.  I think that if you did something like that as a team, not only would others perceive you differently—you would start perceiving yourselves differently, too.

4.       Together—Accept Imperfection but See Constant Improvement—It’s not going to be perfect.  The complications mentioned earlier are not just going to disappear.  And there are several other significant challenges for Executive Teams to overcome.  Team leaders need to be realistic about how much time it takes for the team to come together as a team and how difficult it is for Department Heads to feel divided loyalties.  Department Heads have to be able to accept the possibility that strengthening the Executive Team may, in fact, turn out to be better for the organization and their department.  The point is that you can’t give up.  Every Executive Management Team that has persevered through the awkwardness of it, which can feel like going through adolescence all over again, will admit that things get increasingly better.  The pain is worth the gain. It won’t be perfect, but if you work at it-together—it can be constantly improved.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

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