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An Imperfect, Yet High Functioning, Executive Team Story

Once upon a time there was a rising star CEO. He was young, smart, prickly, hard to read, charming, politically savvy and introverted. He alternated between being a brilliant leader and very mediocre. He could be insightful and compassionate one day and tone deaf the next. In short, he was very human and very typical.

But he achieved something quite extraordinary and rare. He selected excellent executives who evolved into a very high functioning team. As I compared this CEO and team with so many others, I concluded that he did things that I don’t encounter very often.

  1. He inherited the team members but didn’t rush to bring in his own people. There was quite a cast of characters. Several brilliant experts who were widely respected even if they weren’t the best leaders. A few less tested folks who were appointed to their roles shortly before the CEO arrived who he didn’t have the chance to vet. An out of control cowboy, an old timer who had not kept up and a dyed in the wool asshole. When I spoke with him early in his tenure, the CEO had questions about nearly everyone. But he decided to give it time. Trust me, he wasn’t spending high quality supervisory time with anyone or having less formal interactions to establish a relationship with each person. (That didn’t happen until much later and at the urging of his HR person.) He was just letting things marinate.
  2. He removed the most destruction person sooner than later. As the CEO received endless negative feedback about the cowboy, he was torn. He had actually come to admire the brashness and speed of this person’s actions. But when a sexual harassment claim was filed he had to pay attention to this person’s dark side and the liability risk to the company. The cowboy was fired and the organization gained new respect for the CEO for taking action. The executive team breathed easier.
  3. He offered frank feedback to team members, even if his delivery left something to be desired. He didn’t pull any punches when it came to assessing behaviors and impact. He also spent time talking about what it would take for him to fully trust the executives. It was the trust issue that was especially instructive. Each member was given very explicit and reasonable information about what the CEO valued and they were able to modify their approaches with him. Over time, the relationships the CEO had with each team member improved and he was able to let go of many things.
  4. He did very little to explicitly develop this collection of people into a team. Very few team building activities or team dinners or specific interdependent goals. Instead, he had the team riveted on doing big work together. Annual budgeting and financial decisions, strategy development and changes, critical product launches, crisis management, process improvements and reengineering. This is fairly typical for CEOs but what made this different was his requirement that everyone weigh in. The lawyer had to talk strategy and the CFO had to be involved in communications and the quality person had to be savvy about human capital issues. In his one-on-one feedback sessions with each member, the CEO made it clear that he expected everyone to have a voice in the room on each topic. No pre-baked expert decisions with the CEO in private before the team meetings. Not that there weren’t those discussions prior to the meetings but most issues were open for debate by the whole team.
  5. Half of the executives were women. And I think this is where much of the secret sauce is. Some members were swapped out after the CEO’s first year, but the gender distribution remained stable at 50%. The women formed close working relationships among themselves and provided encouragement to get bolder. An observer of the executive team meetings would not see the CEO or other men ignoring the women nor would you see funky power struggles. What you would see was an enormous amount of professional respect, willingness to speak up or push back or back down and a great deal of rolling up their sleeves together to get ‘er done. When the (female) communications leader provided guidance to her peers about responding to hot issues, her word was gold. When the (female) quality executive insisted that the company pull the plug on the release of a new product that was already baked into the annual revenue numbers, the team had to relent. In other words, this was the most gender blind team I’ve ever seen.

This team was together for about four years. At the two year mark the membership had stabilized, the relationships to the CEO were on track and the peer-to-peer connections were respectful. All of this was achieved with an incredibly imperfect CEO who had a few strong ideas about how to manage his team. Some of what he did is counterintuitive to the general wisdom about building executive teams but I can’t deny their success.

I’ve written before about what it takes to create an effective team but let me summarize what I learned from this team.

  • Form strong one-on-one relationships with the CEO and amongst team members
  • Build team connectivity by doing the big picture/executive level work together
  • Don’t surround yourself with your own people
  • Get rid of the bad apples
  • Let the team dynamics reshape poor behaviors of individuals on the team
  • Select women so the gender ratio is (or nearly) 50-50

This team wasn’t perfect. The asshole remained on the team and he never changed his stripes. The old timer hung around too long. The CEO’s behavior was erratic. In spite of these typical, human traits the team worked very well together and lead the organization through some very tough times.

So the moral of the story is spend less time in those feel-good team building retreats and more time connecting by doing real work. And for lord’s sake, bring on the women!

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