How Senior Leaders Work With Teams

“Members of senior teams have a dilemma. On the one hand, they are responsible for leading their own organizational units. On the other, they are expected to be fully engaged and committed members of the enterprise’s senior team. It can feel like being caught in two powerful crosscurrents.”

Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great

Senior leaders often struggle to balance the competing demands of the company’s executive team and those of the team(s) that they themselves manage. Leading a large organization requires new skills and a different approach than leading a smaller one. Here are some best practices for senior leaders in working both with their peers and the teams they lead:

1. Invest in your peer relationships

The higher up you move in an organization, the more crucial it is to have strong relationships with your peers. As a vice president or C-level leader, you lead activities with company-wide impact, and you can’t do that well without your peers. Becoming less siloed and more collaborative is crucial.

Peer relationships are all about influence. Building this influence requires listening, empathy, and positive intent. It demands that you: (1) understand the concerns of your peers, (2) know something about their part of the business, and (3) genuinely try to help them succeed. Often it requires a lot of communication and more than a little diplomacy.

A good place to begin is to spend time getting to know your peers.

One senior team I know of has a practice where every member of the team meets for 30 minutes with every other member once a month. In these 1-1 meetings, they talk about the issues that worry them most – and even their personal lives – but the focus is not on transactional business. The purpose of these meetings is to grow those relationships and develop more trust and understanding between peers. If that sounds like too much, start with just one or two peer meetings a month.

For more, see the Deloitte article: Navigating the C-suite: Managing stakeholder relationships.

2. Delegate more effectively

Many senior executives hold on to pieces of their “old job” longer than they should, which leaves them overloaded and inhibits team growth. It can also create frustration for direct reports who may feel micromanaged in the process.

Delegation is a critical skill and one that everyone can keep getting better at. It’s also a necessary survival skill. Senior leaders who don’t delegate enough end up working a huge number of hours to their own detriment.

Delegation can be a focus of your strategic thinking time. As you reflect on your most important priorities, ask yourself, “Where am I over-involved? What opportunities can I open for my team? Who can step up?” And don’t forget about delegating to your assistant.

For more tips on delegating effectively, see the Harvard Business Review article, To Be a Great Leader You Have to Learn to Delegate Well, which discusses the difference between “an effective leader and a super-sized individual contributor with a leader’s title.”

3. Reduce the number of your direct reports

Layering some of your direct reports can be tricky given that most people want to report to the most senior person they can. But the more direct reports you have, the less bandwidth you have to effectively support each of them. It’s also tough to have a highly functional leadership team beyond eight or nine people.

If you currently have 10 or more direct reports, consider consolidating. It’s likely that the size of your team is spreading you too thin, and, if they meet as a group, there may be too many voices for productive discussion and decisions.

That said, downsizing warrants significant thought and care, as well as good communication.

Who are the people you need to spend the most time with? Are there opportunities for increased synergy? When you’re thinking about a redesign, it’s important to consider the strategic implications, scope of influence, as well as the logic of functions and how they work together.

Also, it can be demoralizing for leaders to be pushed down a level and you may risk losing good talent. One strategy is to make sure you are moving them under the best manager possible. Having a great manager, even a level down, can help mitigate the sting of what feels like a demotion. Additionally, it’s worth noting that layered direct reports are more likely to get increased managerial attention and professional development opportunities if they are reporting to a manager who’s less busy than you are.

4. Invest time with direct reports

Many senior executives struggle to adequately invest time in their direct reports. This may happen because they’re holding onto work that others should now be doing or because they have too many directs. To be fair, it can also happen because of the sheer scope of what the team is trying to achieve. Regardless, supporting your direct reports and helping them grow is crucial to the overall success of the team.

Think about it, if all of your directs became even 10% more effective, what would the impact be across your whole business?

Some of the work of helping your team members grow can be delegated to executive coaches, mentors, and executive development programs. These tools can provide significant ROI and can supplement the time you spend personally investing in the success of your team members. It’s important, however, that you also spend significant time building relationships with your direct reports and investing in their success. One way of doing this that is often overlooked is to regularly provide clear, actionable feedback.

Feedback, coaching, thoughtful delegation to provide growth opportunities, and career development conversations are a great place to start in providing more support to your directs.

5. Invest in your leadership team as a team

A senior team—as a team and not just the individuals on the team—also requires ongoing care and support. Leadership teams need time together to build trust and establish structures that help them succeed. Weekly meetings are a good start. Some of the basics that make any team work apply to senior teams: a sound agenda, regular meeting times, and behavioral norms, to name a few.

It’s also helpful for senior teams to spend more in-depth time together periodically. Many senior leadership teams have a 1-2 day offsite once each quarter. This provides time and space to deepen trust and do substantive work on behalf of the team itself, as well as addressing broader company issues

6. Resources

Google’s Aristotle model provides some great evidence-based guidelines for successful teams.

I highly recommend the book Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make the Great, which is based on a multi-year study of 120 senior teams.

Becoming a senior executive involves big changes in thinking and behavior. For more on this topic, see our recent post: Five Habits for Senior Executives.

For a great overview of the senior role, I also recommend the Harvard Business Review article: How Managers Become Leaders.