Senior Leadership Teams Book Review: Conditions for Thriving Teams

The Senior Leadership Team, more than any other group, has the power to drive the success of an enterprise. The CEOs and executive team members we know are incredibly hard working, intelligent, mission-driven people who commit an enormous amount of time and energy to their organizations. And yet, even with all their extraordinary capabilities, these teams often struggle with basics like building trust and collaboration.

Because we work increasingly with CEOs and senior teams, Sierra Leadership is conducting a literature review on what makes senior teams effective, with an eye towards finding credible, evidence based resources. While there are a lot of opinions out there, insight grounded in solid research is more rare.

So far, our favorite book is: Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great, published by Harvard Business Press. This book provides great practical insight and advice; however it’s not the easiest read. This two-part blog series summarizes highlights in the hopes of making it more accessible to our clients.

Creating and Leading Executive Teams

Drawing from data and interviews of more than 120 teams globally, the book concludes there are six key conditions to creating and leading executive teams. The authors’ blueprint boils down to three “essential” (necessary, foundational elements) conditions and three “enabling” (accelerating) conditions.

The Three Essential Conditions

1. Create a real team and not one in name only.

Real teams are:

  • Interdependent and driven by a collective purpose – i.e. team members are highly reliant on each other in how they work together and make decisions collectively in the interest of the business
  • Bounded (or clearly delineated) – i.e. it’s self-evident to everyone who is or is not a part of the team
  • Stable – i.e. membership does not fluctuate dramatically, providing ample time for members to really know one another and work together

2. Ensure the team has a consequential, challenging, and clear purpose.

A well-functioning team needs a task that is crucial enough to be considered a primary job of leadership and not something ancillary to their individual roles.  Examples of responsibilities include: redefining organizational goals, managing mission-critical initiatives, and integrating acquisitions. The purpose should strike a balance of the right amount of challenge and clarity, which helps underscore the interdepencies of the team members.

3. Secure the “right” people.

The critical issue is whether team members can handle both parts of the leadership job: the responsibilities of leading their own functions and also “participation in a team that brings an enterprise perspective to every problem.” Leaders, even superstars, who are unable to do both jobs are not the right ones to sit on a senior team. Beyond their functional and operational expertise, they must also be able to engage in constructive debate, think conceptually, and have empathy and integrity.

The Three Enabling Conditions

1. A solid team structure that accounts for:

  • The size of the team (smaller is better and no more than eight or nine)
  • Tasks that are well-defined and mission critical that engage the team in generating meaningful assessments of the quality of their work on those tasks and
  • Establishing clear norms that govern how people behave in and outside team meetings (modeled and enforced by the chief executive), supported by well-thought through, meaningful agenda with clear outcomes

2. A supportive organizational context that includes the following types of support:

  • Reward structures that recognize and reinforce team deliverables. For example, linking executives’ pay to key competencies that ensure they operate as effective team members
  • Effectively managed information, which is structured to meet the leadership team’s needs for their purposes
  • Ongoing development opportunities that build the capabilities of the team
  • Support, including space, support staff, and materials. For example, organizing an informal, agenda-free evening provides opportunities for members to get to know one another, building rapport and helping foster better team relationships.

3. Competent team coaching:

Coaching in the context of a team means focusing on improving the process that teams members use to interact in order to improve team efficacy. The focus is on understanding what behaviors and processes advance the team in their work, including how to identify and employ the individual talents of the team. The authors advise:

  • Do not skimp on coaching
  • If team coaching is not in your wheelhouse, seek help
  • Pay attention to when you offer coaching, as timing powerfully affects the impact of coaching interventions
  • Pay attention to the contributions that team members can add to coaching the team

In the second blog we summarize the authors’ perspective on leading senior teams.