How to be a Collaborative Member of the C-Suite

One of the biggest challenges for C-level leaders is collaborating with peers.

A driving factor is that for most organizations, senior leaders’ interests are not fully aligned. They may be competing for resources, the CEO’s attention, or opportunities.

Also, senior executives are extremely busy, making constant tradeoffs with their time. This makes it hard to build relationships with peers, especially in large executive teams. (I often hear: “How can I connect deeply with 11 other executives and also lead my own function?”)

Sometimes there’s a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, which leaves executive team members stepping on each other or vying to lead (or avoid) the same work.

Finally, misunderstandings are common in the stress-filled world of C-level leaders. A word or move by a colleague is perceived as unsupportive, when the true intent is really to serve the business. Far more executive relationships are damaged by perceived bad intent than by actual bad actors.

Given what’s at stake–the success of the leadership team and therefore the whole business–executive team collaboration is crucial. Here are some steps to help make it happen.

Invest time in peer relationships. Most personal relationships benefit from an investment of quality time, and the same is true for senior executives. There’s simply no substitute for spending face time with your peers. And sitting in leadership team meetings doesn’t count. Ask yourself: how much 1-1 time have I spent with my peers talking about what matters and really getting to know them?

Ask for feedback, receive it skillfully. I’ve seen honest feedback lead to an increase in trust in the C-suite over time. It’s not a magic bullet, but if you ask your peers for feedback periodically, really listen, and act on at least some of their advice, it can make a difference. (For more on how to receive feedback, read The Art of Receiving Feedback.)

Give useful feedback. In addition to asking for feedback, giving candid feedback can be a great way to build trust. But it has to be done well. One executive I recently met with said, “Our Board Chair really believes in me and has my back, so he can give me any kind of feedback he wants and I’ll listen to it.” In that sentence lies a key to effective feedback: you have to genuinely care about the person’s success. If you do and they can feel it, you’ll have a lot more permission to give feedback. (For more on how to give feedback, read Feedback: A Recipe for Improvement.)

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Unclear or overlapping roles, or lack of agreement on role definition often cause friction on the leadership team. Some CEOs believe this creates healthy tension on the team. But in my experience, by leaving things undefined or by intentionally creating conflicting expectations, CEOs undermine the trust and performance of their senior team. It’s helpful periodically to assess roles on the executive team to ensure people know their own scope.

Assume good intent. Problems on executive teams often begin with misperception. Then in no time, a rift forms. It’s unusual in my experience that executives are truly out to harm one another. The key is to catch these misperceptions as early as possible, and to intentionally cultivate the assumption of good intent–then go talk directly to your peer and test out your assumptions.

Create and reward shared goals. One effective way to foster collaboration is to give the team joint goals that the team–as a whole–are rewarded for. This rewards collaboration by providing clear incentives for it. Many leadership teams talk about collaboration but their rewards structure encourages the opposite.

Be a coach and advisor. Leadership team members can be excellent coaches for one another. Imagine being part of a team where you can take your most thorny challenges to any of your peers, and trust that you’ll get huge value. At the leadership team level, many problems are complex enough that they benefit from having more smart brains involved–even if those people are not domain experts.

Avoid bad behavior. To state the obvious, if you actually speak or act with the intent of undermining your peer, you’re courting trouble. Don’t do it! Monitor your intentions honestly and treat your peers the way you would like to be treated. Trust is easily lost, and once lost, hard to get back. If see an expedient opportunity that disadvantages a peer, be thoughtful and take the long view.

Implement executive team norms. Creating and implementing executive team norms can be extremely useful in having the kind of culture you want. I suggest starting with a small number of norms with specific behaviors defined for each. It’s important to track the team’s progress on norm adoption and have frequent discussions about how things are going. (See How to Create Executive Team Norms and Make them Stick.)

Learn more

For more on teamwork at the top, see High-performing teams: A timeless leadership topic.

For more on executive team collaboration, see The symphonic C-suite: Teams leading teams.

To learn about addressing some specific c-suite challenges read: Turnaround strategies for dysfunctional teams.