It’s All About Trust: Building a Leadership Team That Meets Today’s Challenges

The higher you go in an organization, the less insulated you are from the realities of the world. Given the unprecedented volatility all around us and the centrifugal forces within companies, leadership teams are facing extreme pressure. Some senior executives we’ve worked with have left the workforce entirely, and it’s unclear if or when they will ever return to full-time work. The strains of leading in a complex world no doubt played a part; the Great Resignation goes all the way to the top.

In such a world, how do you build a leadership team that’s resilient enough to endure? A team so regenerative that its members—including the team leader—want to stick around? The answer may lie in trust. As organizational development expert Sam Kaner once said (and I paraphrase), “The strength of the relationships within the team has to match the scope of the problem they are trying to solve.” If that’s true, then leadership teams need more trust now than ever before.

But building trust demands more than the occasional team dinner. There are fundamentals—both human and structural—that senior leaders must establish to create an environment where trust grows. The key is to invest deeply in the underpinnings of trust, and to view the growth of your leadership team as mission-critical to your company’s success.

Here are some ways to do just that.

Get the right people on the team and the wrong people off it. Leadership team members must excel in both of their key jobs: as functional leaders, and as collaborators with their peers. Don’t fall into the trap of tolerating star performers who don’t play well with others. They erode team trust, and since they manage up well, you may be shielded from their negative impact. In addition, make sure your team is diverse enough to bring varied perspectives. This requires a long-term commitment to diverse recruiting pipelines and building an inclusive and equitable environment.

Get the right number of people on the team. If your strategy demands cross-functional work, you need a strong, collaborative team leading your organization. That usually means a team size of six to ten people; in our experience, seven or eight is a sweet spot. Larger teams don’t allow for real discussion and debate—there are simply too many voices. Smaller ones may not adequately represent key functions. Remember, you can have a different forum with more people to share information. Or you can occasionally invite additional people to attend leadership team meetings.

Establish a clear, inspiring and shared vision. Nothing is more important for a leadership team than a company-level vision they understand, align on, and believe in. Period. 

Bake meaning into your corporate strategy. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, has become increasingly outspoken about the need for companies to be net positive. This means taking responsibility for 100% of the impact of their business activities and making sure they are solving big global problems instead of creating them. We are past the time when companies can feel proud of making a good profit alone. We have to enable a better world. For leadership teams, this is the foundation of meaningful work.

Map functional representation to your long-term strategy. Team composition should flow from company strategy and not simply from team member seniority or scope. A global expansion strategy, for example, might suggest the need for global leaders on your top team. A people-intensive strategy is an argument for the Head of People to be on the top team.

Build psychological safety. New research by Amy Edmondson, who coined the term psychological safety, suggests that diverse teams outperform less diverse teams—but only if those diverse teams also have psychological safety. There is a great deal that a senior leader can do to enable such safety. It begins with respectful behavior, effective listening, genuine caring, and encouragement of diverse perspectives. Team members need to feel deeply valued; just because they are very senior and highly compensated doesn’t mean you can take them for granted. 

Establish clear roles and responsibilities. CEOs sometimes believe that senior executives should be able to sort out their roles with each other. In fact, when there are ambiguous or overlapping roles on the top team, it’s often necessary for CEOs to roll up their sleeves and help clarify who does what. Unclear roles heighten the likelihood of political behavior and interpersonal tension.

Really implement norms of behavior. Many senior teams create some form of agreed-upon behaviors for their teams. These are often generated in a team offsite. But how often are they put into practice? In reality, 99% of the value of team norms lies in how they are implemented, so design ways to do that.

Create a clear purpose for your leadership team. What is the unique work that only your leadership team can do? This inspiring team purpose should roll up to, but not be identical to, company purpose. Clarity here helps you to focus team agendas and meeting time on the essentials that enable your strategy. 

Encourage useful conflict and healthy debate. Productive conflict is a natural and positive result of having diverse perspectives within your team. Start by asking yourself how you honestly feel about conflict. If you are conflict-averse, you may be creating an environment where people cannot fully express their views, because “let’s all get along” is your higher priority. 

Enable mutual accountability. At some point in their growth, most companies need an accountability system. For example, Google uses Objectives and Key Results, which sets targets for exactly what needs to get done each quarter by every team across the company. Under Alan Mulally’s leadership, Ford implemented a Business Plan Review, which gave the leadership weekly insight into the progress of all key projects. These systems make clear what everyone is accountable for, individually and collectively. To shift from “our leader holds us accountable” to “we hold ourselves accountable,” deeply involve the leadership team in strategy formation.

Be fanatical about how team time is used. It’s remarkable how much senior leadership team time is devoted to the wrong things. Ultimately, it’s the leader’s responsibility to help the team define the small number of most crucial tasks that must be tackled by the team, as a team. With limited exceptions, only those things should get onto the team meeting agenda. 

Practice good ‘meeting hygiene.’ Even extraordinary leaders can waste time in meetings because they are missing the basics: a clear agenda, an agreed-upon meeting or topic leader, and established timings. Try some simple meeting processes like Fist to Five and recording action items and decisions. 

Take the guesswork out of decision-making. Be deliberate and transparent about how decisions are made. Use a RACI or similar model to clearly establish who decides what. Delegate decisions wherever possible—the senior team doesn’t have time for extra work. Be self-aware and transparent about the flavor of each decision: specify “I’m going to make this decision, but I want a robust discussion first,” or “I want the team to decide on this one.”

Invest in team learning and development. The best senior teams are crucibles of professional development. Team members grow rapidly through stretch roles and coaching from you, their peers, and outside professionals. 

Don’t skimp on resources. Your leadership team is running your company and is responsible for its success. Don’t skimp on anything they need—information, consulting resources, and most of all, consistent, regular time working together and bonding as a team. 

Stabilize team membership over time. This is challenging in a hot market for senior talent, but the best teams need time to fully gel. Once you have all the right people in place, do everything you reasonably can to retain them so they can work together as a unit over a period of years. Each time membership changes, you have a new team; don’t underestimate the impact of departures and additions.

The case for creating a high-performing top team is compelling: research suggests that companies with the best senior teams do better than companies with average or poorly performing ones. Given the complexity and scope of problems in the world, now is the time to invest in your top team.

Our favorite resources:

Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great

Google’s research on team effectiveness