Dear Leaders: Not Everyone On Your Team Has To Be “Strategic”

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What are the most important factors to keep in mind when assembling a well-functioning executive team? Is diversity of experience and thought really that important? Should each person share the same strengths? What about values and ethics? Rather than assembling a team of leaders with essentially the same characteristics and capabilities, we encourage executives to build a team with a combination of skills that will complement each other. Much like a plate of food, a dish is often most successful when there are disparate ingredients that each bring their own flavor, and which work cohesively together to form a new recipe.

We recently met with Aaron, a client who is a Founder/CEO of a rapidly growing multi-site dental practice. He was excited about the recent investment he secured because it would allow him to build out his executive team (beyond himself and his Co-Founder/COO). Aaron was adamant that each leader had to be “strategic.” We asked, “To what end?”

As the conversation unfolded, we all came to realize that what Aaron really needed was a CFO that could set up some basic financial reporting and work with the COO to identify cost savings, an HR leader that could manage the recruitment needs, and a marketing leader that could update the website and create digital marketing campaigns. Aaron already had the strategy; he needed a leadership team to help him execute it, and that would require a mix of complementary capabilities and characteristics.

Creating A Diverse Team Is Important
A team with diverse skill sets and styles of thinking is valuable and necessary. Research done by Haas and Mortensen (“The Secrets of Great Teamwork” by Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen) suggests that there are four “enabling conditions” required for successful team collaboration:

– Compelling Direction
– Strong Structure
– Supportive Context
– Shared Mindset

In the second “enabling condition” (strong structure), they highlight the importance of having a team with the right mix and number of members, with a balance of skills. Having team members with different views, knowledge and perspectives can avoid the pitfalls of groupthink and often spurs innovation.

While the CEO is creating a vision, others can ground those thoughts in reality by ensuring their teams can execute and setting up mechanisms to hold others accountable. While one leader is focused on profitability, another is thinking through revenue generation and go-to-market; and yet another is determining the best way to deliver messages while maintaining the trust and psychological safety for the broader organization.

At the same time, an executive team should aim to share the same values. Understanding one’s own values and style, and how that is similar to or different from others on the executive team will contribute to the behaviors being modeled from the top. Values underscore cultural norms and ultimately frame and widely impact the culture. Ingram and Choi (“What does your company really stand for? By Paul Ingram and Yoonjin Choi)  have conducted dozens of studies designed to look at how a clear understanding of individual and organizational values can affect decision-making, motivation, relationships, well-being, leadership and performance. They discovered that when a company’s values are aligned with its employee’s values the benefits can be better teamwork and more effective communication, among others.

So How Can This Be Done?
Due to bias and capacity on time and capability for an executive team, it is often necessary to bring in an objective perspective to dive deeper and identify each individual’s values, skillset, and problem-solving style. While one leader might think they know their own strengths and gaps, having another lens can catch for blind spots, hidden strengths, or adjustments to values and approaches to problem-solving that can happen over time.

At Summit, we use assessment tools such as team feedback as well as Hogan to pinpoint each leader’s personal effectiveness in their position; and can then go a step further to give each member a team role. From there, it can be determined which team roles are disproportionately represented. Where is there a gap? How is the team working together (i.e. are they effective)? And of course, an essential component of getting this type of diverse team to work together will be ensuring that each individual feels empowered to add value by contributing to the conversation regularly. Creating an environment that enables that courageous contribution can be established by first tending to the “shared mindset” of the team, which involves fostering a common identity and common understanding for those on the team (the “shared mindset” is the fourth “enabling condition”, and perhaps the most important, underscored by Haas and Mortensen mentioned earlier).

Thus, when deciding which individuals can contribute best to the executive team, remember to look first at their values. Then, determine how each leader can and will add to the team in a unique way, filling a void or strengthening a gap. Rather than requiring that each leader be “strategic”, instead make certain they have the skills that the team (and the organization) needs.

This article was co-authored by Peggy Boyer PhD, Managing Director, Talent Solutions, and Meghan Harris Kofoed, Senior Consultant.