When Executive Leadership Teams Slow Things Down: Four Pitfalls to Avoid

Summit Leadership Partners

In that constant pursuit to define the “single throat to choke,” we tend to emphasize the attributes, results, and impact of specific leaders. In reality, results are a function (or dysfunction) of the executive leadership team—how it behaves, what it focuses on, and how it makes decisions. In our assessment work with companies, many of the issues we uncover—whether it’s about speed of execution, structure, culture, strategic alignment—inevitably come back to the performance and effectiveness of the executive leadership team (the team we broadly define as the CEO and the company’s functional and/or business unit heads). While these teams score high in their general alignment around strategy, weak decision making, accountability, and transparency are significant performance killers for organizations. 

The impact of the executive team is particularly pronounced in middle market companies. Compared to much larger companies where these teams primarily focus on setting strategy, high growth company executive teams set, translate, and play a hand in executing strategy. Given the breadth of their role, how they operate drives overall execution. Furthermore, as one of the few, if only, formalized cross-functional leadership teams in the organization, the executive team casts a big shadow in role modeling expectations for collaboration to the broader organization. Our experience and recent research in working with these teams point to several pitfalls that can destroy enterprise value by creating a drag on execution. These include the following.

 

Four Executive Leadership Team Pitfalls to Avoid

  1. Misalignment on Purpose.  Several teams that we have worked with have established a great cadence for meeting—some as frequently as 2 hours each week. Yet when asked how they spend their time, the vast majority of time is spent on updating each other on the accomplishments of their functions or key initiatives. While teams can rush to establish a cadence, they haven’t always wrestled to the ground bigger questions around team purpose. Executive teams too often mix strategic agenda topics with operational and tactical ones. The near-term issues will always take precedence, creating little room for higher impact debates and discussion on strategy. Time together for executive teams is a precious commodity with significant opportunity costs when wasted.
  2. Bad Decision-Making Habits. Effective decision making is a critical enabler of executional speed. Yet for many organizations, there is often very little clarity, agreement, or consistency on how key decisions get made at the top.  Does a decision need to be made? When? Should this team be the one making it? Answers to these questions are usually assumed and rarely debated in the open. At one client, all decisions were made by individual executive team members in one-on-one meetings with the CEO, only to then be relitigated when other team members affected by the decision caught wind of it and cried foul. At another company, every decision, including which teleconferencing vendor to use, was made by the executive team. Not only did it create a major decision-making bottleneck, it also disempowered the next level down. The net result of both examples-complete executional gridlock.
  3. Poor Peer Accountability. Most senior leaders incorrectly assume that the most important team they sit on is the one they lead. At their level, the reality is that their most important team is the one where they are a contributing team member solving for enterprise-wide issues versus smaller, function-specific ones. Influencing peers, rallying cross-functional resources, and balancing enterprise and functional priorities requires different leadership muscles. Of all dimensions of high performing executive teams that we measure, teams consistently perform weakest in managing peer conflict and accountability. Instead of addressing conflict, giving difficult feedback and holding team members accountable in the moment, the slow-death “let’s take this off line” lever gets pulled. This leaves many conflicts unresolved, increasing the risk of future conflicts just staying underground. Executive teams who say they don’t have any conflicts are not working on the right things (See Pitfall #1). Conflict is necessary, healthy, and unavoidable at this level. It just needs to be managed effectively.
  4. Lack of transparency lower in the organization. We’ve heard on many occasions “we have no idea what the executive team talks about or what it decides—they operate in a black box.” For executive leadership teams fortunate enough to avoid the first three pitfalls, they may forget that they operate in a greater system, and that inter dependencies must be both cross-functional and vertical. A key role they play is arming the next level down with timely information, decisions, and resources to execute effectively. However, mechanisms to share important team outcomes don’t always exist. As a result, some team members share information inconsistently, creating some functions more “in the know” than others because of what their functional leader determines appropriate to share. This inconsistency can erode trust and create cross-functional disconnects, which slow things down even further.

Avoiding these pitfalls requires intentional focus and discipline more than anything. Successful executive teams invest time to clarify their purpose and align around decisions that the team needs to make as a team. Team members hold each other accountable, give timely, future-focused feedback and don’t allow conflicts to live underground. They establish and consistently use communication channels to share team outcomes and key decisions to empower the next level down to take action.

Executive teams that invest the time to solve for these pitfalls can unlock a new level of speed and agility for the organization. In contrast, teams who just come together because members share a reporting relationship to the CEO leave a lot of opportunity on the table and rarely deliver superior results. Being clear and intentional around both the “what” of the team (i.e., purpose, transparency) and as well the “how” (i.e., decision making and peer accountability) makes a substantial difference.