The Rise of Executive Team Malaise

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As a long time, competitive runner, I have a recurring dream that I experience from time to time. In this dream, I try to run quickly, easily and gracefully. But there is an invisible force causing me to feel slow, heavy and uncoordinated. Like trying to run fast in a pool, I push forward with frustration and effort, until I wake up relieved to realize it was just a dream. Sadly, we see many executive teams right now feeling the same way, but for them it’s not a dream – it’s reality.

Executive leadership teams have always had challenges in working together to create high performing decision-making bodies. However, in our work with many clients and in how they try to operate effectively together at executive levels, we’ve noticed a troubling trend at the top. If we were to look at an executive team in the way we’d look at a living organism, we’d say that in many cases they are impaired. There is a malaise that is causing these teams to be slower, less agile, mired in ambiguity and generally retreating to their own spheres of control. In essence, many executive teams operate as a collection of individuals, rather than as a highly coordinated team, and there is no time to waste in figuring out what’s going on.

So, what’s causing this malaise, and what can we do about it?

First, some of the reasons. There is no shortage of challenges senior teams have faced since the pandemic, but there are several that have combined to impact how senior teams operate

Ongoing pressure. With the uncertainty and unpredictability of the past few years, leaders feel less clear about how to prioritize, how to plan, how to thrive. Under pressure, any human behaves differently at an individual level. But pressure divides and frays teams by amplifying more “fight or flight” behaviors, making trust and collaboration that much harder to create.

• Less “face time.” Although many companies are increasing their time in the office, most executive teams are still spending less time together now than before the pandemic. For those who’ve joined these teams since then, it’s that much harder to build a foundation of trust and understanding with peers. And increased virtual interactions make it that much harder to resolve conflict, to understand operating styles, and to build a shared sense of purpose. One of the highest performing executive teams we know is leading through a transformation and spends three days a week together – every week. How does that compare to your company?

• Wearing just one hat. In the highest functioning senior teams we’ve worked with, we see leaders wearing two hats – one as their function or geography lead, the other as a member of the executive team. In the best teams, you can listen to a functional leader communicating about company performance, and not know which function they lead, because they have such a strong commitment to an enterprise-wide strategy and priorities. We see this all too infrequently these days. Many teams talk about a common sense of direction but haven’t aligned on those specific priorities for which the entire executive team feels accountable.

So, what can we do to get senior teams – incredibly important drivers of company success – back on track? Here’s what we’ve seen companies do to move beyond the malaise:

Time heals all wounds. Roughly speaking, the more time senior teams spend together, the faster they figure out how to get things done as a team. We’ve seen a number of these teams invest in building trust, understanding their individual strengths, clarifying decision making processes – and reaping massive gains. “Going slow to go fast” never felt so relevant. And, frequency of meeting together helps to maintain that ability to stay high performing, diffusing any tensions that may arise.

Establish the critical few. One thing we like to do when initially assessing a senior team is to ask members “what are your executive team’s critical few priorities?” Not many answer with clarity and consistency. By aligning around a limited number of enterprise-wide priorities, executive teams can rally around a purpose that feels achievable and focused. These can (and most likely should) shift as conditions change, but the principle of “picking your shots” can create great calls to action for a collection of highly capable leaders.

CEO as expectation setter. For those leaders not accustomed to working well with their executive peers, what will it take for them to change behavior? How about starting with accountability? CEOs who expect and inspire true collaboration make it clear that leaders who operate with lateral agility will succeed for the long run. And if not, solo performers need to know their time is limited. As one of my managers used to say, “You can change the people, or you can change the people.”

The good news is that we’ve witnessed a number of executive teams investing the time to battle this malaise – setting themselves up for faster growth, quicker decision making and amplified benefits to the leaders and organizations reporting to these levels. So, what’s one action we’d suggest every company take when dealing with some form of executive team malaise? Do whatever it takes to understand what’s causing the challenges. Once you understand the root causes of ineffective team performance, you can do something about it.

On several occasions, we’ve seen executive teams literally pivot in as little as one or two days of intentional team work on the right issues to dramatically increase their potency. It’s an exciting thing to see, and should be happening more often. After all, a runner in a pool can only go so fast.