Leadership requires connected teams, not disparate ones

Successful leaders need a clear vision of how they want their team to run, along with the flexibility to make changes when personalities or situations demand them, writes Matthew Blagg, CEO, Criticaleye

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The recent exodus from Twitter’s board, coupled with news of more changes in its C-suite to come, raises some interesting questions about what makes a world-class, high-performing executive team. Were there fundamental problems among Jack Dorsey’s senior leadership team that couldn’t be rectified? Or could the team have worked through any issues in order to achieve alignment, break down any silos and ultimately build the trust needed to avoid such a drastic, mass departure of key individuals?

Whatever the reason, Twitter’s executive turnover demonstrates the challenges involved in building and maintaining an effective and cohesive leadership team. For European CEOs the difficulty is even more acute, potentially having to work with board members operating in various locales and different markets. How do you get the various parts of your leadership team moving as one and, in doing so, reap the benefits of that alignment when driving strategy and innovation, and during times of change?

There are a number of common traits and characteristics which we usually see in very successful, effective boards. Diversity is perhaps the most obvious

What’s very clear is that you can’t simply put together a group of highly motivated people with the right experience and expertise, and assume they will spontaneously work well together. The CEO has a key role to play in both selecting the best individuals for the top jobs and then ensuring they are working together towards a common goal, regardless of their divisional responsibilities or geographic location.

Telling traits
So, what makes a high-performing leadership team? There are a number of common traits and characteristics which we usually see in very successful, effective boards. Diversity is perhaps the most obvious. Leadership teams require a rich mix of people to perform at the highest level. Populate your C-suite with carbon copies and you will miss out on a broader range of opinion on strategy, innovation and greater diversity of thought. It is now commonly accepted, although not always the case in reality, that boards need a variety of individuals who are prepared to challenge ideas and strategies, as well as offering the flexibility needed to adapt to external change in the market. Not only this, but diversity at the top of the tree usually translates to greater variety throughout the business in general, so organisations reap the benefits of diversity at every level.

Another common trait we see in high-performing leadership teams is alignment. You may have a diverse and varied group of executives, but they must be focused on and aligned behind a common goal if the business is going to drive strategy. There is no place for silos in the C-suite, but too often we see behaviours on the board which seem to prioritise divisional or local responsibilities over the overarching aims and objectives of the business. Clearly, the CEO has a central role to play in building and maintaining the focus of the executive team on a common goal, no matter where they are based, their divisional objectives or their personal ambitions.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, the relationships within the leadership team must be based on complete trust. Without this, most boards will struggle to achieve their full potential and drive the business forward. Establishing trust will encourage individuals to be more honest and open, as will adopting a flatter, more collaborative structure. Trust is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining a leadership DNA which will form the basis of how well the business can perform. It also provides the right environment to build relationships, both within and outside the board.

Divided time
The importance of having a high-performing and clearly aligned leadership team is becoming ever more essential in today’s rapidly changing and complex world. Digital transformation and the need for more sustainable business practices are forcing executive teams to effectively lead change – a process which becomes very difficult when CEOs and their boards are not working together and there is no trust. Clearly, the issue becomes even more complex when you are operating across different locations and markets, but the requirement of the leadership team remains the same. Address the change needed, establish the strategic direction of the business and align the executive team behind that strategy to ensure the business remains successful and is taking advantage of
external opportunities.

Working across locations, the central role of the CEO takes on an even greater importance. Changes needed in one division of the business may not apply in others, but the European CEO must ensure the leadership DNA is firmly established so that whatever challenges their leadership team faces can be addressed.
To this end, spending time with executives in your various localities is crucial. Too often we hear of CEOs who spend very little time in their locations, despite the importance of their business there. As a rule of thumb, it makes sense for CEOs to divide their time according to the value of the business in each region. So, if a location generates around 20 percent of your business, you should be spending about 20 percent of your time there, working with the executives and ensuring your senior team is working as one.

Objective analysis
Taking a step back from the everyday work of running an organisation is the first step to achieving alignment. Indeed, here at Criticaleye, our CEO members and their teams report that having the executive team together, focused and involved in the same debate is the most effective and efficient way of tackling issues that are hindering alignment and causing individuals to work at cross purposes. It enables the leadership team to establish a clear strategy and a framework for realising its aims and objectives.

Similarly, access to experienced individuals and mentors who have been through the same challenges is cited as highly valuable when building team alignment and knowledge. Whether a business is undergoing a period of rapid growth, responding to external change or preparing for IPO, access to prior experience offers an invaluable source of help in challenging their strategy and the way they work together as a team. Having led organisations in their own operational careers, mentors are perfectly placed to provide an unbiased and experienced perspective to leadership teams.

That said, the success of any effort to build and maintain a high performing leadership team is going to be almost wholly dependent on the personalities of the CEO and individual members of the C-suite. Conflicting egos, silo mentalities and failure to communicate effectively will have a negative impact on building alignment.

In most cases, for CEOs that are seeking help to develop and transform their leadership team, something invariably has to change. This might mean a complete restructure of the team and making some tough decisions about whether certain individuals can work within a new leadership framework, or it might just be taking a step back with your existing team and putting the wheels in motion to put the C-suite back on the right track.

One can’t help but wonder whether the leadership team at Twitter would have been able to build alignment and trust with the right mix of leadership development and access to experiential learning. In our experience at Criticaleye, these two ingredients provide a valuable and truly effective way of building a cohesive and high-performing leadership team every time, no matter what challenge needs to be overcome.