High Performance Executive Teams


 These days you cannot read a business periodical or participate in a meeting where the need for teamwork and frustration associated with sub optimization isn’t being discussed.  The sad truth is that in this era of restructuring where resources are rationed or absent, the need for teamwork has never been greater  The added complexity is the benefits we are deriving from Collaborative Tools and the attitudinal preferences of the Generation Y workers to whom Teamwork is to be expected not a planned for or unanticipated outcome..


A plethora of literature exists on why teams are necessary to promote organizational interests with concomitant wringing of hands as to why the forming and effective use of coalitions is so difficult.  Let’s face it folks, eagles don’t flock.  Teamwork at senior levels is counter intuitive in that it has not been an outcome of conditioning or career recognition.  The achievement to executive levels is traditionally recognition of individual performance and personal decisiveness.


The effectiveness of teamwork is further complicated by performance management and reward strategies which emphasize the concept in spirit only.  There is no tangible emphasis on recognition associated with participation in or leadership of teams.  Few organizations “walk the talk” when it comes to promoting the need for teams.  All point to the necessity for cooperation within and across departments but few organizations back up the statements with rewards or sanctions.


Just saying teamwork is a desired organizational attribute is a little like kissing your sister.  Mechanically, it is the same but there is a certain ambiance missing…I hope!


 Senior Level Executive Teams Lessons Learned


My colleagues and I have been experimenting with various executive level team-building approaches as an extension or our organization and process redesign work.  A core of our point of view is that there is a necessity to embed into enterprise operations the use of highly proficient collaborative tools.


At the senior level what we have found is the critical need for executives to acknowledge that developing the environment for high performing teams goes beyond just framing the need and appointing the people.


Our work has led us to hypothesize that although there may be many appropriate interventions to build and sustain teamwork at levels, e.g. Outward Bound, the initial difficulty is persuading the executives that there is a true community of interests.  This deficiency allows executives to pay courteous lip service to the need for cooperating in a meaningful problem-solving way versus spectator level participation.  At the executive level, we infrequently find insincerity but often encounter over-politeness.  The continued denial that the development of a workable coalition with a unique identity and tailored set of operating principles creates a barrier to success.



Well-Intentioned Confusion


A European Company subsequent to a restructuring set up a Top Management team (TMT) with Pan European and American Membership.  The TMT meetings were described as exercises where “we all retreated back to our nationalist borders and ignored the fact our very survival depended on each other.”  “We all spoke English but listened in God knows what tongue.”


The popular excuse within the TMT was that cross-cultural differences were the barrier to success.


A consultant was retained to give a one-hour speech on Effective Teaming Principles.  Six hours, a spontaneous workshop and intense debate later, the managers emerged from the session having diagnosed the real problems as a lack of role specificity and articulation form the CEO as to what discretion the team enjoyed vis-à-vis decision making.



















Frequently, two major breakdown points are:  (1) a lack of clarity as to the purpose of the team and (2) awareness of the comfort zone of the top manager as to degree of participation.  The fundamental concern is whether or not the group is an advisory or decision-making entity. And (3) the lack of supporting technology compelling face to face meetings vs. ongoing communication.


Purpose of the Team


Sometimes the basics are so simple they are overlooked.  There is a need for each team to ask:  “What is the question to which our formation is the answer?”  Mission and charter statements do not go far enough.  Specific role delineations, identification of suitable topics to be brought to the team’s agenda, and most importantly articulation by the top manager as to how he or she wishes to see decisions evolve need to be specified.


Individual Roles


Teamwork is disenfranchised at the executive level by what we call the “I am my function” phenomenon.  This phenomenon occurs when people only represent the point of view associated with their designated role.


For example, finance people only participate in financial (or fiscal) economic discussions.  This is self-limiting as the intellectual capital in the room is untapped.  The goal is to create an environment that affords an opportunity for members to demonstrate the broadest skills for the team’s benefit.



Executive Team Building Approach


The desired state of executives to strengthen their potential to become a high performing team presupposes that members recognize the limitations of the status quo.


Our approach in “turning the mirror on the team” has a number of steps.


Organization Climate Diagnostic


We have found that it is necessary to “assess” the organization climate to determine the convergence or divergence of views on factors such as the following:


        Role Architecture – the clarity surrounding roles, accountabilities, reporting relationships and performance expectations

        Performance Mentality – the degree of organizational pressure to perform….meritocracy

        Discretion – the freedom, or lack thereof, of management discretion in making and

        executing decisions

        Total Rewards – the perspective regarding the competitiveness and generosity of the organizations Compensation and Benefits programs.

        Infrastructure – the level of support from entities such as finance, HR, IT, Marketing etc.

        Commitment – the level of perceived commitment to the organization for “the next 5 years”


Teaming Workshop


Our two-day workshops have a threefold purpose:


·        Generate awareness as to the dimensions of the barriers facing this team

·        Agreement achieved as to role, meeting focus, decision-making discretion, top management involvement

·        Development of a Statement of Operating Principles, referred to as the Covenant


Teaming Workshop Process


·        Exercise identifying High Performing Teams

·        Characteristics of High Performing Teams

·        Team evaluation against identified criteria

·        Organizational barriers identification, discussion, mitigation/elimination strategy

·        Meyers Briggs tutorial and implications on team effectiveness

·        Role and decision-making processes discussed and codified

·        Development of Teaming principles established as a covenant















High Performing Teams Example


The first step in our process is an exercise where the participants are broken into subgroups and asked to give examples of high performing teams.  The five examples found most frequently are:  sports (hockey or basketball), medical (ER or OR), music (symphonies), special ops (SWAT or Special Forces), and ants or bees.


Characteristics of High Performing Teams and Assessment


Participants are then asked to identify those characteristics that distinguish high performing teams.  The most common characteristics are:


·        Clear objectives, roles and accountabilities

·        Tailored participation maximizing individual skills sets

·        Tangible incentives for team performance

·        Effective vehicles for communication

·        Mechanisms in place to resolve conflict if it is encountered

·        A manifested sense of urgency focused on completion


Participants then compare desired characteristics with their own performance.  The team is continually asked to frame the dimensions of the sub optimized behaviors and develop action plans to reduce or eliminate success barriers.


Organizational and Personal Awareness


Using our climate diagnostic methodologies and the Meyers Briggs tool, there is a discussion in terms of how the organization and the personality profiles of integral team members affect the internal workings of the team.  The Meyers Briggs methodology is particularly useful in that the personality profiles point to diversity, the elements of which can be enhanced to promote group effectiveness.  The organizational climate aspects suggest outcomes which can translate into action plans to reduce success barriers and promote the growth and effectiveness of the coalition.


Roles and Protocols


Working in subgroups, team members identify specific roles and decision-making protocol to be utilized within the team environment.  There is aggressiveness in the context of assuring specificity in terms of both as an element of this component of the workshop.


Teaming Principles – Covenant


The program commonly culminates with subgroups developing “teaming principles.”  This covenant becomes the contract which the team conducts its affairs.  After each subgroup presents its findings, the members of the team are asked, unless they have severe reservations, to initial the flipcharts or viewgraphs.  We then create some type of display frame or table setting, etc. with signatures.  In addition, we actively encourage the executive teams to use communication organs to broadcast the covenant throughout the firm.  The benefits of that are self-evident.


14 Common Characteristics


Following is a description of the most commonly suggested inputs for the development of this covenant.





1.      Everyone participates without exception.

2.      Style, cultural and other differentiating filters do not become barriers.  They required validation of communications

3.      Listening is an art form, not a biological function, requiring care, thoughtfulness, and active involvement.

4.      Conflict is unavoidable, requiring principled methodologies for resolution.

5.      Assume good intentions, and do not position people as accidents waiting to happen.

6.      Recognize that the overall interests of the organization are paramount.

7.      Once decisions are made by the working group, there should uniform external communication.  No second-guessing or triangulation.

8.      Maximization of individual skills and contributions.  No one fails.

9.      No debate is engaged in without closure.

10.  Decisions are translated into actions with accountabilities and timeframes.

11.  Metrics are incorporated into an evaluation of group effectiveness and integrated with recognition and reward structures.

12.  Efficient executive teams focus on small numbers of high profile and high priority activities.

13.  Executive teams should demand and receive high quality information for their decision-making processes.

14.  For the staff development of others, non-group members should be allowed to make presentations and participate in relevant discussion and get a sense of the internal dynamics of the working group.  Transform external participants into missionaries.













































The covenants aside, the two behaviors that can sabotage the best of intensions and most disciplined internal working agreements are:  (1) listening and (2) conflict resolution.  The executives’ listening skills have to continue to be te4sted and reinforced.  It is not something we do as an automatic response.  Often times, more senior executives appear to be listening but their brain is really running ahead in terms of how they are going to respond or, in many cases, focused on something totally outside the conversation.  This must be confronted in order for the team to optimize its effectiveness.


Conflict resolution is a result of human interaction.  The need for principled communication and successful conflict resolution versus finger-pointing is a necessity.  The group should agree in advance as an element of its principles how it will resolve conflict, i.e., the CEO makes the final call, etc.  It also should be recognized that no matter how much there is a desire to eliminate conflict, it will happen.


High performance Teams take energy.  However, this energy has benefit both in the short-and long-term.  If organizations continue to exist as coalitions of individuals that promote individual self-interest at the expense of the corporation, an organization’s ability to grow and prosper is hampered.








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