Corporate Executive Teams provide the strategic direction and leadership for their organizations.
By starting with such an obvious statement I realize I run the risk of you thinking, “no duh, Paul,” and moving on to another article, but stick with me here. I’m stating the obvious because, as a certified executive and leadership team coach for Bright Arrow, I have interacted with too many executive teams who use this or something very similar as their executive team purpose statements.
It is all too common to rally around statements that we consider obvious, but when challenged on what they actually mean, we realize they are not as clear to us as we believed, and may actually be creating harmful disconnects.
I recently worked with an executive team who, when asked about their team’s purpose, had incredibly similar responses. In fact, 8 out of 12 used an almost exact version of the phrase, “to lead and manage the organization.” Okay, fair. It’s honestly what I expected. So, next I asked whether the individuals felt the purpose statement addressed the “means” of getting there and the “ends” of what “there” was. Those comments revealed there was, in fact, very little clarity. Twenty-two percent felt the end was specified but not the means to getting there, and the other 88% felt neither the means nor the ends were well specified.
Had I allowed the team to stop at “to lead and manage the organization,” each member would have rightfully continued to act based on their own definitions of “there” and the ways to get there. The harm this creates is misalignment, fragmentation of effort and ineffectiveness. The creation of a meaningful executive team purpose statement should result in clarity of action, a healthy amount of challenge, and greater collaboration.
“But Paul,” you ask “since our executive team is really a gathering of functional leaders, isn’t it best that we keep it vague so each leader can bring their individual expertise and keep their downlines focused?”
No. Just no.
How often are your executive team meetings taken up by endless presentations given by team members addressing what each is doing to contribute to the achievement of organizational goals? Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the exchange of this information, but is a departmental readout the best use of the time when the most influential and powerful people in the organization are assembled as a team? Once again, no.
The best executive teams display effective collaboration that supersedes functional silos. In a survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, 65% of executives indicated their executive teams were experiencing a clash between functional and enterprise accountabilities. And, only 1 in 5 rated their executive teams as “very effective.” An executive team purpose statement that orients all members around must-win organizational battles and the work that only they can do together will not only foster collaboration, it will demand it. Instead of competing for resources and prioritizing the needs of their function over those of another, the executive team sees their team as “team one,” and resources, priorities and goals are considered for the greater purpose of the organization.
This is further supported by research out of Harvard and documented in the book Senior Leadership Teams by Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, and J. Richard Hackman. The research revealed a tendency for CEOs to over-challenge individual executives and under-challenge the executive team as a whole. One of the outcomes of this behavior is a sense that the work of each individual is more challenging and consequential than the work of the team. Worst yet, executive team meetings can become seen as a waste of energy that could be better spent on the priorities of their individual functions.
Executives are often driven by the achievement of challenging goals. Imagine the power in harnessing this at a team level rather than an individual functional level. A well-crafted executive team purpose statement will provide the necessary challenge to its members by having them find ways to exchange meaningful strategic information, coordinate interdependencies to better realize organizational initiatives, and create a cohesive body that can make decisions that affect the entire enterprise.
I won’t deny that developing an effective executive purpose statement is hard work. But I also believe it to be very necessary work. Bright Arrow has a comprehensive methodology for helping executive teams build effective purpose statements for themselves. We consider these questions, among others:
- What is the work that only this team can accomplish collectively?
- What could not possibly get done if it were not for this executive team?
- What are the most important decisions and actions this team needs to accomplish in the next 6 months?
- What do we need each of the other team members for?
- Could we get more specific?
I’m a big believer in any effort to make the complicated simple. When you examine the complexity and ambiguity inherent in an executive’s responsibility, an executive team’s purpose statement capitalizes on the simplicity of Steven Covey’s concept of “beginning with the end in mind.” I’ll leave you with a neutralized (for their privacy) version of the purpose statement developed by the client I was talking about above.
This team exists to: set the short- and long-term strategic direction; create and deliver to measurable performance KPIs; define and role model a company-wide culture that enables our growth.
We will do this by: preparing for the acquisition of two new portfolio products by end of year; ensuring business readiness to take those products to market within 18 months of acquisition; developing a change-ready, results-focused culture at every level, so that we achieve the highest return on investment for our internal and external stakeholders.
Can you see why simply stating “we provide the strategic direction and leadership for the organization” isn’t enough? With this purpose statement in hand, the team developed specific, measurable, time-bound project plans for each of the specified efforts. And they launched those products and they are growing at a healthy pace that serves their stakeholders and their employees. And soon they will revisit their purpose statement again to support their next set of strategic priorities.
To learn more about Bright Arrow Certified Coach and post author Paul Gilbride, visit his profile here.