At the C-level of many organizations, there is a movement away from the “executive group” model and towards the senior leaders operating as a team.  If you think your executives already operate as a team, keep reading to make sure you’re checking the key boxes that make for a true team and not just an operating group!

When is the executive team model right for your business?

The executive team model isn’t right for every business. In short, if your organization is in hyper-growth mode and/or is increasing in complexity, it would be prudent to at least consider the executive team model.

In this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment, the CEO who still views him/herself as the hero/heroine (a.k.a. top-down leadership), needs all the luck he/she can get. The winning model these days has the executives who report to the CEO rallying around him/her and sharing the burdens and responsibilities of the organization quite equally. They all win and lose together. They are responsible for the company’s holistic performance in addition to the performance of their individual stations.

As Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James A. Burris, and J. Richard Hackman say in the opening of their book, Senior Leadership Teams – What it Takes to Make Them Great,  “How could these [executive] teams thrive, for example, when two members were competing for the top job and when all the members were rewarded exclusively for outstanding individual performance? How could they create alignment in the organization when they themselves had no shared purpose of any consequence?”

Moving to an executive team approach is not always an easy change for a CEO to make. Frankly, some may not have the interest or the ware withal. Changing our approach to leadership requires a high degree of focus, consciousness and self-discipline. Not everyone is up for the challenge.  On the other hand, some CEOs are energized by the experience and it jolts them and their organizations into another level of performance and innovation.

Are We a Group or a Team?

There are distinct differences between groups and teams. Below are the most common characteristics for each. It isn’t unusual for there to be a blend from the two lists, but inevitably one will emerge as your true practice. If you feel stuck determining which camp you most align with, reflect on your executives’ compensation structures. Are they primarily (or only) compensated on individual performance? If so, you’re likely driving group practice, not the team practices.

Executive Group                         

  • Strong, clearly focused leader
  • Individual accountability                          
  • Purpose is same as organization
  • Individual work products                         
  • Runs efficient meetings                                                                            
  • Measures effectiveness indirectly        
  • Discusses, decides, delegates
  • Guides direction/work of teams

Executive Team

  • Shared leadership roles
  • Individual and mutual accountability
  • Specific executive team purpose that team delivers     
  • Collective work products  
  • Open ended discussion and active problem solving
  • Measures performance of group directly
  • Discusses, decides, does real work together
  • Does collaborative work

Some Benefits of the Executive Team Model

When an executive group moves to the team model, there are both immediate growing pains and benefits. In addition to the executives themselves benefiting, what I’m often most struck by are the many cascading opportunities and growth that flows into the teams the executives lead.

In general, executives will enjoy the following benefits of the team model:

  • A stronger strategic focus
  • Aligned agendas/Collective approach – getting more done, faster as a result
  • Less wasted effort
  • The team is learning and growing with each other
  • Higher member satisfaction
  • Improved retention
  • Streamlined decision making processes
  • Complementary strengths
  • Strong communication skills (including the ability to challenge and have healthy debate)
  • Models ideal behavior for the rest of the business
  • Innovation abounds

5 Steps to Move to the Executive Team Model

If you’re curious about your executive group shifting to a team model, here are five easy steps to help you get started.

  1. Get clear on if you’re operating as a group or a team (See list above. There are also great resources on HBR.org about what distinguishes a group from a team)
  2. Read the book, Senior Leadership Teams – What it Takes to Make Them Great
  3. Decide if the team model is right for your business (the book in step 2 will help you, as could an executive coach who specializes in teams)
  4. If moving forward, commit to being “all-in” on making the team model work. You can’t be tentative about this shift or it will fail
  5. Consider working with a coach who specializes in working with teams and offers an assessment tool and supporting framework for your shift from the group model to the team model

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