Are You a Team Or A Group?: Optimizing Executive-Level Performance

When looking at a business, research has shown that the effectiveness of the executive team may be the single greatest determinant of organizational success. Experience has also shown that the concept of a true executive team—as opposed to simply an executive group—is fairly rare.

The distinction between a team and a group is simple to explain, but complicated to create. It’s usually quite easy to identify the CEO as the leader of an executive team. It’s also easy to describe by org chart who reports to the CEO. All the people reporting to the same CEO form the executive team, right?

But if the relationship only exists between the CEO and his or her direct reports then you have nothing more than an executive group.

True Executive Teamwork Begins with Relationships

A true executive team forms when the interdependencies between the departments begin to manifest in the relationship between team members. The team forms when members recognize their interdependence, not when they all report to the same person.

One of the great pieces of research done years ago looked at the truly high performing teams of all time. During the research, they found that all the truly highest performing teams had reunions on a regular basis.

This seemingly unrelated piece of data intrigued the researchers and so they dug into it. What they found was that while achieving the purpose of the team, a bond occurred among the team members and interdependence—a concern for each other at not just a professional level but also at a personal level. When this happened team results skyrocketed and because of this, friendships were formed that were maintained long after the need or purpose for the team expired.

Turning A Group into A Team

When assessing an executive team, it’s relatively easy to assess the competence and results on an individual basis: How well did the CEO perform, how well did the sales department grow, how strong is the engineering team, how competent is the operational group. But if you want to get at the truly high-performing teams we also need to look at the ways in which the executive team perform together.

1. Shared Purpose

The first requirement for a team to form out of a group is that they understand their purpose as a team. They need to understand the “why” they exist, not just “what” work they do. The purpose of an executive management team is to define the future of the company and to paint a compelling vision so that everyone in the organization is excited to get out of bed and pursue a shared purpose daily. If that is done well, then the managerial work of structures, strategy, systems, tools, and processes becomes much easier.

Shared Purpose is first and foremost demonstrated in the planning process. The team must know whether there’s a process in place that seeks to synthesize and align the independent work of each function in the service of the common team purpose.

2. Understanding Everyone’s Challenges

The second is the tactical operation methodology. How aware is each team member of the immediate challenges being faced by his or her team members? Is there an opportunity to look for cross-functional support? Do the team members seek to sequence or prioritize work in a way that optimizes the outcome for the group not them individually?

3. Incentives

The third is incentives. Are there team incentives or individual incentives? In the Super Bowl, every member of the winning team gets the exact same share of the Super Bowl winnings. The third-string place kicker gets the same share as the first-string quarterback. It’s a wonderful recognition of the real reality that it has taken every member of the team performing every day of the season, in every game and practice, to get them to a championship. Is there a similar appreciation of that shared faith among members of the management team?

4. Relationships & Trust

Fourth, is there an intention to build relationships among members of the team? Relationships are formed on two levels, the first is interpersonal: Do I know enough about this person as a person to care about them and have them care about me? So, there must be some process by which on a regular basis the team members spend time together addressing issues or sharing stories that are not about work.

This forms trust in the relationship, which then extends into the place where truly deep relationships are formed. Real, deep relationships are formed through the struggles of solving problems and achieving together as a team. When a group faces a challenge together and overcomes it, they learn a lot about each other’s character and competence. Both are mission-critical to the establishment of team. The more this happens the deeper the team relationship becomes.

All this having been said, when assessing a management team, it is not about assessing managers. It’s about assessing the intention to become a team and legitimate experience of setting self aside and moving the team purpose to the forefront.


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Paul Doyle is an Operating Partner at Blackford Capital. Paul brings with him more than 30 years of diverse business experience, including 20 years as a CEO leading manufacturing and leadership development companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $300 million in revenue

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