Making your Leadership Team the best

If you are the CEO of an organisation, you know you can’t do it all by yourself. You can initiate and lead and inspire, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day for you to keep on top of everything that’s happening or needing attention and you can’t be an expert in every function, nor can you see all angles of any question. You just can’t do it all, and nor should you. Different perspectives help make better decisions. That’s why the Leadership Team is so important. But it isn’t just a question of having people to delegate to. The most effective organisations, in my experience, are led by a committed, unified, but diverse, team working together and sharing responsibility for the whole, not just leading their own functions. Building, maintaining and leading this team is one of the most vital functions of the CEO. It is also a key element for Trustees/Boards to keep a close eye on as it is so critical to overall success.

This all sounds simple, but it isn’t. While you are focusing on day to day challenges and opportunities, dealing with external stakeholders, representing your organisation in the media and political worlds, and thinking about strategy and governance, it is easy to take your leadership team for granted and forget to give them the attention they deserve. I have made this mistake and paid heavily for it. If your fellow leaders are in conflict with each other, lacking clear direction, giving different messages to the wider organisation, or pursuing their own agendas you are in big trouble. It is easier not to let that happen than it is to fix it.

Your starting reality may be good, in which case you need to work to keep it that way, or it may be more difficult, or even dysfunctional, or perhaps you are forming a new team, for example after a restructure or a merger. The starting point will affect the emphasis of your action plan, but the elements will be the same: the right people; the right team; the right size; the right approach and the right leader. Looking at each of these elements will help you develop a plan of action suited to your own circumstances, with help perhaps from a coach, mentor or facilitator where appropriate.

The Right People: The members of your top team need to be the best you can find. If you feel some are not meeting that requirement you will need to focus on their development, or even replacement. If you have vacancies or are forming a new team, finding the best will be the most important part of your plan. Each team member will have a set of functional responsibilities, defined according to your organisational structure (eg fundraising, communications and operations). The people you appoint will need to have all the necessary skills and qualifications for their function, sufficient to deliver your goals, and gain the confidence and respect of their own teams and the outside world. But it is equally important that they have the aptitude, skill, perspective and desire, to be leaders, not only of their own specialisms, but of the whole organisation. They also need to be comfortable with the kind of organisational culture you want to develop. They need to be able to empower and inspire their own teams too.

The Right Team: You can’t just recruit a group of individuals without considering how they will perform together as a team. What are the preferred approaches of each member and how do they balance each other – those that see and go for the opportunities, and those that focus more on the risks that need to be managed. They need to be able to ask each other, and you, the tough questions that need to be answered if you are going to make the best decisions. If your team is already in place, do you know the styles and approaches of each one and is the team aware enough to make positive use of their differences. How can they use their respective sets of skills and interests to support one another to achieve the best results?

The Right Size: I have come across leaders who are keen, for understandable reasons, to have a direct line management responsibility for as many key functions as possible, and there are always those who will make a strong case for their particular function to be represented at the top table. But if you have a leadership team that includes Directors of HR, IT, finance, operations, fundraising, strategy, communications, public affairs and more you may end up with a team of ten. In my experience, it is hard to make such a large team work as a coherent whole which leads the organisation together rather than each arguing the corner for their own function (just think about the huge Cabinet in Government – the leadership team from hell, and I don’t just mean the current lot). It is also more difficult to get to know each other well and build the relationships, trust and respect that can hold the team together even in the most challenging and demanding situations. I have worked in leadership teams of three, four and five (including the CEO). The latter is, I think, the largest that is workable and I think 4 works much better than 5. It enables the team to work as an effective unit, it reduces the time you spend on supervision of each team member while ensuring you have enough time. A smaller team is less liable to splits and factions. It forces you to delegate and it gives each team member a wider range of responsibilities and the best opportunity to learn and develop. It is of course possible, and desirable, to engage a wider group of leaders in working together strategically without needing them all to be part of the top team. The choice of leadership team size has an impact on the choice of organisational structure. However, I don’t think it is wise to put structure ahead of effective leadership.

The Right Approach: The leadership team is the heart of the organisation’s culture and should exemplify the way everyone is expected to work together. If the leaders model a culture of cross-functional collaboration, empowerment and respect, driven by the overall aims of the organisation, this approach is more likely to be reflected more widely at all levels. How they are seen to support each other, how they consult and arrive at decisions with collective responsibility are key elements of organisational culture. The top team needs to have complete commitment to that culture and to live it in the way they operate.

The Right Leader:  Every team has a leader and for the top leadership team that is the CEO. To be a leader of leaders requires many of the same characteristics of any leadership role: clarity, supportiveness, accountability, authenticity, vision, inspiration and values, but it also requires an extra measure of inclusivity, engagement, empowerment and respect. If you genuinely want the Team to lead together you need to give them the authority. This means both delegated authority in respect of their own functions, but also collective authority for organisational decisions (and the authority to tell you when they think you’re getting something wrong). For me this means, as far as reasonably possible, seeking consensus among the team for key decisions. Consensus can be a controversial concept. It doesn’t just mean persuading everyone to live with what you want. It means enabling everyone on the team to express their views openly and honestly and listening carefully to those opinions and ideas. It means each being open to changing your mind. It means looking for new alternatives if none of the options on the table can get full support. It even means allowing yourself not to get what you originally wanted. Consensus isn’t always possible but the process of seeking it is always valuable as long as the time spent is proportionate. At best you will come up with novel and powerful solutions that everyone supports. At worst everyone will feel they have been heard and will understand why there was a need to compromise. The right leader for the top team will be able to create that environment of respectful listening, consensus-building, and unity of purpose. This means paying attention explicitly to your own development as a leader, for example by getting support from an independent coach or mentor.

If these five “right” characteristics are  to be developed and acted upon, you’ll need to pay particular attention to action in 5 key dimensions:

Recruitment: To get the right people means good recruitment: getting the specification right and searching for the best candidates. At this level you can’t rely on the right person seeing an ad. You’ll need to use all the networks you can access (and recruitment consultants if you can afford it) to track down the perfect person to fit into your team, having the necessary functional expertise together with the capacity to lead and to do so as part of a high-performing top team. You should also find ways to ensure that existing team members can have some input.

Culture: If you don’t already have clarity about your preferred organisational culture, this needs to be given priority and the leadership team needs to lead, exemplify and model that culture. See my other blogs on culture for more detailed discussion. Make sure culture is an explicit priority and get the help you need.

Structure: If you are going to have a workable leadership team of 3 to 5 people, your organisational structure needs to reflect that. There is no perfect structure. All structures are about drawing lines and building walls between people, teams and functions. You can move those walls around but what will always remain important is how you get people to work around and across them. Your leadership team will show the way in this, sharing openly, seeing and reinforcing the mutual dependencies between functions and ensuring everyone understand that they are working for the aims of the whole organisation, not just for their own corner. Don’t be tempted to take direct responsibility for so many functions that your leadership team becomes unmanageably large. I’m generally not a fan of restructuring exercises, but If your structure doesn’t allow you to build the right team, change it. Again external support can be valuable in exploring the options.

Personal Development: Make sure you don’t neglect your own development. Your leadership skills are vital and it can only help to top up with learning when you can. You may feel you don’t have time for courses or you’ve done them all already, but at least make sure you have a coach or mentor to help you think about your own development. And part of your support for the leadership team is that you pay close attention to the personal development of each of them as well.

Working well together: Even if each team member is brilliant and is actively pursuing their own development, it is still important to think about how they work together as a team. You and they need to spend time on that. Awaydays allow you to escape the daily pressures, to focus on the team itself and to work through issues and problems together, including addressing anything that may be dividing you or causing difficulties in your relationships. Even in the course of your regular routine meetings you should try to spend at least some time thinking together about how you are operating as a team. I have found that external team facilitation can really help, and not only when there are problems.

Whatever happens never neglect your leadership team or take them for granted. They are one of the most decisive keys to success. Let me know if I can help.

leadership team wordcloud

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