An organisation’s ability to survive and thrive depends on the performance of its senior leadership team. However, one of the difficulties of improving senior team performance is that individual members often lack the time needed to participate in processes or programmes that explicitly focus on building their capacity.
To help start a dialogue on how to maximise the performance of the senior team we have extracted seven key questions that emerge from our own experience.
When taken together, these questions provide the necessary orientation for any senior team that is interested in reflecting upon its performance, improving its abilities, and leading its organisation successfully.
1. What value would be missing if your team didn’t exist?
Too often a senior team doesn’t actually exist. What exists instead is a meeting of senior people who get together once a month to exchange information, download reports and number dump. The assumption is that this helps the team to coordinate the running of the organisation. It doesn’t. So the question here is what would happen if the team didn’t exist at all? What value is it really adding?
2. How do you know you are focused on the right things?
Most senior team members talk about overload; there is simply too much to do and not enough time to do it in (and certainly no time to review how effective the team is).
In our experience, overly busy senior team members fail to find the right balance between what we call ‘feet on the ground and eyes on the hills’: between short-term urgent stuff and the vitally important longer term stuff that will secure the future of the organisation.
One of the consequences of this is that there is rarely a review of focus and priorities.
Instead there is a ‘business plan’, which sets in stone departmental budgets (spreadsheets masquerading as strategy) and a huge ragged list of projects that lump lots of different things together under the heading of ‘change’.
Is your team busy doing the wrong things and ignoring the vital ones?
3. Can each team member explain the current strategy for achieving your objectives?
Collective responsibility requires collective understanding. It is not only vital that an organisation has a strategy, but also that everyone understands it.
If each of the senior team members can’t accurately and consistently describe the current strategy then there is little hope that the wider organisation will understand it and be working on it collectively.
The clearest act of collective responsibility in a senior team is to ‘own the strategy’ and be able to explain, in all necessary detail, how the organisation will achieve its ambitions, meet its targets and outperform the competition.
4. Can you speak the truth?
High performing teams require high levels of psychological safety. But team members are often too afraid to be honest and open with each other, perhaps because they have seen what happens to people who are candid.
Senior leaders often allow their own insecurities to infect the team, creating an atmosphere in which no one feels safe to tell the truth. This can lead to huge problems being hidden from the top.
If your peers and direct reports can’t be honest with you, then employees in the rest of the organisation won’t be either. A feedback culture is vital to learning; but feedback is only as useful as the culture of trust within which it is embedded.
5. Are you experts in designing your organisation so that it works?
Structure should follow purpose, and it is the job of the senior team to ensure that the current organisational design is the best fit.
But usually this isn’t regularly discussed within the senior team. Why? Because it is in the interests of many of its members that the status quo is maintained, for fear of losing position or influence. It is also because there is a sense that the standard hierarchical model of organisational design is the only way to do things.
The quality of the system that people work within determines how they perform – in fact, it has greater influence on performance than individual skill and experience. Too often talented people are wasted by organisational designs that limit their ability to contribute.
Senior leaders need to examine assumptions about how their organisation is designed and be honest about whether it needs to change.
6. Would other organisations hire you as a senior leadership team?
In the marketplace for talent would you win?
When supporting senior teams, we sometimes talk to their stakeholders to gather views on their performance. Sadly, confidence in the senior team is often low.
Your top team should comprise your top talent. If the skills and experience of your senior team are not transferrable and saleable into the talent marketplace, either you need different people or a strong professional development pathway for the individuals involved.
7. How do you know you are learning as a team?
The only way to improve the performance of a senior team is to engage in an intentional process of learning. The most powerful learning option, in our experience, is experiential learning.
Experiential learning accelerates the process of learning from experience; designed well it can condense years of hard-won experience into a few months. This works by putting teams into real work situations in environments in which it is safe to practise, fail, reflect, learn and improve.
What underpins all our work with senior teams is creating the space to talk together. Often the questions posed above are not discussed. Creating space to talk while practising the core skills of effective dialogue creates transformation. Senior teams that learn together perform together.
One of the key tests of the effectiveness of a senior leadership team is reflected in its ability to confront the truth – to see the world and their organisation as it really is. This means going beyond the hype, the annual report, the marketing and the PR spin.
Organisations should be the best examples of what human beings are capable of – expressing our ingenuity, endeavour and enterprise. They should be vibrant places that inspire meaningful, responsible action that creates enduring value for their customers, suppliers, employees, owners, investors and citizens.
It is the job of our senior teams to build organisations worth working for.
Such organisations will attract talented employees and positive investors, and they will build loyal customers and valued collaborations with suppliers and stakeholders.
Our seven questions are designed to focus the attention of the senior team on the things that really matter.
Your organisation needs you to be the best senior team that you can be, for customers, for employees, for investors and for the planet.