Shockwaves Part 3: Avoiding Costly Senior Leadership Team Mistakes

The first “Costly Mistake” that senior leadership teams make is getting too wrapped up in the day-to-day and losing focus on the big picture. When this happens, it often results in communication breakdowns that create barriers between individuals on the team and eventually the departments they manage, leading to the second mistakeof protecting and hoarding resources.

The third mistake, and the focus of this article, is what I call a Patch-work Approach to Building the Team. In today’s workplace, bringing the wrong person onto a team is extremely costly. Most experts agree that losing an employee costs about one to three times their salary.

But turnover on a senior leadership team is much more costly and often times not quantifiable, as it can impact the retention of customers, market capitalization, the ability to get financing, and much more.

I often see a Patch-work Approach to Building the Team on senior leadership teams where:

  • There isn’t a clear succession plan and a true understanding of the business, technical, and leadership competencies needed from team members.
  • And in smaller to mid-sized  organizations where there isn’t a clear and consistent hiring process and people don’t have the skills to effectively conduct interviews and evaluate candidates.
  • Pressing matters override the perceived need to focus on team structure.

Here are some symptoms you might notice if you have a patchwork approach to building your senior leadership team.

  • You might hear someone say, “We tried a half-day of team building and it didn’t do anything.” The team development process is seen as an event instead of a commitment and long-term investment.
  • Interviews are 30 minutes long and candidates have 8 interviews in a day – all back-to-back.
  • There isn’t a formal process for on-boarding a new executive, creating a common language, and helping integrate the person into the existing team culture.
  • The executive team has more than eight people.  The challenge with  bigger teams is that it is harder it is to establish and enforce team norms, and it is difficult to accommodate everyone’s voice in discussions and debate that great senior leadership teams must engage in and the subsequent tough decisions they have to make. Large teams with few agreements on how they operate do little beyond sharing information*.

People-First™ Factor #3: Cultivation

To overcome this costly mistake, senior leadership teams have to be focused on cultivating their people. In other words, building and developing a cohesive team. There are several things you can do to cultivate the right senior leadership team.

  1. Start by defining the team’s role. Is the team there as an advisory committee only? Or is it really designed to make decisions? A lack of understanding of the team’s role will lead to being overly focused on urgent issues instead of strategic issues that effect the business as a whole. Creating a solid team is like any relationship. You don’t just do it once and proclaim that you are done. It takes time and work and consistency.
  2. Refine the team structure. The best senior leadership teams are small, typically made up of no more than six to eight members. Team members are selected not because of title or status or because they report directly to the CEO, but because they add value and are a good cultural fit. If your team is too large, you probably have boring meetings and shallow discussions.*
  3. Create a clear succession plan, or, at a minimum, implement a process to define the ideal candidate. Most organizations have a general position description but lack a true understanding of the knowledge, skills and personal trait competencies that are needed for a position.
  4. Integrate values into the hiring process as you define your ideal candidate, plan and conduct interviews, and evaluate candidates. Make sure the person is a good cultural fit for the leadership team. Most senior executives are very talented. But being very talented as an individual and experienced in leading a specific functional aspect of a business is different than being a good cultural fit for a team.
  5. On-board new team members in a structured manner. Many of my clients dedicate a portion of their monthly or quarterly offsites to on-boarding. During this time we’ll review goals and roles, share personality styles to understand what each person needs to be successful, and review team agreements and norms.
  6. Hold each other accountable to team norms. Norms will develop on every team. They may or may not be effective, and, most of the time, when they aren’t written down and reviewed on a regular basis, destructive norms develop that negatively impact a team’s ability to reach its highest potential. At the same time, norms that are written down but aren’t reviewed or adhered to are just a waste of paper. So, create your team norms and use them to hold each other accountable.
  7. Encourage learning and development. Learning crushes complacency, forces people to think differently, and nurtures innovation. Often times senior leaders fall into the trap of either not utilizing corporate resources for their own learning and development or thinking that they already know it all. Either way leads to a failure to improve personal and team effectiveness.

Focusing on cultivating your senior leadership team results in growth and innovation. By growth I mean the agility for the organization to adapt and thrive, and the ability to challenge and change the way things are done – personally and organizationally. By innovation I mean proactively responding to changing market conditions, anticipating and responding to customer needs, and being open to new ways of doing things.

Take time to focus on cultivating your senior leadership team, and the ripple effect that it will create throughout your organization will be a positive one.

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*Modified from Senior Leadership Teams, Wageman, Nunes, Burruss, and Hackman

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