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How to Create a High-Functioning Senior Leadership Team

November 10, 2021

John DeSantis

in BLOG

Learn what it takes to build a highly effective senior leadership team, including how to get insights that will make your senior team better.


Is there an “I” in team? For senior leadership teams, you bet there is!

First, how many team-related adages can you think of? Plenty, I would imagine. But I could only come up with two: There is no "I" in team and Teamwork makes the dream work. Frankly, I like the second one better, and I’m wary of the first. Allow me to explain.

Over the years there have been countless studies, books, articles, various forms of media, and inspirational quotes all having to do with teamwork. And if you dig into this plethora of content, there emerges a subtle, but reoccurring theme: that individuals, when working as a collective, need to somehow subjugate and suppress the “I.”

Well, I for one am not a fan of subjugation or suppression in any form, and the most effective teams that I have supported happen to be full of “I'’s” (especially senior leadership teams). And when those “I'’s” are working in concert, well, they can accomplish just about anything. So, indeed, there are many “I’'s” in teamwork. I will share more on that a bit later.


Why Do Senior Leadership Teams Fail?

For the last several years I have been helping senior leadership teams improve their effectiveness, both as a team (collective) and as team members (individual senior leaders). And as it relates to teamwork, these two aspects are central and inseparable.

So while measures around the effectiveness of both are important, a good starting point for understanding the qualities of a high-functioning team of senior executives can also involve an honest analysis of what bad looks like. Having seen my fair share of bad, and notwithstanding those team dysfunctions that are well-researched and well-written about, here are the top three standout reasons why I believe senior leadership teams fail:

1. The team has an un-shared vision/purpose.

I’ve often heard senior leadership team members readily acknowledge the importance of a shared vision and purpose. But I’m frequently left wondering whether they really believe it. And perhaps more importantly, do their respective behaviors outside the doors of the executive conference room (or Zoom meeting) reflect support and agreement on the shared vision and purpose? For many dysfunctional senior teams, the answer to both those questions is a resounding no.

2. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

One could argue that the whole point for having a team is to bring exponential (not linear) value to a lofty objective. But when team members fail to join up and collaborate, individual contributions take precedence. Additionally, competition overtakes cooperation, and important interdependencies are either minimized or disregarded entirely.

However, when senior executives work in tandem, the collective effort generates more force and impact than would have been achieved independently. And soon, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

3. There is distrust among the team.

It’s bad enough that senior executives must continually worry about revenue, profit, shifting markets, competition, and disruptive business forces. But layer on worry about whether your colleagues have your back, and then, well, the wheels start to get really wobbly.

Trust is the glue that holds senior teams together. It is the foundation upon which a great senior leadership team works. But when politics, scheming, and passive-aggressive behavior take hold, distrust takes over and teamwork is doomed.

Recognizing dysfunctions, individual or team, is an important first step. But the real challenge comes with what follows: how to cultivate, develop, and grow a high-functioning senior leadership team. One key to unlocking this challenge is to have deeper insight into individual and team characteristics, traits, and tendencies.


What Does It Take To Be a Successful Member of a Senior Leadership Team?

Measuring capabilities/attributes as it relates to an individual’s orientation toward teamwork is not a difficult task. There is good research on the competencies and personal attributes that support effectiveness in the areas of cooperation, trust, and teamwork. And all these attributes can be measured through various forms of easy-to-implement behavioral assessments or personality instruments.

From a leadership competency perspective, be sure to get a read on areas like collaboration, building relationships, positive approach, authenticity, influence, and building trust. From a personality perspective, leverage instruments that can give insight into an executive team member’s enabling or derailing qualities.

Enabling qualities include attributes like initiating relationships, building rapport, and having a consistent demeanor. Derailing qualities include arrogance, rigidity, and being non-committal or self-promoting. Having perspective on individual executive tendencies is an important step toward creating a high-functioning senior leadership team.


Characteristics of an Effective Senior Leadership Team

For the most complete picture, you should also gather perspective on how the senior team sees its own effectiveness. And a nice way to organize that analysis is from these two angles:

  • How are we performing as it relates to our team’s practical needs?
  • How are we doing meeting the personal needs of our team members?

For a senior team’s practical needs to be met there must be:

  • A Unified Purpose—a common and unified sense of what the team is there to achieve.
  • Courageous Decision Making—the ability to make effective and courageous decisions that minimize individual and group biases.
  • Enabling Processes—the processes that allow the team to get things done and move things forward, including communication, issues resolution, and meetings.
  • Complementary Capabilities—the right mix of skills, knowledge, experiences, and attributes to get things done and deliver on the team’s goals.

Team member personal needs include:

  • Diverse Contribution—an environment where diversity of view and opinion is encouraged and leveraged.
  • Emotional Security—a shared belief that individuals can safely express themselves without fear of personal judgment.
  • Productive Collaboration—the skills to facilitate interactions that maximize group and individual practical and personal needs.
  • Growth Mindset—a willingness across the team to grow and learn as a group, including learning from mistakes and failures.

How to Build a Senior Leadership Team That Performs and Transforms

Imagine what you can do armed with individual and team data that provides powerful insight into the predilections, tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and possibilities of your senior leadership team. Imagine arraying real-time group data that speaks to the team’s dynamics, both at the individual leader and team level.

Now imagine an open, candid, and constructive session focused squarely on what will make the biggest difference for the team going forward. You’ll get insights from this session to answer:

  • How can we mitigate dysfunctional tendencies?
  • How can we reconstitute the team’s DNA and fashion a team mosaic that is aligned with individual leader, team, and business needs?
  • How can we drive needed change?
  • How will we model accountability?
  • How do we establish an effective operating rhythm?

And with these questions answered, and a plan for how your executive leadership team should operate for maximum effectiveness, your high-functioning team will be set up to steer your organization toward success.


Commitments Senior Leadership Team Members Should Work and Live By

Remember the “many I’s in team” referenced earlier? Well, here they are in the form of commitments that every team member should work and live by. They’re not particularly hard to remember, do, or demonstrate. But they will, I assure you, lead to a better functioning senior leadership team. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I will support the decisions of this team, even when I disagree.
  • I will ensure that all team members contribute ideas and have input when making decisions.
  • I will understand and accept the role that I play in supporting team goals.
  • I will deal with conflict in a constructive manner.
  • I will seek out opinions that are likely to be challenging.
  • I will continually look for ways to improve the effectiveness of the team.

Teamwork as Business Imperative

For my money, I put the commitments above, as well as the other referenced activities related to building the best complementary senior leadership team, right on par with any decision about corporate strategy or product development. Although rarely have I seen it given equal weight…and it should be.

Because above all, with a highly effective senior team, your organization will be in the best position to grow—both your business and your leadership culture—for the better. And by the way, did I mention, teamwork makes the dream work?


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John DeSantis is an executive consultant in DDI’s Executive Services group, where he helps DDI’s global clients advance their business by gaining powerful and objective insights into the strengths and challenges of current and potential executive leaders.

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