Executive Team Dysfunction, Defeated

Top teams can topple from the weight of too many leaders. Use this model to keep all your best executives in the same room—and actually get them to work together.

By Raphael Prager, Ph.D., and Allan Church, Ph.D.

Everyone knows an executive leadership team (ELT) is critical to the success of any organization. Likewise, we’re all aware that these teams tend to be pretty dysfunctional. Thing is, you can’t tell a bunch of seasoned execs to just get along; simple team-building approaches that work well at middle and junior levels aren’t nearly as effective with highly successful individuals running major segments of a business or leading key functions.

The root causes of ELT dysfunction are hard to pinpoint. Strong personalities, a fear of divulging weaknesses to others, differences in cultural orientations, and a lack of leadership from the senior-most player in the group can all derail ELTs at any given time. To squash infighting, consultants ask members for their feedback, but that doesn’t always work either.

So how do we begin to understand and fix some of the inherent issues that bog down ELTs? We’ve found a relatively simple, but highly effective way of addressing these concerns. We call it the team composition effectiveness model (TCEM), and we’ve seen its application yield significant improvements in understanding and taking action to enhance senior team dynamics.

At its core, the TCEM is about grasping the team composition using multiple lenses of data to determine where the greatest disconnects in styles, behaviors, and communication networks occur. This enables a more strategic and targeted action plan that can be delivered through effective use of talent management processes and tools.

Let’s start with a senior team that’s exhibiting a classic case of what we might call a “leisurely syndrome.” Based on a derailer concept from the Hogan personality assessment suite, you’ve likely seen these types of ELTs before. While the individuals on the team appear to all like one another, engage well in the moment, and nod their heads in agreement during face-to-face meetings, they all go back to their respective businesses and follow their own agendas when the meetings break. The discussions and decisions are anything but aligned.

While you could tackle the problem by working with each individual in one-on-one, feedback-based coaching sessions focused on helping them to become better leaders uniquely, you won’t crack the larger team problem anytime soon. In the TCEM approach, we take a broader view and look at data on the entire team collectively. It’s all about leveraging the power of objective team data to unlock new insights that drive action.

Trust the Data

In the senior team example above, where should we begin and what data sources could we use to help identify and improve ELT dynamics? A fundamental first step is to assess the team’s tendencies, values, or overall team effectiveness.

While there are certainly benefits to conducting interviews to gather this type of information, it takes a considerable amount of time and may produce inconsistent or biased findings depending on who does the interviews. Instead, using multiple objective and standardized tools can help save time, avoid he-said she-said conflicts, and get buy-in from ELT members when results are eventually presented to them.

Some examples of tools include standardized psychometric measures, which identify individuals’ values and dispositional orientations for strategy, innovation, collaboration, and execution; personality tests; and 360˚ feedback surveys, which provide rich information on others’ perceptions of current leadership behaviors and competencies.

When analyzed for an ELT using an intra-team comparative approach (not an overall aggregate one as many people often do), you can uncover unique learnings regarding the underlying dynamics. Employee survey results can also be useful for enhancing insights into the culture each leader creates in his or her own organization. Plus, the more data you have that supports patterns or trends, the greater confidence the team will have in the measurement approach.

The Team Composition Effectiveness Model

Based on our experience, the four-step TCEM has helped in identifying core ELT strengths and opportunities, as well as potential interventions to improve effectiveness. It’s a simple, yet productive approach for working with ELTs and is based on tried-and-true action research principles. Here are the basic steps.

Step 1: Measure. There are many ways to measure ELT composition. With luck, you have some of this data readily available. For example, what does the team look like on average in terms of its strongest and weakest characteristics, leadership competencies, or personality derailers? How do they compare to external executive benchmarks? Where is the team most similar and most different? How does the team stack up against the team leader, like the CEO, GM, or SVP?

You may find that there’s wide variability on characteristics related to extraversion. This could mean that some team members are always being heard, while others’ ideas aren’t being tapped. Or you might find that only one or two key individuals are highly strategic, but due to other factors (role, tenure, level) they don’t have the right type of impact within the group.

Although this sounds easy, it’s more difficult than you think. Integrating and interpreting the data at an intra-group level is a critical skill set that not everyone has. You may also need to collect some additional objective data if you don’t have enough available to ensure a robust analysis.

Once you collect all the data, we recommend mapping individual scales or data points into an “ideal” team profile to simplify the results (especially when multiple scales or tools are used) and put them into easily relatable business terms. Senior leadership teams often have existing models outlining the behaviors or actions required to achieve their vision as part of their strategic roadmap and can serve as a basis for your profile.

What will the team need to deliver in the next 3 to 5 years? What about 10 years? What are ideal team behaviors that will help achieve that strategy? The mapping should be reviewed and validated by several experts who are familiar with each of the tools. For example, a values inventory and a 360˚ feedback survey may both measure facets related to the company’s leadership competency (“breakthrough innovation”) and the results could yield insights into how to build or acquire capabilities in this area.

Step 2: Report & Confirm. Once all of the data and information has been compiled and analyzed, the next step is to report your findings to the ELT. What does this data say about current team dynamics and capabilities, and where the team needs to head in the future?

You have to be careful about identifying individuals uniquely, as the purpose is to focus on intra-team dynamics and patterns—not “problem children.” So it’s most helpful to focus on the collective dynamics (aligned areas and major disconnects) in relation to shared goals and strategies. The proposed recommendations in the following step will depend on the business context, what has (and hasn’t) worked for the team in the past, and what the team is hoping to accomplish in both the short and long term.

Before presenting the results directly to the ELT, you should first get input from key experts and stakeholders who understand the business context and challenges. Giving your stakeholders an early read on the insights will enable you to watch out for potential landmines when sharing the results more broadly.

Getting insights from partners who understand the business and the assessment methods or instruments, like your CHRO or a high-ranking talent management executive, is a bonus. However, it’s important that the insights gleaned from these partners are used to help frame the interpretation of results and should be consistent with your findings. Wherever there’s inconsistency, we suggest openly addressing it in your discussion with your HR stakeholders and even in your report to the ELT.

Step 3: Diagnose & Support. As with most action research frameworks, the power of this approach is in using the data to create dissonance in the group and the need for change. By sharing the data with the team and getting the members to own it—as well as the challenges that emerge from the patterns you’ve identified—you’re generating a shared diagnosis and driving toward a common set of solutions. Rather than being seen as a personal attack, the outcome is a group diagnosis and mutual accountability for change.

The decision to pursue a team intervention will largely depend on the results from Steps 1 and 2, in addition to insights provided by key stakeholders closest to the business. Bringing in external coaches to facilitate team interventions allows for an objective third-party perspective and can yield insights that people close to the team may never have been able to generate.

During these sessions, leadership team members may be asked to solve real-world business issues. At the onset, these members may be asked to clarify their roles; share their perspectives, reasoning, and interests; and understand points of disagreement. If your budget and time are limited, you may also find that ongoing real-time debriefs, after-event feedback sessions, and action learning projects—where team members work together to create proposals to solve pressing business challenges—are good alternatives to the more expensive and time-consuming team offsite meetings.

Some competencies are easier to develop than others. You may find the solutions lean more toward talent placement decisions than developmental actions.

For example, if your analysis finds that the ELT shows little inclination and capability for innovative thinking, which is also a key business priority, then a “buy” strategy may be more appropriate than “build,” as these tendencies can be harder to develop than others. When a “build” solution is appropriate (like listening and communication skills), there are many options to choose from, which can be facilitated by internal HR professionals or external coaches.

Step 4: Follow Up & Repeat. As others have pointed out elsewhere, accountability is the Achilles heel of any feedback intervention. Formal mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure the actions identified are taken. This includes embedding new behaviors, processes, and ways of working together (if appropriate) into performance metrics, as well as measuring outcomes.

Measuring the exact ROI of team interventions, particularly at the executive level, is often difficult to do. But basic approaches like short reaction surveys and brief interviews with ELT members may be useful in identifying whether the targeted information helped move the team in the right direction.

Employee engagement surveys further down the road can help as well. In terms of following up, many factors—personnel and organizational changes, accelerated business environment, rapidly evolving technology—impact ELT dynamics and outcomes. That’s why we recommend refreshing the analysis when it makes sense to do so. Keeping lines of communication open with key HR stakeholders in the business is also critical in ensuring that the analyses are updated at the right time.

The use of a “network analysis” survey is another effective means of diagnosing both the initial issues in the team as well as measuring positive change afterward. There are several network surveys and tools available to help understand how teams collaborate to solve important business challenges. In these surveys, participants are typically asked to indicate which team members they go to when solving problems or when they need new ideas or perspectives.

The output is displayed as a graphic showing team members connected by lines, denoting frequency of interaction. This survey approach identifies where communication nodes are most and least concentrated. We can then compare this information with the insights gleaned from the other tools. For example, are the most innovative team members being tapped enough for ideas?

Wherever possible, we suggest overlaying your analysis with this type of approach. First, it provides insights into how ELT team members communicate and make decisions with one another that are hard to pinpoint in other ways. Second, since it’s behavioral in nature, it can and will change over time to show progress. Third, it produces a very unique set of results that many senior leaders haven’t seen before, making for novel insights. You’ll be able to locate your key gatekeepers of information and decisions, as well as the team members that are more isolated overall.

Understanding an ELT Network

As you’ll see in the sample network analysis in Figure 2, while almost all of the ELT members work through the team leader on a regular (in this case weekly) basis, the GM B is just as influential to communications and decision making. In fact, she appears to be the “other” informal leader of the group.

The GM C and SVP C are also quite powerful and connected individuals, while interestingly enough, the GM A and SVPs B and D are somewhat isolated in their interactions with others.

While these insights alone are helpful in diagnosing and correcting communications challenges and speeding up decision making, imagine the other talent management-related possibilities.

What if the SVP A is the only high potential on the team? Is she being developed or getting the right exposure to others that she needs? What if the GM A is at the top of the list for succession to the team leader role? Given the central nature of the GM B in the team network, this person could actually prevent the GM A from being successful—especially if, for example, the GM B isn’t supportive of A or wants the role herself.

Consider how powerful each function might be given the size and placement of the SVP. What if the SVP C was finance, but the SVP A was HR? The latter wouldn’t bode well for the people agenda since the link to the team leader is noticeably absent. When you add each leader’s personality dispositions and behavioral strengths to the mix, the potential power in these tools for driving overall team cohesiveness and effectiveness becomes even clearer.

The best way to identify and take action to enhance ELT effectiveness is through objective data collected from multiple sources. Some may be readily available and others may require further data collection. In our experience, the best types of information for these purposes are dispositions and characteristics using personality or values inventories, and observed behaviors that can be measured by 360˚ feedback surveys.

The output of these tools is generally conveyed in a common language easily understood by the organization and can be adapted to your own strategies. With respect to your analysis, the best insights will be generated by focusing on intra-team comparisons both for diagnosis and action planning.

Finally, to ensure the success of your proposed intervention, it’s critical that you establish processes that reinforce team accountability and commitment to enhancing the ELT’s effectiveness. The path to a smoother team at the top starts with you.

Raphael Prager, Ph.D., is a senior manager at PepsiCo, responsible for the senior leadership development within the Global Talent Assessment Management and Development Center of Excellence.

Allan Church, Ph.D., the SVP of talent assessment and development at PepsiCo, is regarded as a thought leader in the field of talent management.