Few teams function as well as they could. But the stakes get higher with senior-executive teams: dysfunctional ones can slow down, derail, or even paralyze a whole company. In our work with top teams at more than 100 leading multinational companies,1 including surveys with 600 senior executives at 30 of them, we’ve identified three crucial priorities for constructing and managing effective top teams. Getting these priorities right can help drive better business outcomes in areas ranging from customer satisfaction to worker productivity and many more as well.
1. Get the right people on the team . . . and the wrong ones off
Determining the membership of a top team is the CEO’s responsibility—and frequently the most powerful lever to shape a team’s performance. Many CEOs regret not employing this lever early enough or thoroughly enough. Still others neglect it entirely, assuming instead that factors such as titles, pay grades, or an executive’s position on the org chart are enough to warrant default membership. Little surprise, then, that more than one-third of the executives we surveyed said their top teams did not have the right people and capabilities.
The key to getting a top team’s composition right is deciding what contributions the team as a whole, and its members as individuals, must make to achieve an organization’s performance aspirations and then making the necessary changes in the team. This sounds straight-forward, but it typically requires conscious attention and courage from the CEO; otherwise, the top team can underdeliver for an extended period of time.
That was certainly the case at a technology services company that had a struggling top team: fewer than one in five of its members thought it was highly respected or shared a common vision for the future, and only one in three thought it made a valuable contribution to corporate performance. The company’s customers were very dissatisfied—they rated its cost, quality, and service delivery at only 2.3 on a 7-point scale—and the team couldn’t even agree on the root causes.
A new CEO reorganized the company, creating a new strategy group and moving from a geography-based structure to one based on two customer-focused business units—for wholesale and for retail. He adapted the composition of his top team, making the difficult decision to remove two influential regional executives who had strongly resisted cross-organizational collaboration and adding the executive leading the strategy group and the two executives leading the retail and the wholesale businesses, respectively. The CEO then used a series of workshops to build trust and a spirit of collaboration among the members of his new team and to eliminate the old regional silo mentality. The team also changed its own performance metrics, adding customer service and satisfaction performance indicators to the traditional short-term sales ones.
Customers rated the company’s service at 4.3 a year later and at 5.4 two years later. Meanwhile, the top team, buoyed by these results, was now confident that it was better prepared to improve the company’s performance. In the words of one team member, “I wouldn’t have believed we could have come this far in just one year.”
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