Fixing a Dysfunctional Executive Team
After the discouraged CEO finished complaining about all that was wrong with her exec team, her coach said, “Leadership is an action, not a position.”
After a moment, the coach asked, “What are you going to do?”
She pondered the challenge and came up with three things that she needed to do something about: lack of alignment, lack of trust, and poor communication.
Over the next three coaching calls, she and her coach would work on ways to address the three most broken aspects of the team dynamic.
The first call would tackle the lack of alignment on the team. The coach asked, “What would great alignment look like?”
The CEO said that an aligned team would need to have a common language. They first needed to agree on what they were trying to accomplish – to define success. As CEO, she would define what winning looks like overall. After she gave her description, she would ask each executive in turn to express what it looked like to succeed in their area of responsibility.
“And what else?” the coach asked.
The CEO also recognized that they needed a common vocabulary for problem-solving. She was determined to let her team know that broad assumptions based on too little information would no longer be acceptable. They needed to be precise and concise, not satisfied with vague conjecture couched in an abundance of words.
After saying this, the CEO was silent. A few moments later, she admitted to the coach that she was often the guilty party in this area. She decided to admit this to the team as well, committing to embracing precision using data and analytics. She’d expect the same from her team, challenging them to work together with her to interpret and apply what they discerned from the numbers.
“There was some real energy in your voice when you talked about challenging them to work together,” the coach commented.
The CEO laughed and described how she would also remind the team that the term “your problem” would need to be replaced with “our problem.” A crucial aspect of the team’s alignment would be the sense of shared responsibility for the overall success of the organization. She planned to remind them of this responsibility constantly, if necessary.
The CEO began the second coaching call by venting about how it frustrated her when team members avoided talking to one another about the obstacles they faced. They sugarcoated their reports and claimed that everything was going fine when it was not. The CEO needed to find a way to get these so-called “teammates” to lay down their defenses and trust each other.
“What would that do for them?” the coach asked.
The CEO thought a while, then talked about how, in the relative safety of one-on-one conversations with her, each team member had impressed her as a problem-solver. She knew that if they would work together, the “bigger brain” of the team could come up with better options – possibly even brilliant solutions.
“So, what are your ideas about addressing the lack of trust?” the coach asked.
Once again, the CEO recognized her own culpability and her need to go first, confessing to the team her own hesitations in revealing where she was stuck. She’d admit that sometimes she was afraid of looking foolish. That sometimes she doubted her decisions. And sometimes she was paralyzed by the fear of hurting the organization. Having disclosed her own vulnerabilities, she would open the door for her team to be honest – to stop hiding problems that others could help them solve. With another reminder that “it’s our problem,” the CEO would challenge her team to courageously choose to trust each other.
The coach said, “On a scale of one to ten, how satisfied are you with your plan to address the trust issue?”
The best the CEO thought she could give it was a six.
“What would make it a ten?” the coach asked.
The CEO pondered this. She recognized that while her team members were all gifted, some were at times egotistical and impatient. She’d always accepted this, perhaps valuing their intellectual powers more than their emotional intelligence. To get to a “perfect ten,” her plan would need to address this issue.
Therefore, she determined that she would set an explicit expectation that their conversation and processing would be respectful. She would admit that she’d failed to demand this in the past, and her lack of leadership had allowed trust to erode. Now she would require them to interact professionally, treating one another as valuable, or they would answer to her for it. She would remind them that when they give respect, they will get it in return, and trust will grow.
To start the third call, the coach asked the CEO to describe what was going wrong with communication on the team. The CEO explained that with remote work and online meetings in recent years, her team had begun to communicate almost entirely through long emails laced here and there with accusations, criticisms, excuses, and defensive comments. It was painful for the CEO to read these back-and-forth volleys of ineffective interaction. Little work was getting done. Now that in-person meetings were again possible, the CEO was determined to restore good, productive communication.
“What do you want to see?” asked the coach.
The CEO wanted to re-establish a rhythm of worthwhile communication among her team members. Being together would give her a better chance to lead them there as a group. She would both model and describe in detail what she wanted to see and hear in their meetings.
She’d state her expectation for substantial reporting that described results, not just lists of activities to show how busy they were. Along with these reports, she wanted to hear what actions were to be taken to improve on the results, steps for which she and the team could hold them accountable.
The CEO also wanted her team to start listening actively to one another. They’d be invited to ask questions that would bring clarity rather than cloak criticism. She’d also demand that they get out from behind their laptop screens and participate in discussions. If they needed to use their devices, she would ask them to commit to stay engaged in the conversation.
At the conclusion of the third coaching call, the CEO expressed her hope that her plans to tackle alignment, trust, and communication would work with her team. Although she would be straightforward about her expectations for change, she’d also expose her own failings and commit to changing herself. She could anger some people while making herself look bad. Even so, the risk seemed worth the possibility of growth and change.
“What’s the best outcome you could hope for?” asked the coach.
The CEO talked about her vision for a high-performing team – one that could think like a “mastermind” group. When a colleague shared a goal or obstacle, the team would actively engage in finding a solution rather than remaining silent. They would offer feedback, advice, and constructive criticism to help their teammate to come up with good ideas to move things forward. As she described this, the CEO could hear her own enthusiasm. This idea inspired her, and she believed it would inspire her team.
After the call, the CEO sketched out the details of the upcoming Executive Team meeting. As she outlined the three areas she’d be addressing, she no longer felt discouraged about the team. Instead, she felt energy, confidence, and high hopes.
She heard the echo of her coach’s words: “Leadership is an action, not a position… What are you going to do?”
She answered aloud: “I am going to lead!”
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