Behind every high-profile CEO, there’s a senior leadership team guiding the organization. It’s hard to overstate how important this team is to an organization’s success. But harnessing the intelligence and skill of a group of high-performing senior leaders is not easy.
When my wife, Margie, and I began our careers as organizational and business consultants, we wanted to understand firsthand the struggles our clients were having. That’s one of the reasons we started our own company in 1979. By hiring employees and managing a company, we would be experiencing the same growing pains and problems that our business clients were having.
As our company grew, we soon found out that building a solid senior leadership team was going to be one of our most important challenges. We learned through trial and error what worked and what didn’t.
How Senior Leadership Teams Differ from Others
A senior leadership team is any group that is comprised of upper-level leaders—for example, department heads and executive officers. While these groups are like regular teams in several ways, they face challenges that ordinary teams do not.
First, a senior leadership team has higher visibility than a regular team. Like it or not, senior leadership team members are setting an example for the rest of the organization; people are watching what they do.
Second, a senior leadership team has broader responsibilities than the average workplace team. Therefore, the consequences of their decisions have a deeper impact on the organization. Because their actions can influence the overall direction of the organization, what they decide and how they implement those decisions matter a great deal.
While many factors contribute to a high performing senior leadership team, our experiences over the years have taught us that the following three rules must be followed for the team to succeed.
Rule #1: Your senior leadership team’s vision and direction must be compelling and clear.
Leadership is about going somewhere. If your senior leadership team doesn’t have a vision, its leadership doesn’t matter. This team does not dictate the vision, but its members are responsible for co-creating a vision that inspires people with a compelling picture of the future.
If the vision and direction are not clear, the team will lead your organization in circles at best or, at worst, into a proverbial ditch. Blockbuster’s senior leadership team didn’t have the vision to make the jump from physical stores to mail-in DVDs and streaming. The vision of Kodak’s senior leadership team was so focused on film that it missed the digital camera revolution. Even a century-old retailer, Sears, faltered when its senior leadership team failed to adapt its vision to changing market conditions.
Contrast those examples with another American business icon: Ford Motor Company. When Alan Mulally took the helm of the senior leadership team in 2006, Ford was losing over $12 billion annually. Yet when Mulally retired in 2014, the company had a net income of $3.2 billion. Mulally contends that pulling the senior leadership team together around a strong vision was a big part of that recovery.
“We came together around a compelling vision—the working together strategy,” he said.
Rule #2: Senior leadership team members must be your organization’s greatest cheerleaders.
It is the responsibility of the senior leadership team to inspire others about the vision. When people hear that top management is excited, that enthusiasm travels across the organization. You can hear the optimism in Alan Mulally’s voice when he describes the significance of cheerleading: “The most important thing I do,” he says, “is go home, get some sleep, and come back with energy and enthusiasm about working together. I know that if we work together this way, there’s nothing we can’t overcome!”
My coauthor on Helping People Win at Work, longtime WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge, created a list of the top ten traits of great leaders. Number ten on that list is “Leaders are champions of hope.”
Senior leaders cannot champion hope in the organization without also championing its people. That means they must recognize every employee as a partner in the enterprise, not just a number on a page.
Rule #3: Members of the senior leadership team must proceed with humility.
Every person on the senior leadership team needs a “we not me” orientation. In fact, the higher in an organization you go, the more important it is to get your ego out of the way.
“Leaders who are able to put the needs of the whole organization ahead of their own departments—especially during budgeting with limited resources—are drivers of trust,” Margie Blanchard says. “Those who stubbornly refuse to consider the longer-term needs of the company over their own department erode trust.”
Early in the history of our company, we had a senior executive with lots of innovative ideas but not so much humility. We learned the hard way that no matter how brilliant they are, a senior leader without humility can do real damage to an organization.
Humility also allows senior leaders to be open to outside help when it’s needed. One of the best decisions we made back in the 1980s was to bring in an outside consultant who worked with our senior leadership team for twenty-five years. That guidance was essential as we grew our small company into a global organization.
If you’d like to learn more about how to strengthen your senior leadership team, check out the recent webinar our team coaching experts Diana Urbina and Lael Good conducted on Helping Teams Succeed. You can watch the event on-demand here.
About the AuthorMore Content by Ken Blanchard