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Take a moment to reflect on those times when you came out of an executive / senior leadership meeting and thought – wow! what a bunch of unruly immature kids with bad behaviours – whose ultimate purpose seemed to be making other people’s lives difficult instead of constructively strategizing, empowering and providing leadership to drive the organization forward?!

Well, you are not alone… in my professional journey globally, I have experienced and observed a wide range of scenarios. On several occasions, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to support in shaping senior leadership teams and their respective governance committees. I have shared some concepts that you can use to make your leadership teams and board room effective.

Leadership is one of the most critical drivers of organizational success. Yet leading today is more challenging than ever due to the accelerating pace of change and escalating volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguousness of the world around us. One way of responding to these challenges is by improving how an organization’s senior leaders work together to lead the firm.

The leadership process is a key driver of an organization’s ability to meet the demands of the business environment, execute their business strategy, build a culture of engaged employees, and succeed medium to long-term. Unfortunately for many organizations, far too many senior leadership teams do not do this well. They spend more time on operational than strategic issues. They focus more on their own individual roles and agenda rather than collective responsibilities. They lack a clear definition of their purpose and shared core work, and they often lack the procedures and structure to enable them to work effectively together.

What are Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) and their Governance Committee?

Have you wondered why organizations even have such SLT’s committees? Are they even effective? Granted, the effectiveness of a senior leadership committee may be dependent on the organization, it’s remit, size, scale and nature.

Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) and their respective governance committee come in different forms or shapes in organizations. In this article, I have generalized what an SLT is – this can be the “Board” or the “Management Committees (ManCo)” or the “Regional/Global Executive Team” and so forth.

In most cases, it is impossible for leaders at the top of a firm or organization (large or small) to provide the leadership necessary for an organization to become high performing if they have not defined how they will work together. Even if they have defined, it may not be enforced or the leaders themselves are operating inconsistently in the actions and behaviours.

Think for a moment if the SLTs in your firm have a common vision of the future and approach to achieve that vision? How do they set goals and define priorities? How clear are their values? Are they aligned i.e., do they “walk the talk?” Are they open with and do they trust each other? Do they collaborate cross-functionally with a shared purpose and downwards with ground level staff? Are they visible to teams? How do they communicate? Are they able to talk about sensitive topics in a mature manner, yet make tough calls? How do they make decisions? Do they hold one another accountable, including themselves, but also support each other? Do they balance daily urgent priorities against the long-term development of the organization and work out conflicts and competing priorities? Do they exhibit the behaviours that are required for the firm to succeed?

Lots to consider, right?

True, as firms become more broad, complex and demanding, many top executives have found it useful to establish senior leadership teams (SLTs) to assist them in running the firm. The rationale for establishing these teams and respective committees includes factors due to external demands, organizational complexity and concerns about succession, providing strategic guidance and governance

For the purposes of this article we will examine any type of Leadership or Management Team (governance committee) – the SLT – that provides “strategic guidance and governance and one that is led by a senior Executive or a Senior Manager in a firm.

To give context, we will examine the

•          Function of the ‘SLT’

•          Characteristics

•          Issues faced

•          Strategies to make it effective

The Function of the Senior Leadership Team

The SLT is a not only a group more than a set of individuals who work together but it is an interdependent interacting team. They have joint outcomes–their rewards and consequences are affected by each other. The primary defining characteristic is that there is a set of people who collectively take on the role of providing strategic, operational and institutional leadership for the organization. Therefore, each member is not only responsible for his own business unit or function, but also explicitly plays another role of corporate cross functional leadership.

As you may have experienced, these senior teams are generally the most difficult to manage and lead because of the rivalries, strong personalities and tough jobs the members have. However, if the teams are structured right for the corresponding committees, they can be of great value to the company.

Whilst in most cases, the success of a business continues to be closely linked to the strength of its leader and his / her IQ, management skills and charisma, the business firms today, however, are far more complicated and cumbersome, operating in an environment of sustained uncertainty, ambiguity, volatility and intense competition. In the midst of more dynamic, faster-moving marketplaces, disruptive technologies (such as digital and even AI) and changing customer preferences, firms (organizations) require a team of complementary, compatible and adaptable people who can collectively solve far more complex leadership challenges both relating to people and business performance.

Top teams in whatever form, shape or size are more important than ever to business performance and staying connected to with ultimate executive especially when they are not in face-to-face meetings. The composition and internal chemistry of the team, the strength of the SLT, the protocols and processes for getting work done all can contribute to the performance of the leadership team and help or block the potential of a collective or individual team members. Interestingly, all these factors are interconnected.

Characteristics of the Senior Leadership Team 

As the levels of seniority increases, the SLTs become visibly different from other team settings that might be visible in an organization. Leaders now have a different mandate from their own team meetings, and are often unprepared by their previous experiences for the dynamics they encounter in an SLT. They usually have histories of differentiating themselves through individual achievement, rather than for their collective work with or through cross functional senior teams. Even if they did, their mind-set is that of “I” instead of “we”, because they are only interested in their career progress. They tend to be high achievers and aggressive seekers of power.

Clearly, these differences then highlight challenges for the shaping, structuring and managing of these teams. Some of the prominent differences between ordinary teams and SLTs are:

Well-Defined Team Membership, Individual Responsibilities – There is shared sense of purpose, mutual goals or defined interdependencies, the right composition, values and behaviours in order to work together as a team, ensuring effectiveness of decision-making

Purposeful Leadership, Accountabilities and Mandate – The leadership team devises the direction and plan, embodies the values and behaviours, generates collective support by building buy in and consensus, and empowers others – by establishes a conducive environment to make things happen in the best possible way. The SLTs and their committee have a clear set of accountabilities for their actions and policies.

Potential Succession as a Reward – While there are many rewards for leadership team members, the highest form of reward is succession–who ends up as the most senior leader or team leader.

High Demand – The SLT operates and navigates in VUCA (Complexity, Uncertainties, Ambiguities) set of work requirements. The members have a rather complex job description and comprehensive set of priorities to juggle and produce outcomes

Sound Processes – In the SLT, there is a clearly defined process and framework to get things done, make decisions, running the governance committee meetings, interacting with other members formally or informally whilst embodying the values, pace and partnership. There is a chair who not only “manages” the SLT but he/she ensures these are well-planned so that much is accomplished at each one.

External Forces – There are elements that may have a major impact on the functioning of the team–particularly customers, competitors, financial markets, the board of directors and other internal/external teams.

Politics Front and Centre – As you may know, the essence of the SLT is power, or the ability to exercise influence over the behavior of others. A major role of the SLT is to effectively exercise power – in the right way, that is. In that environment, therefore, the presence of politics is much more elevated albeit the ‘invisible screen’, and explicit or implicit political behavior that appears to be more frequent than in other teams

Increased Visibility – The SLT has symbolic value as a source of institutional leadership, and therefore the actions, interactions and dynamics of the team are carefully watched and experienced by all staff in the firm regardless of the level they are at in the organization. The SLT becomes a stage upon which theatrics are acted out. What might otherwise be small and inconsequential, interactions with others and anything to do with the leadership team become major events.

Special Status of Team Membership – While membership and inclusion is an important issue in many teams, it has special meaning for the SLT. Because it is a highly visible team in the organization, being a member has special status. Managers frequently talk about the importance of “having a seat at the table”, giving sense of pride. Therefore, the questions of who becomes a member, how members are initiated etc., become of much more concern than in other teams.

Unique role of the SLT member as the team leader – A key difference in the SLT team is that the leader is most likely a senior leader team member or executive of the firm. As a consequence, there may be more social distance between the leader and team members than in other settings.

In summary, the dynamics of the SLT are quite different from other teams.

What are the Issues Faced in SLTs?

Several issues create volatile dynamics that complicate the work of basically every leadership team.

Overflowing Membership – In most cases, there is constant pressure from those wanting to join, and from team members lobbying for the inclusion of others – they attend these meetings for all the wrong reasons. They’re more concerned with what they might miss than with what they might achieve or sometimes the motivation is to pursue their own agenda which is to maintain visibility with the most senior executive leader. As the group expands the more active participants view the passive spectators as non-performing or even non-value adding. Divisions gradually separate members in terms of knowledge, credibility, legitimacy, and influence. A gap is formed and that creates a division internally, which diminishes genuine teamwork.

Individual Ambition or Agenda – SLT members are unusually ambitious and achievement oriented, and especially at the time of succession to the most senior executive leader, the manoeuvring, positioning, and competition intensifies. Depending on the personalities involved, the behavior can easily become interestingly irrational leading to dysfunctional theatrics, even after a new executive leader is named, as members try to position themselves for next-tier roles.

Active and Collective Participation – According to Joan Garry, former executive director of GLAAD (one of the largest US gay rights organizations), the SLT committee needs to be the chairperson’s most valuable problem solvers and participate in those meetings. These people need to be able to provide good feedback and questions that can help move the company forward. The committee’s leader should not be doing most of the speaking at these meetings.

Matters that are deemed “Undiscussable” – These are sensitive, issues that are on everyone’s mind and generally have a direct bearing on the team’s work, yet the group will go to extra ordinary lengths to avoid even mentioning them. These maybe related to succession or issues which are negotiable/off limits without offending the most senior executive leader’s job remit.

Internal and External Forces – As the SLT members hold comprehensive jobs that require time, energy, and attention both from internal and external demands perspectives, this leads to pressure. They often view time spent with SLT as a ‘waste of time’ or that could have been put to better use. This results in a force pulling the teams apart.

Ambiguous Roles and Operating Behaviour – Sometimes team members don’t know about the role they’re expected to play during meetings. The team members try to assess the politics, interpersonal dynamics, and power distribution. What are the real boundaries for argument, pointed questioning, and direct conflict? If members don’t understand the nature of the work on the table and what is expected of each member, they will not know what role to play, and this then creates more confusion, frustration.

Diversity – Another issue that affects both boards and executive committees: Lack of ethnic and/or gender diversity. Ernst & Young’s in 2015, “Women on U.S. Boards: What We Are Seeing,” states the proportion of women on boards has only increased 5% between 2005-2015. Just 16% of S&P’s 1500 board seats are occupied by women; most are not CEOs.

In especially certain types of non/profit organizations, a lack of ethnicity and/or gender diversity can hinder raising funding for a company and/or knowing the needs of the community they serve, especially if the SLT committee is not a good representation of that community. This can lead to performance and strategy issues within an organization that hinders it from serving the target markets and communities it is expected to serve.

Wasteful Displays by Putting on a Show – The SLT and their respective committee is the place where other leaders, managers, teams come to present their cases for new projects or budgets, or simply to share information and provide updates. The opportunity to perform in front of the firm’s influential audience is too much for most people to ignore. As a result, the SLT is treated to a colourful set of presentations (even the 2-pages ones!) complemented by posturing, positioning, and an obsession with scoring points rather than solving problems. In fact, in most cases, some of the SLT want to show the executive leader how tough they can be in questioning. Again, a “I” vs. “we” attitude. As a result, these gatherings, provide little productive work or benefit to the firm.

How Can You Increase Effectiveness of the SLT? 

The leader of the pack, or in other words the most senior executive leader, has a number of strategies to enhance the SLT operating model. Clearly the he/she has a critical and active role to play here and has to be heavily and actively engaged to make the SLT effective. In essence, the primary responsibility for creating, establishing and leading an effective SLT lies with the most senior leader. This should not be delegated.

Below are 10 strategies to support in building effectiveness of the SLT.

1.  Design Leadership Teams with Prudence and Creativity – Create different teams for different tasks, functions, business groups according to the needs of the firm. Include thoughtful, capable people, and emerging leaders. Where necessary have a 2-tier model: An SLT governing committee and an Operating committee. The Operating committee would meet more frequently and handles issues that involve problem solving or decision-making to ensure agility and pace, whilst the higher governing committee would be much more focused on strategic direction and outcomes. Ensure principles are in place – and remind everyone of this whilst holding them all accountable. Bring to life and align the values.

2.   Senior Leadership Development, for Consistency – Effective SLTs will really focus both on themselves individually and as a team – what they are doing in these meetings, what they are doing well, and where they are falling short, then take steps to improve their governing skills. This can only help to make the SLT more effective and the company or organization to achieve more success.

As members of the SLT need to operate consistently and speak ‘the same language’ it is important they all get the same leadership development. Consider sending your leaders on formal development and maybe coaching. Emotional Intelligence or EQ should be a large part of the development. Development by an in-house programme or facilitated by a professional external firm or both are effective. Usually depending on the size of the firm a timeframe for active development can be completed in 3-6 months, with fine tuning hence.

3.   Manage Succession Dynamics – The senior executive leader’s challenge is to keep as many options open for as long as possible and to actively discourage the perception of a head-to-head contest. Therefore, timing and managing expectations are crucial. Avoid starting a race – as this usually does not end well. The executive leader’s job is to manage the dynamics to soften their impact on the team’s effectiveness.

4.   Promote Trust, Relationships and Openness – Ensure there are ground rules for acceptable behavior among team members. Provide a safety mechanism by building supportive relationships that give each individual the confidence to speak out and take risks. Discourage bad behaviours and actively helping the team gain an appreciation of each other’s insights and capabilities, which makes them more comfortable about raising difficult issues with each other. One for all, all for one. Bring tough issues to the forefront through defined rules of engagement. Employ various techniques – call special meetings to address sensitive issues, dealing with the issues in small groups or one-on-one, or inviting an outsider to help the group confront a particularly difficult matter. The executive leader must take the lead in these instances. Deploy behavioural interventions and influence tactics, whilst creating a conducive environment for best operations.

Additionally, make sure the team members are spending time together, doing the right work. This can be either formal time in conventional work settings or informal time at off-sites or social events—or even time spent traveling together to those events. Teams also benefit from casual, unplanned encounters.

5.   Clarify Team Processes and Roles, Decision making – Generating appropriate participation is for the senior executive leader – to make sure everyone clearly understands how the team will operate, what kinds of decisions it will make, and what roles each member will be expected to play. Leverage different decision methods: Unilateral, Consultative, Consensus, Delegation.

6.   Leverage the Agenda, with Outcomes – Manage the agenda to ensure the team engages in value-added work. The first step is understanding the balance of time, costs and benefits involved in the team’s work. The executive leader’s job as team leader is to identify how to make the value of the team members working together greater than the cost of taking them away from their primary jobs. Craft the agenda of the meeting in any of the following modes and communicate well in advance

·     Giving or Getting Info

·     Making a decision

·     Solving a problem

·     For discussion and Comment

7.   Get Expert help to support – In instances where the firm is overwhelmed or are struggling to get traction on the improvements of the SLT, switch gears immediately and get an expert from internally or externally or both to come and provide advice and support in designing, establishing and embedding the SLT organization and operating model.

8.   Participatory Meetings, Not Monologues – The SLT leader should not do all of the talking. There needs to be collective discussion of key issues, not just reports and statistics on business operations. Healthy debate – eliminate negative behaviours. They learn they can be participative in the sense that they involve the team in the content of decision-making—discussing issues, raising concerns, solving problems, and learning. At the same time, they are directive about the team’s process, shaping and structuring how the team works.

9.   Communications and Consultations for Alignment – In instances, when an SLT acts on behalf of the overall board, the SLT must immediately inform the board exactly what action it took and any consequences from that action. Method of communication and interaction should be defined across other senior committees to manage organizational ‘impact and interdependencies’.

10. Be Reflective of the Communities/Target Markets They Serve. Build diversity. Ethnic and gender diversity is key to companies thriving in a more global community. Different perspectives will enable the SLT to best address key issues and best serve target markets and communities the organization expects to serve.

In Summary

The complexity of running firms in today’s demanding environment typically requires more resources than any single person can bring to the task. Creating and maintaining effective teams requires deliberate planning and action. It is hard work to bring an SLT and their respective governance committee through a transformational journey to perform at its best, and beyond.

Ultimately the pack leader or team leader needs to be strong, needs to have a game plan, find shared purpose, and unleash his/her leadership capabilities and of the SLT. That also means taking responsibility and courage as the team leader to drive, lead, collaborate on diverse topics. After all, the SLT is a key driving force, and bringing them all on the same boat makes the team stronger. They are there to support the team leader, so he/she should leverage them in the best ways possible. There are of course numerous rewards not only for the SLT member but also for the firm as a whole – both on the softer and harder side / financial and non-financial aspects.