There's never been more pressure on executive leaders to perform at a higher level in a wider range of areas. While leadership today is more complex at all levels, the role of enterprise leadership presents unique challenges. It can be daunting to keep up, given the complexity and the rate of change in so many different parts of the business.
Because of this dynamic, two things are most often true of executive team members:
- They do not prioritize their development. Because of the fast-pace and tremendous pressure to perform, focused growth and development of the executive team is often nonexistent.
- They typically play a dual role in the business. Members of the senior leadership team typically play a dual role of leading their own function, while also being responsible for the overall goals of the organization. The tension between these two roles is constant and often leads to lack of alignment and cohesion with other senior leaders and the CEO.
When you argue with reality, you will lose 100% of the time, so rather than trying to change this dynamic, acknowledge and leverage it. Rather than deploying an isolated executive development program, there is tremendous opportunity to use executive development as a forum to ensure alignment and cohesion across the senior team while driving individual and personal growth at the same time.
Unfortunately, many executive development programs bump up against the two dynamics noted above thereby exacerbating the challenge:
- They focus more on the individual than the system, when both are critical to the success of any development program. The executive leadership team is a system, and together and with their teams, they are accomplishing organizational goals. In order to drive alignment and cohesion, we must improve the system as a whole as well as tweak individual behaviors that build trust and connectedness.
- They are event-oriented rather than process-oriented. Throughout my career, I’ve heard boastful tales of executives immersing themselves in a 2-week [insert your favorite university’s executive development program] or sipping cocktails with other executives during the social at a week-long intensive executive book camp. While no doubt there is value in these educational programs, they lack connectedness with the system in which leaders are leading and they are one-time events.
So if the typical executive development programs aren’t acknowledging the real challenges and driving alignment and cohesion, what does an effective program look like? As we look across the executive development programs that result in senior leadership teams succeeding together while growing individually, it’s clear that they share these must-have ingredients to succeed:
- The executive development initiative is driven by the organization’s strategy and CEO goals. Decisions on the strategic direction of a business should always include discussion on the talents’ needs to carry out those decisions. A shift in strategy almost certainly carries with it a shift in responsibilities of leaders and their teams. In the earliest stages of considering executive development, organizations should ask themselves a simple question: what, precisely, is this program for? If the answer is to grow organically, it’s important that senior leaders are consistently good at nurturing internal talent. If the answer is to support an acquisition-led growth strategy, the organization will need leaders driving innovation and collaborating with their teams to create winning strategies for new or newly expanded business units.
- The process includes an honest assessment of the team and team members. Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re likely to end up someplace else.” Knowing individual and team strengths and weaknesses – and being completely open about where and why gaps exist – will give individuals and the team a baseline from which to work towards improvement. Honest and open assessment also builds trust—it acknowledges “what is” which may be uncomfortable but is ultimately helpful to all.
- Individual development efforts focus on 2-3 areas of improvement. The best executive development programs include a tailored, achievable “from—to” path for each leader. Rather than a long list of leadership standards, a complex list of competencies, and corporate values statements, cut through the noise to identify two or three capabilities essential for success given the strategy and/or CEO’s direction.
- Collaboration is a key component throughout the program. Executive development that occurs in silos compounds the daily communication challenges that leadership teams face. Instead, develop executives as a team, and encourage collaboration on assessment results, development planning, and coaching. At the senior team level, the ability to be transparent, give constructive feedback, and address team dynamics is crucial for success.
- An external facilitator guides the team throughout the process. Executive development programs include ego and defensiveness - conversations can get heated - so an expert facilitator is critical in leading through the challenge and keeping the conversation focused in a way that promotes the growth of individuals and the team. In addition, leadership development that is created and delivered entirely from within an organization can include a certain level of bias. As leadership requirements continue to evolve based on the changing economic landscape, so should leadership development initiatives.
- The development process is flexible. Designing a leadership development program that is iterative and flexible is essential for adapting to the rapid changes in any business.
- The program includes multiple success measures. Identify multiple data points to measure progress and results. One approach is to assess the extent of behavioral change, perhaps through a 360 degree feedback exercise at the beginning of a program and followed by another one after 6 to 12 months.
The executive team of any organization sets the tone and is ultimately responsible for business results, so driving cohesion within the executive team is not secondary to running the business. Without the ability to manage how they work together, top leaders will undermine the direction, alignment, and commitment needed to drive performance and see results.
The bottom line is this—developing executives as a team will encourage collaboration and create greater alignment, increase communication to drive cohesion within the team and improve overall performance.