Is Poor Structure Holding Your Leadership Team Back?

If any of these quotes below resonate then there is a good chance that structure is getting in the way of your leadership team...

"Members of the leadership team are sound individual contributors but have a tough time seeing the big picture."

"Silos exist on the leadership team and below - folks are fairly cooperative but not very collaborative."

"The leadership team's primary focus is on short-term execution - it never seems to have time to focus on the future."

Structure Defined

We define leadership team structure as the arrangement and organization of the tangible interrelated elements of a leadership team. These elements include a leadership team's distinct purpose, the unique enterprise focused roles that comprise a leadership team and the rhythm with which a leadership team manages itself. A well thought out team structure serves as an important catalyst for greater leadership team impact. Specifically, good structure can help foster innovation, strengthen the quality of decision-making and enhance cross-organization collaboration. Poor leadership team structure, on the other hand, is much more likely to hold a leadership team back as characterized by missed opportunities to have a broader and deeper impact, unintentional duplication of effort and increased pressure on team member relationships.


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Leadership Team Purpose

Many of the leadership teams we encounter have a pretty good sense of the general strategy and direction for their organizations but lack clarity on their unique role in driving the direction forward. In almost every situation when we ask team members to describe their role as a team we get as many answers as the number of people on the team. In some cases, leaders actually get a bit annoyed by the question and respond with some type of retort that suggests that the question is too obvious to answer - 'obviously we are here to lead the organization' or 'our team is responsible for driving the organization's strategy.' These answers are not wrong but they are too broad to rally the leadership team and give it a clear sense for the specific role that this group of leaders plays at this point in time in the organiztion's life cycle. 

While the leader can and should obtain input and feedback when creating the team's purpose, there should be no doubt that responsibility falls clearly on the leader. To start, the leader needs to clarify the type of team he/she has established - e.g., information exchange; advice and counsel, strategic initiative coordination, cross-organizational decision making. However, regardless of team type the purpose of any leadership team should reinforce behaviors that reflect the importance of the organization over any one department.

There are a few important elements that should be considered when shaping a leadership team's purpose. The organization's strategy must be the starting point - e.g., 'our survival depends on our ability to grow beyond one customer that represents 70% of current revenue and our leadership team needs to ensure that all of our efforts reflect and reinforce this.' The team first needs to identify the key interdependencies among leadership team members that will drive the strategy. A couple of questions that help focus these discussions include: 'to have the most impact on our strategy what set of issues would benefit most from our collaboration' or 'based on our strategy what will be missed if we don't attack this set of issues together.' From these interdependencies emerges a list of critical actions and decisions that the leadership team will use to paint a picture of success and to communicate to the rest of the organization.


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Enterprise Role Clarity

Members of great leadership teams have clarity not only about the functional role they play but also about the enterprise role they play for the organization. Each leadership team member brings a depth and breadth of functional expertise to their organizations (i.e., financial, product development, marketing, selling, manufacturing, logistics, etc.) and is expected to lead their functional areas in a manner that optimizes this functional contribution. In most organizations functional leaders are expected to integrate with other functions as necessary and inform their teams of progress and challenges. This expectation is necessary but it is not sufficient as it doesn't place adequate focus on the collective contribution ('force multiplier impact') that the leadership team can and should provide the organization.

Our experience suggests that the mere exercise of identifying, discussing, and debating enterprise responsibilities helps team members individually and the team collectively to focus on what is most important. It also adds clarity to functional and enterprise accountabilities, actions, and decisions. For example, a strategy of one of our professional services clients is to grow beyond one customer that represents 70% of current revenue. The team understands that the firm's long-term viability depends on their efforts to capture new customers and expand into new markets (their purpose). Functionally, each leader is clear on their accountabilities to continue to provide great service to this foundational customer. From an enterprise perspective the leadership team has committed to work closely on a few key cross organizational initiatives including executing an integrated sales approach for the three services they provide, developing new products and services that leverage their current offerings, and building a support infrastructure that enables them to scale effectively.


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Management Rhythm

Management rhythm is a fancy phrase for how leadership teams monitor strategic and tactical execution including plans and metrics, vehicles for communication, and formal and informal meetings. There is no magic one size fits all formula for how often teams should meet or how they should track progress but there are a few guiding principles.

First, it is essential that leadership teams maintain discipline and provide adequate time for discussing and debating strategic issues separate from tactical issues. This can be accomplished either by setting up separate discussions or by adhering to structured agendas. Too often we see teams set aside time to address strategic issues only to watch the discussions quickly devolve into tactical problem solving deliberations. Sometimes this can't be avoided but if it becomes the team's default mode of operating then strategic execution will eventually suffer.

Next, it is very important for leadership teams to set some time aside to meet face-to-face; especially when addressing challenging enterprise wide issues. In person communication facilitates more effective challenge and debate and better enables difficult issues to be ironed out in a more productive fashion. This can be supplemented by other communication vehicles such as enterprise reporting systems, email updates, or videoconference tools.

Finally, it is important for leadership teams to document expectations, metrics and plans so that progress can be monitored effectively. While this might seem obvious, we often encounter teams that get together with no agenda and limited vehicles (spreadsheets, dashboards) for keeping the team on track. These types of poorly planned and organized calls or meetings tend to diminish team energy and hinder overall progress.

The leadership team of the professional services client described in this blog has evolved into a sound management rhythm. The team holds weekly conference calls to discuss what they refer to as 'keeping the lights on issues' which are focused on servicing the existing customer base. To address longer-term strategic initiatives they have divided into three teams with overlapping membership where each team has created its own rhythm. The entire team then meets monthly at a full day face-to-face session where each enterprise team updates progress and they all have an opportunity to contribute and make decisions to move the initiatives forward.



Great leadership teams have sound structure -- they are focused on a distinct and impactful purpose, all members have precise clarity on their functional and enterprise roles, and they implement an effective ryhthm for managing progress and challenges. Ultimately, good structure enables great leadership teams to be aligned, accountable and resilient so they can have a greater impact as a collective unit then as a group of individual contributors.  

Jack McGuinness