Building High Performance Executive Teams

by Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2004

In a previous executive briefing (see past briefings “Top Teams: What it takes to make one” through link on the left) I outlined the five basic conditions executives need to create and provide for ensuring the success of teams:

  1. Establish a clear and compelling direction
  2. Create an appropriate structure
  3. Select the right people
  4. Support the top team
  5. Provide development

In this briefing, I will outline an additional component: Keeping team members focused on self-improvement vs. other improvement. I will also outline a process to help instill self-improvement within your team.

All too frequently, executives point their fingers at other people’s foibles rather than on building and fine-tuning their own competencies. It’s easier to focus on other people’s needs of course. But, as one CEO with whom I worked so aptly stated, “The speed of the pack is dependent on the speed of the leader.” He knew that if he worked on enhancing his leadership capabilities, he would both set a good example and help accelerate his team’s performance. By accelerating his performance he would create a draft behind him that would help pull his team along.

One method for focusing on self-improvement that I recommend to executives is to have each team member conduct a mini-feedback survey and then use the data to help guide their development. The mini-survey process I will outline takes very little time and is very doable. Busy execs can handle this.

Each member of your team will need to ask his or her fellow team members to list for them the three things they do well and the three things they could do differently to help them be more effective as a team member. Obviously, this type of mini-360 survey process requires a high level of trust between team members. There is no hiding behind anonymity as most 360 processes provide. The executive in charge needs to have created an environment where team members are focused on helping each other perform at the top of their games. Dog eat dog environments aren’t conducive to this type of activity.

Once the executive has polled his peers and tallies the survey he or she will probably see a pattern. Generally, most high performing executives will find that two or three things are consistently listed by others as their strengths and the same usually goes for their developmental needs. If there is no pattern and the kudos are all over the map…that’s not necessarily a good sign. Some of the most current research on leadership effectiveness (see past briefing: “How You Can Excel As A Leader” through link on the left) has shown that “extraordinary leaders” are consistently rated high on at least three competencies (at least 4.5 on a 5 point scale for 3 competencies) while not being faulted for having any “fatal flaws.” Hopefully you’ll see a trend in the positive area. If not, you will have some work to do. In other words, being just ok, without any major flaws is not enough to be considered an outstanding leader. You need to shine in at least 3 areas.

Once each executive has a bead on what they do well, and what needs some work, they should develop an action plan to do more of what they do well and work on one or two of their developmental needs. Each executive should communicate to her fellow teammates a brief summary of her action plan and ask her teammates to support her in growing…to become “change partners.” By enlisting others as change partners, everyone will be working together to help each other grow. No one on the team is singled out as a problem child. It’s a team effort.

The next step is critical. Once a month each executive should touch bases with his teammates and ask, “How am I doing on my action plan items?” This will be a five minute conversation at most. Three things will occur as a result.

  1. If you’re making changes, your teammates will see it and you’ll receive reinforcement for your efforts.

  2. They will naturally be inclined to experience you more favorably because you’re actively engaged in development and they are now your “change partners.”

  3. If you’re off track you’ll find about it quickly so that you can make adjustments before things get worse.

Then, every four months, team members should re-poll each other listing the 3 developmental items and ask for a rating on a five point scale from no improvements noticed to no change needed. Tally the ratings and determine if you still need to work on your developmental need(s) or if it’s time to move on to the next challenge. Remember, the research regarding high performing individuals is very clear, they are noted for continuously developing themselves. High performing individuals never settle for as is.

This type of developmental process is effective because it is highly focused, includes disciplined feedback and follow-up, does not waste time, and causes participants to focus on self-improvement. Most survey processes provide participants with feedback every twelve to twenty-four months. Any research on behavioral change will show that feedback and reinforcement for new behavior needs to occur much more frequently than yearly or bi-yearly. A final reason that the process works is because it encourages participants to focus on self-improvement. Many team-building processes fail because team members are primarily focused on solving someone else's problems or work on non-work related activities, e.g., ropes course or river rafting where the transferable learning dissipates within a week. This process works because it encourages team members to focus primarily on solving their own problems at work!