In the last few months I’ve been working with three executive teams to help strengthen team effectiveness and boost their leadership of major culture change and development efforts. One team heads up a large commercial construction company in Western Canada, another is a European based international mining company, and the third are senior partners in a Toronto law firm.

Management Team Traps - Jim Clemmer, The Practical LeaderThis work has shown – yet again – that executive leadership and organization effectiveness issues have a lot in common across a diverse range of business sectors, geography, and organizational size. This work started with me doing an assessment of the executive team’s effectiveness, key issues, and biggest improvement opportunities. These were one-on-one private interviews with each executive and/or confidential e-mail surveys sent back directly to me.

As I reflect on the lessons learned from this work, here are the interconnected executive team traps that emerge:

Collective Decision Making  

Functional silos and vertical accountability often create teams that are little more than a group of executives who meet to share information and provide individual input to budgets and operational plans. Meetings are mostly data dumps, this week’s firefighting, and operational/technical problem solving.

Follow Through and Follow Up

Many executive teams are fairly good at setting direction, strategies, and new goals. But very few teams have a strong discipline and rigorous process for cascading those plans throughout their organization and following through to hold themselves and the teams reporting to them accountable for implementation.

Tactical Planning versus Strategic Capacity Building

Feeling pressured to deliver monthly results, executive teams often slip into focusing on short-term tactical issues. This spins the vicious cycle faster; we don’t build long-term organizational capacity and so need to personally lead or push everyone to drive for short-term results. This leaves less time to build long term capacity so we need to fight more fires and solve an ever growing number of operational problems which means we have no time to build capacity….

Meeting Effectiveness

An organization’s culture ripples out from the behavior of the executive team leading it. Meetings showcase the levels of discipline, cohesion, values, priorities, time management, customer focus, teamwork, and employee engagement/involvement provided by the executive team. Many meeting processes, content and tone of discussions, and participant behaviors waste time and sow the seeds of separateness and division.

Cascading and Engaging Management Levels

Common complaints from middle managers are conflicting messages from the executive team, micro management, and lack of their involvement identifying and solving the organization’s biggest barriers to higher effectiveness. Many executive teams don’t have good forums and processes to connect with, listen to, and strategically engage the deep wisdom and experience of their middle managers.

Leadership Development/Succession Planning

Many organizations face a growing crisis as their executives approach retirement or experience health problems. Failing to involve, coach, and train their middle managers and supervisors has left the organization with little “bench strength” or management/leadership depth.

Courageous Conversations and Moose-on-the-Table

Most leaders insist – and truly believe – that their executive teams are open and everyone speaks their mind. Since he or she isn’t hearing that there is a problem, there’s often a false belief that there’s little fear to strongly debate, push back, or raise a “sensitive problem.” But when executives are confidentially interviewed or given a safe and anonymous process to “name the moose” (or elephant/gorilla in the room) a very different picture usually emerges.

How’s your team doing? Which traps have you slipped into? Are they symptoms or root causes? How do you know? My next blog post will outline approaches to deal with these common executive team issues.