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Developing Executive Teams


“Teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice.” –Patrick Lencioni1

The tension between team and individual performance is not reserved for the executive boardroom; it is a phenomenon that starts much earlier and remains with us throughout our lives. All around us, we see clear examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: championship sports teams, world-class orchestras, even many of our leading companies. Much of the reward and recognition, however, goes to individual performers: to the star quarterback, the maestro, or the charismatic entrepreneur.

Unlike a sports team or an orchestra, though, senior executive teams neither require constant teamwork nor meet regularly to rehearse and refine this behavior. Typically, these groups are comprised of individuals who have ascended through the ranks of their functional areas to positions of influence. Along the way, the majority of reward structures and recognition opportunities were geared toward their individual achievement. Now, as the heads of their respective functions, they are held individually accountable for performance, and must demonstrate strong individual leadership to marshal the resources at their disposal. At the same time, however, they are being asked to take on new roles, serving as members of highly visible teams and looking beyond their functional areas to become organizational leaders. The stakes are high, and there is often no formal induction to the tricky balance of expectations with which they are met; as talented, senior leaders, they are expected to hit the ground running. Is it any wonder that many revert to the behavior that got them to the top in the first place—to individual leadership and functional results?

Adding to this are the significant demands on executives’ time, the pressures of managing a high-performing organization, and dimensions of power and ego. It is therefore no surprise that many CEOs and team members are left feeling that their team could be performing at a higher level, but have little idea of how to get there.

Recognizing the need for more practical information, as opposed to theory, on this topic, Peak Development undertook an independent research study to understand real-world experience with:

  • effective methods for developing executive teams;
  • barriers and accelerators in the development process; and
  • the roles presidents/CEOs, team members and facilitators play in shaping executive teams.

The research methodology began with a comprehensive literature review, as well as interviews with senior business leaders to inform the study design. In early 2006, a web-based survey was conducted, collecting data from approximately 100 leaders across the globe with first-hand knowledge of executive team development. Responses spanned four continents, and reflect a high degree of experience: most participants have worked on or with executive teams for 10 years or more, and almost 75% are currently a senior leader or member of an executive team.

While one size does not fit all and each executive team must decide for themselves what will best meet their needs, the responses from these seasoned executives clearly indicate which methods have proven most effective in their experience. As with all development, the process begins the moment the need is acknowledged.

The Decision to Develop

“Why then is there such a constant demand from senior managers for ‘teambuilding’? I’ve come to believe that what these managers want is for the people who report to them to take the needs of the whole ahead of the needs of their own departments. I’ve found that in many management ‘teams,’ if you dig into their mental maps, this is what ‘teamwork’ really means.” – Gervase Bushe2

Operating as a Team

When leaders first approach me to explore the possibility of executive team development, the first inquiry often centers on the possibility of a 1-2 day off-site meeting. Perhaps they have experienced some of the most common barriers to developing an executive team (see Table 1), and are seeking an efficient, expedient method for addressing them. As the classic “teambuilding workshop” approach is often successfully employed at lower levels in the organization—and is likely an approach with which the leader has some experience and comfort—it is assumed that this approach will return a similar result at the executive level. However, leaders are frequently surprised when one of my first questions is whether the executives want or need to be a team to accomplish their goals. While it is a simple question, it often helps leaders clarify their thinking on what they mean when they talk about teamwork.

When people think of teams—especially executive teams—their thoughts are often based on several assumptions. Jon Katzenbach, a foundational thinker on executive teams, challenges leaders to consider these preconceptions of what constitutes an executive team:

“When we think of a team at the top made up only of the CEO’s direct reports, we presume that all companies have one, for better or worse. We also presume that this senior group of executives can function together only in one of two fundamental ways: as a hierarchical group or as a collaborative team.”3

Instead, he asks leaders to:

“Picture a flexible group that functions in different modes of group behavior and composition—rather than “all of the CEOs direct reports,” who must either function as a team or not.”4

With this mindset, teams may discover that executive-level teamwork may be more situational than constant.

>> Click here to download the full PDF.<<


  1. Lencioni, P. (2006, January). “Thought Leaders: Patrick Lencioni on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” HR.com [On-line]. Available: www.hr.com. 

  2. Bushe, G. R. (2004). “Managers Want Tribes, Not Teams: An Invitation to Rethink Teambuilding” OD Practitioner, 36(1). p. 10. 

  3. Katzenbach, J. R. (1998). Teams at the Top: Unleashing the Power of Both Team and Individual Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. p. 5. 

  4. Katzenbach, p. 6. 

Monday, May 15th, 2006  Tags: , ,
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