Getting Leadership Team Composition Right

Functional track record is important, but insufficient to predict success. Look for these four unique skills in all potential senior leaders.

As we have mentioned in other articles, leadership teams are not and should not be like any other team in an organization. Knowingly or unknowingly, they create the conditions for their organizations to either thrive or flounder. Because the stakes are so high it is absolutely critical for CEOs to get the composition right.

Executives at many companies rise the ranks in large part because of their past accomplishments and functional expertise; sales results for the head of sales, successful product launches for the CMO, balance sheet and capital raises for the CFO, technological innovation for the CTO. Advancement is also often a reward for putting in hard work and years of service or forming the necessary political bonds with the right senior influencers. Functional track record, work ethic and relationship skills are important for any senior executive, but are insufficient when an executive is asked to be part of an effective senior leadership team.

Great leadership teams establish and steer an organization’s strategic direction and set the tone for how their organizations operate. In normal circumstances this is challenging work, but today’s uncertain and complex environment requires leadership teams to be much more than a collection of talented senior executives. To be successful, leadership teams have no other option than to leverage each other’s talent so they can navigate the uncertainty in a manner that fuels innovation, enables operational agility and inspires confidence.

So, what does it take to be a great leadership team member? In our experience and in speaking with many CEOs, there are four unique skills that all senior leaders must have or at least be working to develop to be great leadership team members. These are foresight, management of complexity, a greater good focus, and modeling values.

1. Foresight 

Today’s leaders live in a world filled with volatility, ambiguity and complexity and are constantly challenged with staying focused on the future while facing the urgency of the latest crisis. According to famed futurist Richard Slaughter, foresight is “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways.” Foresight is not about predicting the future. Rather, it is an important capability that helps leaders manage, harness and leverage the constant change around us. It includes being able to sift through large amounts of conflicting information and being astute observers of the environments in which they operate. Foresight helps leaders anticipate challenges and avoid letting situations fully dictate and overwhelm their organizations. To develop good foresight leaders must be curious about learning and experimenting, disciplined about not letting their own biases get in the way, and passionate about engaging and learning from others.

2. Simplifying the complex. 

Simplifying complexity means breaking down complex information into logical patterns that enable simple solutions to emerge. In his “Simplifying Complexity” TED Talk Eric Berlow suggests that ‘the more you step back and embrace complexity the better chance you have of finding simple answers, and it’s often different than the simple answer that you started with.’ On a leadership team, members have to go beyond managing the complexity of their functional responsibilities and work together to manage the complexity of the entire organization. Simplicity matters because it has such a big effect on how businesses operate and on a leadership team’s ability to communicate as a team and with the entire organization. Leadership team members who are not skilled at simplifying complexity hold their organizations back as they tend to lead reactive and inefficient functional units and contribute to confusion and frustration throughout an organization.

To begin to master the art of simplifying complexity, leadership team members have to work on two important skills. The first is the ability to gather or observe complex data, identify the outcomes the team is trying to influence or evaluate, and identify patterns or interdependencies between the data—all in the interest of discerning potential conclusions or solutions. The second skill is the ability to communicate complex topics in manner that satisfies the needs of recipients. This often requires prioritizing what’s most important from the recipients’ perspective, articulating clearly and concisely, and providing context and examples.

3. Greater good focus.

Being a good member of any team is hard work and the challenges are exacerbated on leadership teams where egos, ambitions and ingrained ways of working are considerable. For a leadership team to be great, each member has to be loyal to the team first and at times subordinate their functional or business lead role and personal agenda to that of the team. This is easy to say but much more difficult to put into practice.

This greater good focus is not always a natural skill and must be continually reinforced. Leadership teams need to actively discuss and gain agreement on the behaviors that support a greater good focus—“we” instead of “I,” volunteering to give things up, excitement about company success not directly related to their function. Team members also need to welcome and encourage input from their colleagues even on topics outside of their expertise. Leadership teams with members who have a greater good focus appreciate this input because they know it is coming with the right intent. Perhaps most importantly, all team members need to consistently model these behaviors and hold each other accountable to them.

4. Modeling values. 

In many organizations values are simply words listed on the web site or posted in conference rooms. To find out if this is the case simply ask an employee in the lunchroom if posted values are real. If the response is ‘if you heard how the COO talks to his team you would laugh at our people first value’ then you know there is work to be done. However, if the response is ‘heck, yeah, let me tell you how we take care of employees at this place,’ you can be sure that the leadership team is reinforcing these important behaviors.

Values should be the guideposts for how all employees in an organization behave and, simply put, they will be consistently practiced across the organization only if every member of the leadership team models them in how they interact as a leadership team and with all stakeholders; how they make decisions; and how they operate their individual units. Employees take their cues from the leadership team—service focus is diminished when an executive publicly disparages a customer, people first is diminished when an executive yells at a team member, team focus is diminished when employees hear leadership team members speak poorly about their colleagues.

Members of great leadership teams recognize that it is a privilege to be on the team and to serve their organizations. They may not be able to practice all of the characteristics described above when they first join a leadership team, but they must have the capability to develop these important skills and actively commit to do so. Unfortunately, some functional leaders are simply not suited to be on a leadership team. They may be great technical contributors and do an effective job in driving their functional teams, but they might never be able to focus beyond today’s challenges or manage complexity beyond issues in their technical domain or have a mindset that puts the organization’s needs ahead of those of their function. Most CEOs choose to work around these functionally focused players but in most cases, they hold their teams back and create unnecessary chaos. For example, the CTO of a cybersecurity firm continually wastes the leadership team’s time with deep dives into technical challenges on projects and fails to listen to the perspectives of his colleagues when the team addresses cross-organizational challenges.

The components of a strong leadership team structure are quite dependent on each other. For example, defining a leadership team’s purpose provides needed context and clarity for team members to practice and further develop the above four skills. Does your leadership team have the right players?