Executive teams face unique challenges. The organization’s business strategy and architecture (structure, processes, and culture) are both shaped by them and shape them. Team members have large individual jobs, with accountability for significant amounts of financial and organizational impact; they also tend to have big ambitions and are often in implicit (or explicit) competition for the top job.
When executive teams perform well, they significantly accelerate organizational performance: in fact, they are an under-leveraged source of strategic advantage. They’re also an under-leveraged source of development—there are few better ways to develop enterprise mindset than being a member of a high-performing executive team. My colleagues and I work with executive teams across the world to unleash this potential. Lately, though, we’re seeing an additional self-imposed challenge: executive teams are getting too big.
CEOs often tell us that they need a large team because the increased complexity in the world requires more voices, representing diverse perspectives, to wrestle with the big issues. That’s true. Ironically though, the larger the team, the harder it is to hear those voices in a meaningful way: diversity without inclusion is meaningless. Our own and others’ research has consistently shown that outstanding executive teams are small—ideally, no more than nine people. Once you get above that number, it is exponentially harder to create the conditions that enable good decision making about the paradoxes that organizations face today.
A core characteristic in high-performing teams is trust, which goes far beyond professional respect. Trust emerges when you really care about the other person, their goals, and their constraints—even when you’re diametrically opposed to their views on the issue at hand. Trust means you bring their voice into the room when they’re absent, representing their perspective even though you may not agree with it. And trust enables you to engage in robust and vigorous conflict on business-critical issues, looking to understand others’ views deeply while sharing your own perspective—and thereby unlocking new possibilities that none of you would have dreamed of alone.
That kind of trust requires relationship—really knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, styles and preferences, backgrounds and dreams. What leaders often overlook is that team size is linear, but team relationships are exponential: for example, a team with 8 people on it has 28 active relationships, but a team of 14 people has 91 relationships. Finding time for 14 people to state their perspective in a meeting is hard enough; managing 91 relationships in a way that creates trust is simply not realistic.
So what’s a CEO to do?
1. Clarify team purpose: why the team exists and what, specifically, you need the team to do.
- This includes defining a compelling “north star” that generates energy and commitment. This tends to be the easy part.
- It also means defining the accountability areas that the team collectively owns – and what you want them to do in that arena. That’s harder and often overlooked. Do you want the team to provide input into strategic direction, to align around a strategy recommended by a sub-team, or to define it together? Do you want the team to make trade-off decisions for the enterprise, or do you want that to happen in a smaller group?
2. Let team purpose drive the team(s) size and membership.
- While decision-making teams need to be small, other types of teams can be larger. You might need a larger team, for example, to provide diverse perspectives while a smaller subset makes the final call. Some CEOs choose to have a core team and an extended team; others choose to set up more of a committee structure.
- If you have multiple teams, be crystal clear about which team (or individual) owns which decisions. We find that many leaders are reluctant to call the play here, fearing that ownership will decrease if the team knows they don’t “own” the decision. In our experience, the team already knows—and members are usually relieved to have it explicit (often, with fewer meetings some of them need to attend).
3. Be ruthless about process, an under-appreciated aspect of team performance.
- Link agendas to the work you need the team to do and make sure you’ve provided enough time to do it. Start with the most important strategic items and explicitly state the desired outcome (e.g., “provide input” vs. “decide”).
- Make sure information—and especially decisions—are shared transparently. This includes pre-reads (ideally in a consistent form with a clear “ask”) and the requirement to have read it ahead of the meeting, as well as documentation of decisions. If you have multiple teams, establishing clear means by which information flows from one to another is critical to minimize inefficiency and maximize effectiveness.
4. Lead inclusively to reap the benefits of diverse perspectives.
- Create moments for team members to get to know one another, above and beyond their role at work. This can be aided by assessment input to better understand one another’s communication styles and preferences, but it doesn’t require that. Simply getting to know one another as human beings can make a big difference.
- Establish team norms that foster psychological safety and role model them yourself. This includes ensuring that all voices are heard and that the team seeks to understand different perspectives rather than ignoring them altogether. (It’s easier to do this, frankly, in smaller teams.)
Your executive team should be one of your biggest assets, and a source of strength for you and your stakeholders. Set it, yourself, and your organization up for success by making it fit for purpose.
 In any group of people, the number of possible relationships is [N x (N-1) / 2] where N = the number of people in the group.