The CEO as Team Leader

The popular vision of the “lone hero” CEO leading the corporation to record profits is far from accurate in today’s increasingly complex operating environment. One individual simply cannot keep pace with the massive changes witnessed during the last five to ten years. To adapt, organizations are rapidly shifting to a shared-leadership model, where a carefully selected senior executive team aligns with the CEO to collectively drive the business forward. This transition, in turn, demands a cultural shift from functional responsibility to an enterprise-wide mindset. While every organization is unique, the following six steps offer an overview of the best practices that distinguish high-performing senior teams that add value to their organizations from lower-performing teams that miss the mark.


The CEO must own the process. While many organizations pay lip service to the team concept, their CEOs make solo decisions, perhaps after “touching base” with staff members. To build a solid foundation, CEOs must determine that they really want and need a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional team. Once certain, they need to make this objective clear to all stakeholders, especially board members and prospective team members.


Wise CEOs recognize that the strategic plan defines the mix of talents required on the team. Time Inc. CEO Joseph A. Ripp recently applied this principle after deciding that investing in technology and new-product development was a huge priority. He added Amazon’s Colin Bodell to his senior team specifically to drive the identification and acquisition of best-in-breed technology. In a recent study of senior teams by RHR International, 97 percent of high-performing teams indicated that their group is properly structured to achieve strategic goals versus only 70 percent of lower-performing teams.


Many CEOs inherit large “grandfathered” teams, consisting mainly of their predecessor’s direct reports. The CEO “team leader” must match the challenges defined by the strategy review with the abilities in this talent pool. Most CEOs will not be capable of performing this task alone. This is not the time for a “gut check” on essentially unknown entities. Have each prospective team member professionally assessed against the specific needs outlined by the strategic plan. These objective, psychological profiles provide a scientifically based, solid foundation for team membership decisions.


Our research indicates that new leaders, on average, take less than four months to begin making changes in the structure of their senior teams. Some move even faster. Within weeks of his appointment as CEO, John Chen swiftly ousted the COO, CMO and CFO of BlackBerry. While it may be tempting to act swiftly, keep in mind that draconian measures may not be required. Addressing performance gaps with a rigorous executive development program could accelerate productivity more rapidly than building a team of all-stars from the open market.


Most teams struggle with what is truly important—for the enterprise, the business functions they lead and for themselves as a team. In our study, 93 percent of high-performing team members polled said that their team was very effective at prioritizing the most important issues. How do these groups attain such an overwhelming edge? The discipline required flows from the CEO, who acts as gatekeeper against the mundane, the unqualified and the unnecessary.


Forty-two percent of the high-performing team members in our study indicate that their leaders are highly effective (or even exceptional) when it comes to inspiring action. These CEOs demonstrate commitment by providing the resources necessary for achieving organizational goals and removing barriers to team functioning. In contrast, only 9 percent of lower-performing teams said their leader inspired them. To let everyone know where he stands, Randy Papadellis, CEO of Ocean Spray, often refers to himself as the “chief alignment officer.”

Ultimately, savvy CEOs take the lead role, focus the attention of individual executives beyond their own functional responsibilities to an enterprise point of view and collaborate with them to drive superior performance throughout the organization.

Dr. Thomas J. Saporito is chairman and CEO of the consulting firm RHR International. This article is the second in a six-part series.