Leadership team : what it takes to make them great

Résumé de l'excellent livre "Senior Leadership Teams" de Wageman, Nunes, Burruss, Hackman. Ed. Harvard Business Review Press


Teams are not only a feasible means of providing organizational leadership but they are also increasingly necessary as the demands of top roles outdistance the capacities of any single person. That is why a growing number of CEO are forming teams to help them lead their companies.

Most of them surround themselves with top advisers, senior managers they trust to carry out the mission of the organization. But the members of this group also have specific leadership responsibilities that keep them working as individuals, each representing a function or business unit and not the enterprise. This is the center of the problem !


In this book, the authors show the key to competent leadership of a senior team is to create and sustain 6 conditions that, when in place, dramatically increase the chances of senior team effectiveness.


3 Essentials => basic prerequisite for good team performance that operate as connected threads

1.     Creating a real team, rather than one that is a team in name only

a)     The right questions to ask the leader :

·      Do you really need a leadership team ? What kind of team do you want?

 You need a senior leadership team if more than 2 of the leadership functions below need to be fulfilled collaboratively.

·      Informational teams : the purpose of these team is to hear from the CEO, to brief the CEO, and to inform senior managers => better informed, better aligned

·      Consultative teams : their purpose is to discuss and advice the CEO about key decisions he must make. Make the CEO better informed and better able to do his job effectively

·      Coordinating teams  : Members coordinate their leadership activities as they execute strategically important initiatives. They manage the operational interdependencies of the enterprise.

·      Decision-making teams : they make the small numbers of critical decisions that are the most consequential for enterprise as a whole. This is the most complex leadership team of all. The senior leadership team by excellence.

b)    What makes a group of execs. a real team?

·      Interdependent: Members work with one another to address issues, solve problems, provide advice and make collective decision. Defining members’ interdependencies is linked with crafting a compelling team-level purpose.

·      Bounded: who is on the team? Fewer than 7 percent of the teams agreed about who was on the team! Senior leadership teams are delusional about how bounded they are. Bounded = clear boundaries!

·      Stable: Groups of people cannot become teams without stable membership for a reasonable period. They need time to learn how to work together. 

2.     Providing the team with a clear and compelling purpose: How do I define the purpose of my team?

Executives must articulate to their teams a purpose that is consequential, challenging and clear.

1.     Consequential: what actions are crucial enough to be treated as the main job of the leaders and not a side job?

2.     Challenging: what is the team of leaders up for now? Strong, committed senior leaders are at their best when they are continually challenged and are providing real value to the organization. 2 patterns:

a.     Leaders frequently overchallenged individual members but underchallenged the team => Consequence:  team work feel less important than the work of individual members.

b.     Challenge without clarity hurts performance: Team purpose need to be as least as clear as challenging. Clarity of purpose makes the extraordinarily challenging and consequential work of senior leadership team possible.

3.     Clear: what are the critical few things that only this team can accomplish? Establishing clarity is the hardest. 3 common threats:

a.     Assuming that if the team know the organization’s mission statement, then they understand the team’s purpose. NO = the team needs a purpose that is about its own special leadership responsibilities

b.     The absence of a shared understanding of the organization’s strategy (=distinctive approach to establishing sustainable performance). => How the words in their strategy documents translate into organizational action?

c.     The level of emotional courage that it takes to achieve and sustain clarity.

Getting the purpose clear:

1.     Identify the interdependencies. It usually ofter emerges in conversations among members of the team: What are the aspects of the business that require close interaction and joint decision making?

a.     What do we need each other for?

b.     What are the most critical challenges facing the business?

c.     Does the team have a collective strategy for addressing those challenges?

d.     How well is our strategy working?

2.     Create a short list from what emerged from 1.

3.     Conceptualize the team’s unique contribution

a.     What are the larger themes in the list?

b.     What are the connections to the core challenges faced by organization?


3.     Get the right people on your team and the wrong ones off

You must choose whom you need to be on the team. Have you assumed that all your direct reports must be on your direct reports must be on your team? The question is : whom do I need on this team?

1.     Look first for the needed skills experience : Ensuring the team consists of the right members: they have the knowledge, skill, and experience that are required for the team’s work. Membership on the team requires certain teamwork capabilities beyond technical skills

2.     Look for signs of an executive leader self-image : to transition one’s self image from line or function leader to member of an enterprise leadership team takes time, coaching and patience.

3.     Look for signs of conceptual thinking : it involves the ability to synthesize complex information from divergent sources and extract their implications for the enterprise. You should look for people who have demonstrated their ability to speak about the whole enterprise and its context, beyond the own area of expertise.

4.     Look for signs of empathy and integrity.

·      EMPATHY

a.     Ability to understand the content of what a person has just said

b.     The ability to understand the meaning it holds for the speaker

c.     The ability to reflect back the feelings the speaker has attached to the content.


a.     Putting enterprise-affecting issues on the table for discussion even when resolution of the issues could have negative implication for one’s own area of responsibility

b.     Keeping discussion among team confidential

c.     Implementing decisions

d.     Holding the team accountable

5.     Onboarding for forming the team : Clarifying expectations for the individual role + the enterprise role + the senior leadership team role.

Questions you shoud address with new members of leadership team :

a.     What are they expected to contribute to the team?

b.     How are members expected to behave in and out the meetings?

c.     What characteristics of individual’s behavior risk hurting the team


6.     Eliminate dangerous derailers

Derailers are not unskilled technically so how to identify them? They almost always lack critical people skills and competencies and are low in empathy and integrity.

a.     A victim mentality (bitterness about their career)

b.     A tendency to make blanket negative assessment of other people.

c.     Frequently complains about and criticizes others in public

d.     Brings out the worst in other members

e.     Attack people instead of criticizing the issues

f.      Talks in the hall but not in the room




3 Enablers =>  smooth the path to excellence

1.     a solid team structure :

A solid structure enhances the ability of members to work together to achieve their purpose. The better the structure, the more effective and productive the team.

Bring together a small group of people – the smallest you can for the work to be done – give them the tasks they need to do to achieve the team’s purpose, and establish the basic norms that govern how they will work together = the essence of a solid team structure

3 elements of structure :

a)     Team Tasks : well-defined team tasks, core to the purpose and mission critical.

·      Team meetings require careful planning

o   Create and follow an agenda (responsibility of the leader)

1.     Every item in the meeting is meaningful. Only the top team can do it.

2.     Keep the agenda short (3/4 items max)

3.     Define the outcomes you want from your team for each item

4.     Define the measures that will tell whether the team was successful

o   Start with the most important issues

o   Face the future. Relegate reviews of past performance to the end of the meeting

o   Prepare and participate

b)    Team norms : shared expectations about members behavior. Ask members to hold one another accountable for maintaining those rules. Norms must be specific behavioral rules to which team agrees, not just values. Actionnable. The role of the leader is to create, model and enforce norms. Whatever behavior the leader tolerates become part of the rules. Leaders often underestimate the impact the have when they break the team norms. 

c)     Team size : <8 ideally

2.     a supportive organizational context :

What are the resources that smooth and facilitate the work of a senior leadership team?

a.     Rewards : Recognize and reinforce team members for delivering on the team’s accountabilities. Eg : money/ public acknowledgement/team toast/combination of rewards…Putting significant team skin in the game.

b.     Information. Getting the right information is a hurdle. Many teams suffer from info overload: they are buried in reports and data. Without intelligent intervention, the info systems of the orga do not provide precisely what a leadership team needs to take care of its strategic, enterprise affecting, forward-looking accountabilities. It is vital to have information well organized and prepared for the specific analytic purposes of the team.

c.     Education : providing the training and educational resources members need for the mission.

d.     Support  : provide any other support that can smooth team processes and build collective capabilities; Eg : time, settings, material ressources…


3.     a competent team coaching  = intervening in the process that the team members use to interact, in order to improve team effectiveness. A good team coach holds a mirror to reflect back to team members the collective behaviors that hinder and advance teamwork. It could include  a wide range of actions such as :

clarifying team boundaries, creating or clarifying behavioral norms, calling out team members when they violate a norm, complimenting the team on the quality and depth of its discussion of a strategic issue, teaching members how to listen for the key concerns others are expressing, or even taking a break to reflect on how the team is going.

o   When to coach the team?

       Beginnings : time to create energy and focus on the team’s purpose. 

       Midpoint : how is it going? What’s working? What do  we wish we had or hadn’t done? What shall we do differently for the next half?

       End of cycle : gather insights and reflect on lessons learned. What can the team learn to help it grow even stronger for the next set of must-win battles?



Leading a leadership team.

Leaders absolutely need 4 competencies to design excellent teams :

a.     Organizationnal acuity : it enables them to quickly understand how the organization and its leadership team operate and to prioritize the issues that most urgently require the team’s attention

b.     Conceptual skill  (eg : extracting larger theme to define the purpose of the team)

c.     Ability to decide : When a decision needs to be made, some leaders move too quickly, whereas others wait to long. The best leaders thread their way between these 2 temptations.

d.     Political skill : Political activities are essentials for getting teams set up and supported well, and the best executives know how to achieve political ends without violating their personal ethical standards. . Preparation involves doing whatever you can to expand and deepen your knowledge about the changes your enterprise most needs, sharing that vision with others, building a coalition that is ready to provide support, and then taking initiatives to align interests of powerful and potentially skeptical people whose cooperation you need.

Other competencies

a.     Monitoring skill = the capability to discern and make sense of what is going on within the team.

b.     Empathy = You can sense member’s feelings, accept them as real and understandable, and deal with them as an integral and necessary part of managing a senior team and its work

c.     Ability to inspire your team = must get others in the organization to share your passion. The key is to identify which of your skills and styles can best be used to create in others the passion you feel for your work and then to hone and develop those resources as one core element in your personal repertoire of team leadership skills

d.     Coaching skills : essential if you want your team to identify and enforce constructive norms, to conduct vigorous but focused discussions and to learn from its work over time. Need to develop a repertoire of good questions to ask and to hone your sense of timing.


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