Can your executive “team” get the job done?

Adapted from Growing Groups into Teams: Real-life stories of people who get results and thrive together.

Guest Author: Pam Fox Rollin, Executive Coach & Strategic Facilitator, Altus Growth Partners

In many companies, it’s the executive group that least meets the standards we hold for teams. 

But does it matter? Is having a team at the top—a group of people who make a shared promise and coordi- nate to fulfill it—so important to company success that it’s worth the hard work to make it happen?

Our experience says yes. The more the top group of executives meets the definition of a high-performing team, the greater the organization’s performance— and satisfaction.

Let’s consider how executive teams fulfill the two actions that define a team:

First, teams make a shared promise1. They promise to produce a certain type of future for their organization. 

For top management teams, the promise of the team reflects the entire promise of the company. Here’s what investors, customers, employees, regulators, and communities can expect from this entity. The more the entire team shares the promise and commits to creating that sort of future, the more likely they are to achieve it.

What happens when executive group members are not fully invested in the commitment to create a shared future? 

Here are the breakdowns2 we see across all sizes and structures of companies:

• Top executives don’t have a common picture of what they are aiming to accomplish.
Often, they don’t even know that they’re not aligned. So, as these leaders work across the organization, they create misunderstanding, waste, gaps in operations and service, and needless conflict, as the middle levels aim to reconcile different directives.

• Top executives may share a common picture of the intended future, but they aren’t each highly committed to creating that future.

They’re committed to something else, such as making a name for themselves (for example, becoming known as the CTO who created the best AI implementation in this industry), maximizing their compensation (often linked to share price and individual targets, rather than fulfilling the overall promise of the company), or making sure that if a big error occurs, it doesn’t come from their group. This sends mixed messages across the company, resulting in more confusion, slow performance, and waste.

Now let’s look at the second criteria of a team: they coordinate effectively to create the future3.

What happens when executives don’t coordinate well? Here are the most common breakdowns:

• Something goes wrong, and the blame game fires up.
As you’ve no doubt experienced, breakdowns happen all the time. No plan is ever implemented as originally conceived. In the absence of clear and supportive (meaning constructive, not “nicey-nice”) top team conversations, people across the organization tend to over- or under-escalate breakdowns, aim to pin the problems on someone else, misalign funding with investment needs, and slow down implementation.

• “Fatal drift” occurs, and the senior group doesn’t address it. 

Drift happens when people critical to projects are pulled away to other initiatives—usually because an executive moves on to the next bright shiny goal without revoking or re-resourcing the last one. We also see drift when senior teams don’t keep track of commitments and hold themselves accountable for achieving the results intended. Drift happens because senior team members act as customers accountable only for their own functional initiatives, not for the organization’s overall commitments.

• The overall implementation plan doesn’t work and needs to be revised. 

Forging a real team at the top addresses each of these breakdowns. 

When senior leaders are uniformly committed to creating a shared future and staying in valuable conversations to achieve it, you can feel the energy throughout the company. Yes, it takes work, but it’s worth it. 

And, as a CEO or senior team member, you are there to make it happen.
So, what can you do?

Put in the work. Most top teams have 90-minute meetings each week; typically, these focus on operating issues they should be empowering others to handle. Top teams do best when they give themselves additional work sessions to consider the biggest strategic opportunities, take stands together on the thorniest cross-unit challenges, and become highly skilled in team communication (such as working through conflict, facing and addressing hard feedback, asking for commitment) so they can bring these skills to the whole organization.

Be persistent, honest, and supportive. It’s natural that people backslide to what feels comfortable—which is what they’ve done before. This process needs you, as the CEO or change agent, to speak the truth without blame: “We said we’d do X, and I see we’re still doing Y. Do we still believe this shift is worth making, and if so, what will we do differently, starting now?”

Arrange an experienced coach for the CEO and senior team. While a thoughtful CEO can lead the effort, they cannot simultaneously design and drive the process, accurately register the impact of their behaviors on others, and thoroughly coach themselves and others through the process. Experienced executive team coaches observe and listen thoughtfully, bring clarifying insights to team breakdowns, build the next level of leadership mindsets and skillsets, and co-design practices the team can sustain.

Implement a dashboard to keep you on track. Ask your coach for a simple, highly relevant team assessment each quarter or two or make your own. Identify and commit to the few top actions for the team to lead more effectively together in the period ahead.

Pam Fox Rollin, Executive Coach & Strategic Facilitator, Altus Growth Partners

Author, Growing Groups into Teams, and 42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role 

Feel free to connect with your questions and thoughts: [email protected]


Bob Dunham, Institute for Generative Leadership, “Notes on Building and Leading Teams,” (2008, 2017).

2 Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham, The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), 20. Breakdown refers to any event that interrupts the flow of action to the desired outcome.  

3 Dunham, “Notes on Building and Leading Teams.”

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