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Building an Effective Executive Leadership Team
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By Leigh Bailey

“Don’t run for office. You are already elected.” — Jack Welch

“Collaboration across boundaries is fundamentally different.” — Carly Fiorina

Executive leadership teams, the groups of senior level executives—typically led by the CEO—that drive an organization, have a substantial effect on the company’s culture, work environment, strategic direction, and productivity. A well- or poorly-run team can literally mean success or failure in any sized company, because of its impact on an organization’s ability to innovate, respond to market challenges, communicate with investors, foster employee loyalty, and manage productivity.

Given these high stakes, how can an organization’s leader maximize the effectiveness of its executive leadership team? In our experience, these teams operate using different work styles, usually based on the preferences of the CEO. The two most common styles are:

Leader-centric. In this model, the CEO uses team meetings to share information, consult with other executives on important issues, and coordinate execution of decisions that the CEO has made. The CEO’s style is a forceful one: the team’s members maintain loyalty within that style, fully expecting that the CEO will make most of the key decisions. Jack Welch, in his book Winning, describes a leader-centric style this way: “By nature, some people are consensus builders. Some people long to be loved by everyone. Those behaviors can really get you in the soup if you are a leader….You are not a leader to win a popularity contest – you are a leader to lead.” (p. 72)

Versatile. In the second model, the CEO aspires to build a more collaborative executive team. While these CEOs still hold the keys, they regularly seek to differentiate between decisions that are best made collaboratively, via team discussion and consensus, and those made by the CEO after consultation and input. In Tough Choices, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, describes this style of team leadership: “Collaboration requires more consultation and agreement among peers. It requires acceptance of accountability while sharing resources. It means trusting others to do their job while knowing that others must trust you to do the same.” (pp. 138-139)

The model a CEO chooses can be influenced by a number of factors, but the biggest influencer is the CEO’s own beliefs about leadership, and their own perceived—or real—strengths and weaknesses as a leader. CEOs who prefer the leader-centric style are often less comfortable with the personal relationship-building part of their job. They are less skilled with the role of coaching and facilitating, one that is generally required to build a highly interdependent leadership team. Their executive team meetings tend to be more formal and reserved, because they are less comfortable with open discussion, debating different viewpoints, and using varying team decision-making styles based on the requirements of the issue at hand.

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Leigh Baily is the Founder and Principal of The Bailey Consulting Group.
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