Choosing an Executive Team

Building a cohesive leadership team is the most important responsibility a CEO takes on. This team will be setting the direction, tone, strategy, priorities and executing against plan. The organization will never be more focused or aligned that the exec team at the top. So, it matters who you choose. Think of it like an NBA coach during the draft … here’s what to look for, in order of importance: Character; Advice and Representation.

  1. Aligned Character – Choose those who possess the virtues of the Ideal Team Player = Humble, Hungry & Smart (people-smart) and model your organization’s core values … not perfectly, but not fundamentally lacking. Once the exec team is chosen, others will see them as “Leadership”, and you need to be confident in what they say or how they behave and how they represent you.
  2. Strategic Advisors – The role of the team is to help you make decisions — choose folks whose point of view you value and who make good decisions in the scope of their “day jobs”. Insist that they weigh in and debate with their peers, and you, about the best way forward. Choose those who are curious and think broadly about the whole organization, not just their own function.
  3. Functional Representation – It’s critical that your executive team is well represented in the key functional areas of the business to ensure they’re focused on the right things and fully aligned. Did you get that? The first job of a “Team #1” executive is to represent the team well on the team they lead. This creates stronger commitment and more coordinated and seamless execution. Of course, this means someone who is not a functional head can still be on the team as both an advisor to CEO and influencer in the organization.

Here are some often used, but NOT good reasons for adding someone to the team:

  • They’re a Direct Report – while it is common to have all the CEOs direct reports are on the Exec Team, it is not necessary … if they don’t hit #1-3 above, better to wait -or- clean up your org structure at the top.
  • As a developmental experience – adding someone for their development – as noble as this seems, it is not a good enough reason to risk the cohesion and alignment of the exec team. Develop them elsewhere.
  • As an Honor – you feel you “owe it to them” because they’re senior; a founder; shareholder or family member. Again – create a place for them to contribute, but not on the Exec Team.
  • To protect their Ego – because they feel they “deserve” to be there, or you feel bad about not including them; because you’ve been avoiding the hard conversations related to why they don’t meet criteria #1 and #2 above.

What’s the Ideal Team Size? We see 3-8 people as an ideal. After ~8 people the group dynamic shifts to advocacy over inquiry; harder to schedule; more “reporting” than “debate + decide”, etc. We have many client teams over 8 people, some as large as 13. Being a big team is like being a short NBA player … it’s possible, but you have to be really good at all the other stuff, because the size is a major handicap.

What do you do with the “extra” leaders – consider creating an Extended Leadership Team – an identified group of influencers, subject matter experts, department heads and direct reports who are not on the Exec Team but nonetheless in a trusted inner-circle. Create a separate cadence and role for them without diluting the power of a small, cohesive, aligned decision-making executive team at the top.

Other helpful thoughts:

Finally, start small. It’s easier to invite someone on the team after you realize you miss their point of view than it is to ask someone to leave the team because they’re not contributing well. Bottom line — being on the executive team is not a perk, a privilege or a reward – it’s a responsibility, and it’s not for everyone.

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This month’s Thoughts from the Field (September 2022) is written by Rick Packer, my colleague in Atlanta, GA.