How To Stabilize Your Executive Team’s Ship

By Robert Fish

Recently, Gazelles founder Verne Harnish highlighted a Fortune magazine article on the CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky. When the author, Leigh Gallagher, asked the CEO about his leadership style, Chesky drew a ship. “As CEO I’m the captain of the ship,” he said, and his primary job is to look for things below the waterline that might sink the ship. Above the waterline, he focuses on two or three things that he’s really passionate about and feels that “they can truly transform the company if they go well.”regatta-executive teams ship

Most companies don’t maximize growth due to internal problems – the below-the-waterline issues that are hard to see. I help my clients focus on one Internal risk and one External risk, and the most common thing I see is a dysfunctional Team #1. So, I think the No. 1 concern for a CEO should be the Health of Team #1.

Team #1 is the executive team. As humans, we are all imperfect. We can all communicate poorly, be passive-aggressive, seem agreeable on the outside but non-committal on the inside … and even just a little weird at times. So by default, all teams are dysfunctional. It’s really a question of how dysfunctional.

As Team #1 goes, so goes the rest of the company. If Team #1 can’t synchronize and work together cross-functionally, the teams below them will not work well, either. Is sales not working well with IT at the functional level? Trace it back to leadership.

I think that continuously working to make Team #1 healthier is a sustainable competitive advantage. Is your competition looking below the waterline like you are? Are their teams (especially Team #1) as healthy as yours? Are they working together cross-functionally and getting tons of stuff done drama-free?

How to Get Team #1 Sailing Together 

Here is a starting point to get Team #1 sailing together.

First, have your team read The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. After reading the leadership fable, ask your team if they can identify with any of the characters in the book.

Then do a Team Effectiveness Exercise. Gather your executive team around the table and have each person share two things that the CEO does that ADD to the effectiveness of the team. The CEO can ask clarifying questions, but should otherwise not respond. After all team members have spoken, the CEO can share insights into what he or she heard and learned.

Then, repeat this process for each team member. At the end of this part of the exercise, each member of the executive team will have shared two things each team member does that make the team more effective.

Next, go around the table, again starting with the CEO, and have each person share two behaviors that DETRACT from the team. Personal attacks are off-limits, and the moderator must be watching for potential attacks against a person versus talking about the behavior.

After everyone has shared two ADDITIONS and DETRACTORS for each person, have each person identify and share ONE THING they are going to commit to improving over the next 90 days to increase team health. Write the commitments down, and in 90 days, ask the team how each team member is doing. This drives accountability and action.

Sound scary? For some it is. Don’t cave. You’ll be surprised how many behavioral epiphanies people have. It’s hard to fix what you don’t know about.

A Success Story

A great example of this method in action is an accounting manager at a fast-growing Insight CXO client. She was new to the company and still getting acclimated when we went through this exercise. The Addition feedback was that she was highly trusted and the books were in great hands. This surprised and pleased her – she had put tons of pressure on herself and thought she was not doing a good enough job. But a Detractor theme was that she was not approachable. People were not comfortable walking into her office. This mortified her – she had no idea this was what people thought, and she committed to being more open and inviting. It was a very easy change once she knew what people were thinking.

The below the waterline example here shows an A-player who thought she was performing at a C-level, so she was unintentionally behaving in a way that limited communication.

Remember, the best team wins. Commit and take action to build a healthy Team #1 and unlock your company’s growth potential.

Image: William Cho