Here is an excerpt from a “classic” article written by Michiel Kruyt, Judy Malan, and Rachel Tuffield for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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When a top team fails to function, it can paralyze a whole company. Here’s what CEOs need to watch out for.
Few teams function as well as they could. But the stakes get higher with senior-executive teams: dysfunctional ones can slow down, derail, or even paralyze a whole company. In our work with top teams at more than 100 leading multinational companies, including surveys with 600 senior executives at 30 of them, we’ve identified three crucial priorities for constructing and managing effective top teams. Getting these priorities right can help drive better business outcomes in areas ranging from customer satisfaction to worker productivity and many more as well.
[Here are the first two steps.]
1. Get the right people on the team . . . and the wrong ones off
Determining the membership of a top team is the CEO’s responsibility—and frequently the most powerful lever to shape a team’s performance. Many CEOs regret not employing this lever early enough or thoroughly enough. Still others neglect it entirely, assuming instead that factors such as titles, pay grades, or an executive’s position on the org chart are enough to warrant default membership. Little surprise, then, that more than one-third of the executives we surveyed said their top teams did not have the right people and capabilities.
The key to getting a top team’s composition right is deciding what contributions the team as a whole, and its members as individuals, must make to achieve an organization’s performance aspirations and then making the necessary changes in the team. This sounds straight-forward, but it typically requires conscious attention and courage from the CEO; otherwise, the top team can underdeliver for an extended period of time.
That was certainly the case at a technology services company that had a struggling top team: fewer than one in five of its members thought it was highly respected or shared a common vision for the future, and only one in three thought it made a valuable contribution to corporate performance. The company’s customers were very dissatisfied—they rated its cost, quality, and service delivery at only 2.3 on a 7-point scale—and the team couldn’t even agree on the root causes.
A new CEO reorganized the company, creating a new strategy group and moving from a geography-based structure to one based on two customer-focused business units—for wholesale and for retail. He adapted the composition of his top team, making the difficult decision to remove two influential regional executives who had strongly resisted cross-organizational collaboration and adding the executive leading the strategy group and the two executives leading the retail and the wholesale businesses, respectively. The CEO then used a series of workshops to build trust and a spirit of collaboration among the members of his new team and to eliminate the old regional silo mentality. The team also changed its own performance metrics, adding customer service and satisfaction performance indicators to the traditional short-term sales ones.
Customers rated the company’s service at 4.3 a year later and at 5.4 two years later. Meanwhile, the top team, buoyed by these results, was now confident that it was better prepared to improve the company’s performance. In the words of one team member, “I wouldn’t have believed we could have come this far in just one year.”
2. Make sure the top team does just the work only it can do
Many top teams struggle to find purpose and focus. Only 38 percent of the executives we surveyed said their teams focused on work that truly benefited from a top-team perspective. Only 35 percent said their top teams allocated the right amounts of time among the various topics they considered important, such as strategy and people.
What are they doing instead? Everything else. Too often, top teams fail to set or enforce priorities and instead try to cover the waterfront. In other cases, they fail to distinguish between topics they must act on collectively and those they should merely monitor. These shortcomings create jam-packed agendas that no top team can manage properly. Often, the result is energy-sapping meetings that drag on far too long and don’t engage the team, leaving members wondering when they can get back to “real work.” CEOs typically need to respond when such dysfunctions arise; it’s unlikely that the senior team’s members—who have their own business unit goals and personal career incentives—will be able to sort out a coherent set of collective top-team priorities without a concerted effort.
The CEO and the top team at a European consumer goods company rationalized their priorities by creating a long list of potential topics they could address. Then they asked which of these had a high value to the business, given where they wanted to take it, and would allow them, as a group, to add extraordinary value. While narrowing the list down to ten items, team members spent considerable time challenging each other about which topics individual team members could handle or delegate. They concluded, for example, that projects requiring no cross-functional or cross-regional work, such as addressing lagging performance in a single region, did not require the top team’s collective attention even when these projects were the responsibility of an individual team member. For delegated responsibilities, they created a transparent and consistent set of performance indicators to help them monitor progress.
This change gave the top team breathing room to do more valuable work. For the first time, it could focus enough effort on setting and dynamically adapting cross-category and cross-geography priorities and resource allocations and on deploying the top 50 leaders across regional and functional boundaries, thus building a more effective extended leadership group for the company. This, in turn, proved crucial as the team led a turnaround that took the company from a declining to a growing market share. The team’s tighter focus also helped boost morale and performance at the company’s lower levels, where employees now had more delegated responsibility. Employee satisfaction scores improved to 79 percent, from 54 percent, in just one year.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.