How Successful CEOs Create A Strategically Aligned Top Team…That Generates Extraordinary Results

Frustration, disappointment, a little annoyance and a helping of self-doubt.

Some of the ingredients in the cocktail of emotions Jack was feeling as he sat back in his chair and reflected on the executive team meeting he’d just chaired.

Jack’s worries, after 12 months as CEO of a mid-sized tech firm and plenty of time for a new growth strategy to begin bearing fruit, were mounting. Monthly revenue barely budged. Customer satisfaction was actually declining. The meeting he’d just sat through showed him progress was at best sluggish and his team wasn’t pulling together.

Six months back, he’d felt confident their strategy would position them well to take advantage of opportunities in their fast-changing marketplace. He thought everyone wanted the implementation process to excel. But the reality today seemed quite different.

I met Jack the day after the executive team meeting. One of my clients, a contact of Jack’s, had suggested we have an initial conversation. It didn’t take long for Jack to open up. He explained that a few years back in a former role as a divisional CEO in a large multinational company, he had a similar experience. There trying to roll-out their strategy was “like trying to run through thick mud.” He hoped that the mid-market company he was now leading could move much faster. But it wasn’t.

He then talked through his growth strategy for the firm and shared his frustration that roll-out milestones had been slipping. He sensed the lack of progress was due to a number of reasons, but most of all because of passive resistance. A few of his team members had agreed to follow through on action items in the exec team meetings, but then at best made only notional progress. He also felt one of his direct reports didn’t have the leadership capabilities to manage the change that the new growth called for, and that honest and open debate within the team had gone away. How could their decisions be good enough without such debate? He wasn’t at all pleased.

“They just seem to lack the collective drive needed. Their ‘mojo’ is low,” Jack commented.

I wondered why the CEO’s management team members moving so slowly? What weren’t they telling him? That they didn’t agree with the strategy? That they did agree with it but didn’t think their team could execute it because certain team members lacked key skills or had too-small budgets? Something else?

NOT ALONE

I explained to Jack that what he was experiencing was in no way unique to his business. I shared with him (anonymised) examples of other firms I had worked with whose growth had stalled or was sub-optimal, including the professional services managing partner who found it hard to get over the first hurdle of strategy development by the reluctance of some members of his senior partner team to think how their business might look like in five or 10 years. And the retailer’s top team that adopted a siloed approach to implementing their strategy so synergies between departments had not been realised. Then I shared the example of the financial services firm whose top team limited their firm’s growth aspirations because of their limiting personal assumptions, these put a low ceiling on how high their firm might fly.

Jack had read the research and was aware that many firms flounder when it comes to executing well-developed growth strategies. Indeed one piece of research that stated that the majority of firms struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation stuck in his mind.

THE 7 MYTHS

I then shared with Jack why the standard approaches to developing and implementing strategy in firms of all types across all sectors are often flawed because they are based on a number of myths:

Myth 1 – Communication equates to buy-in. Reality – For people to feel ownership of a strategy they need in some way to be part of the strategy formulation process.

Myth 2 – Strategy execution equals alignment. Reality – For many firms strategy execution boils down to a series of processes, but to be truly aligned you need shared agreement.

Myth 3 – The executive team can effectively develop and/or execute a great strategy. Reality – They often bring the wrong mindsets and behaviours to the table that hinder effective team working.

Myth 4 – Leaders make well considered decisions. Reality – We think we do, but we all have cognitive biases, in effect thinking shortcuts, that derail quality decision making.

Myth 5 – Executive team members are rational leaders. Reality – We are all (in part) irrational. Some leaders, if their thinking mirrors survey findings, believe in haunted houses, the position of the stars and planets can affect their lives, aliens have visited the earth and witches exist!

Myth 6 – Leaders speak their mind. Reality – Leaders speak their minds ‘selectively’ and are more likely to tell the CEO what they want to hear rather than what they themselves are thinking.

Myth 7 – Leadership teams naturally pull-together. Reality – Leadership teams, like all teams, more typically act like families with often communication problems and unexpressed differing views.

THE SECRET

Jack then asked, “So I see why other approaches may potentially be flawed, so how do firms increase the chances of their growth strategy succeeding.”

My answer,

“The ‘secret’ to developing and implementing a successful growth strategy is for the executive team adopt mindsets and behaviours that power growth.”
I went on to explain that you still need to do the analysis of your business’s capabilities and market opportunities and it doesn’t mean creating a false harmony with everyone thinking the same, but it does mean everyone adopts the right mindsets and behaviours to work powerfully together as an executive team to drive faster growth. Often times individuals in the team may possess the right mindsets and behaviours, but unless they all do…and they all know how to work effectively together…there will be weak links in the chain that will stymie the strategy.

Jack paused and pondered this for a while. Then he remarked that when he was at business school some years before, he’d always thought that team behavioural psychology was important but only now realised just how much it influences growth.

We agreed we would meet again in a few weeks after I’d had time to reflect on the optimal approach to achieve their desired growth ambitions. But before I left our meeting I asked Jack what he wanted from his team and the business over the coming 6-months, with little encouragement he stated:

Re-ignite their commitment to the growth strategy
Stronger cooperation and co-ordination between divisions
Greater contribution and honesty in discussions so all views are shared
Less political game playing between certain executive team members
Greater understanding and buy-in for the strategy in the wider workforce
Milestones being achieved in their implementation plan, including sales growth in certain product and service lines
NEW PROVEN APPROACH

When we next met, Jack and I discussed how you must first create the right top team dynamics and capabilities for a company’s rapid growth – team behaviours and working methods that are critical to developing the best strategy, and to executing it excellently.

We then talked through our 7-step “Strategic Team Growth Programme” framework, that I have tailored and successfully deployed with many other clients. Overall the programme is designed to refresh mindsets and behaviours, and generate agreement, commitment and alignment to an ambition for growth. The 7-steps accomplish:

Step 1: Assessment of the current reality, such as levels of strategic commitment within the team and assessments of the capabilities of individuals and the team as a whole.

Step 2: Unlocking the performance of individual executive team members by them gaining an appreciation of their individual drivers of behaviour; and how they impact on their performance, and how to refresh assumptions so a more open mindset towards business growth is adopted.

Step 3: Getting the executive team to ‘click’ as an unstoppable cohesive force to drive the growth strategy. A new understanding of how group dynamics operate helps resolve behavioural challenges that hold them back from working as a united unstoppable force; and gaining an understanding of their cognitive biases improves decision making.

Step 4: Align and (re)commit to the strategy by unwrapping and refocussing individual team members thinking about the strategy and their role in executing it. We also gain (or reaffirm) agreement to the three or four key drivers for growth.

Step 5: Drive engagement to the strategy within the wider organisation as a result of the management population crafting, and sharing with their teams, a bold future strategic story.

Step 6: Focusing on team members who are most responsible for growth (heads of marketing, sales and product development) to become more effective as members of the top management team and as leaders of their divisions.

Step 7: Sustaining and increasing levels of strategic commitment by ensuring new behaviours required are embedded, levels of commitment are maintained as the strategy implementation progresses and results are seen.

CONCERNS

Although Jack saw the logic of the 7-step process and the hard benefits from getting to grips with the complex soft stuff within his team, he had a few concerns, and asked:

“The 7-steps seem in part to have a basis in psychology, won’t any ‘psychobabble’ language turn people off?” I assured Jack that there was no psychobabble in the programme, although we will look at the drivers of behaviours, his team is likely to have ‘aha moments’ as they learn more about how they, and their direct reports, can be more effective in their roles and in the team.

“How do you get buy-in from my team?” This, I explained, is achieved in the initial interviews, giving them some material to read in advance and completing a team climate survey that gets them to think how strategy development and implementation process can be further improved. This helps get their minds in the right place before the team gets together for the programme.

“What if elephants appear in the room?” Jack was worried that there might be challenging issues that are highlighted that his team typically avoid talking about. I said that often the ‘elephants’ are the issues that we need to address as they might be holding the strategy or team back. We hold off talking about and ‘elephants’ we discover until an appropriate time during the session when everybody feels more comfortable openly sharing their views.

“Will this approach generate hard results?” It was natural that Jack wanted reassurance before he made his investment. Here I talked through how a financial services company went from an annual 5% growth to 20% growth as a result of a similar program, a retailer that focused their market strategy through greater team cohesion and successfully grow in a tough market, and a medical research company as revenues increased by 40%.

I mentioned to Jack that our “Strategic Team Growth Programme” isn’t suitable for all companies. For example, those firms that just want to ‘go-through-the-motions’ and are not serious about growth, CEOs who feel uncomfortable getting to grips with aspects of the team dynamics key for igniting growth, and firms with low ambitions. Jack acknowledged this, however was keen to move ahead.

REWARDS

The finding of Step 1 revealed a number of facets about the top team and company that were holding back the growth strategy implementation, for example:

Several of the team members seemed fixed in their thinking about how far the company could grow.
The strategy hadn’t been adequately broken down into specific actions
There was no shared understanding of the underlying business drivers for growth and the challenges that may arise.
There was also a feeling of uncertainty about how their marketplace was evolving and I sensed that this was slowing decision making.
When I asked team members what the purpose was of the top team there was no consistent answer.
In addition, the levels of trust and depth of relationships in the team were mixed.
This rich information was used to help inform and fine-tune subsequent work.

Over the course of the coming four months we implemented the tailored programme with his top team and then carried out a number of initiatives with other management groups, with focused attention on the C-level roles considered vital for firm’s growth, these for Jack’s firm were sales and product development.

The CFO’s feedback was most telling, she remarked:

“After the first session with a top team there was a level of depth and honesty in conversations she hadn’t seen before”.
And it was acknowledged that the team left our first session energized and working together far better – rather than torn apart because the strategy making and roll-out process had opened old wounds and had become divisive, as can happen with some top teams. The team had “refreshed its mojo” as one remarked.

Jack’s previous frustration, annoyance and disappointment soon became a fading memory, as he could see the top team were fully aligned to their bold growth strategy and key milestones in its implementation were being met. However, these benefits didn’t come without cost. The CMO resigned two months after my work concluded, though Jack felt this was a blessing in disguise as his performance had been disappointing.

3 YEARS AFTER

This was three years ago now and Jack’s firm continues to thrive with 20 per cent year on year growth. When we met again recently he remarked how his career as the CEO would have been very different if strategic commitment and growth hadn’t been secured.

We also discussed how strategic commitment for firms will become only more important in the future as firms need to quickly adapt to new marketplace realities in terms of customer needs and uncertainty in the marketplace. Jack quoted from his favourite management book “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras

“Building a visionary company requires one percent vision and 99 percent alignment.”
Jack’s final reflection was that following our work he looks at company performance through a new lens, the role that mindset and behaviours plays in powering business growth.

YOUR NEXT CHAPTER

If you want bolder, faster and more ambitious company growth, then take the first step by scheduling an initial conversation. Vantage Hill Partners ‘Strategic Growth Programme’ is designed for your firm to:

Create a superior strategy, one that will lead to faster, more profitable growth because many more solid alternatives have been offered and fairly vetted
Gain far greater buy-in to the strategy because all voices were urged, heard and all “issues” were put on the table
Secure much faster and better implementation because everyone wants the strategy to excel.
Have a top team energised and working together far better.
Workforce able to succinctly communicate and appreciate your firm’s strategy and so are more fully engaged.
To arrange your initial conversation:

Call: +44 208 878 3428 or email: conversation@vantagehillpartners.com

ABOUT THE FIRM: Vantage Hill Partners is a boutique management consulting firm that works worldwide helping ambitious firms ignite bolder, faster and healthier growth by developing outstanding top teams committed to their ambitious strategy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Roger E Jones has worked with scores of leaders and firms across most sectors around the world, helping them drive business growth through creating a top team that ‘clicks’. He had an earlier successful business career in the finance, technology, scientific and professional service sectors before founding Vantage Hill Partners in the early 2000’s. A best-selling international author, his work has been published in Harvard Business Review and INSEAD Knowledge. Roger holds BSc & MSc degrees he has an MBA from Cranfield School of Management and a Masters degree from INSEAD Business School in Clinical Organisational Psychology (consulting and coaching for change). He’s conducted business in over 40 countries and lived in 4. Roger lives in London with his wife and 10 year old daughter, and works worldwide.

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