Successful Leadership Is Really a Team Sport
By Chris Rice
We live in the culture of the celebrity CEO. The press focuses on the leader in the corner office and the more colorful, the better. But if you read past the headlines and picture captions, you’ll usually find the people who actually move the organization forward -the executive team.
Powerful tool or functional reporting group? Turf wars or aligned decision making? Asset or liability? Often it depends on whether-and how-the leader at the top chooses to harness the power of the team.
There’s Your Vision and There’s the Shared Vision
Shared organization vision, strategies and values are critical to creating a high-performance culture. But too often we’ve seen leaders at the top come up with their personal vision and spend a lot of time selling the organization on its merits.
Successful leaders we’ve worked with start by involving their executive teams in creating a shared vision, long-term direction and organization priorities. The result: increased buy-in and personal accountability of every member of the team for supporting agreed-to goals. Two benefits articulated by many leaders: time saved by everyone’s being on the same page in the face of issues and decisions-and fewer turf wars in which people revert to their silos like jackrabbits down a hole.
Agree on the Team’s Role and Get Out of the Way
Shared vision is one thing, but ensuring that the executive team can effectively act on it is another. Tom Murphy, CIO at Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, admits that his former leadership style actually “facilitated and rewarded the silo mentality,” and that his team -and the organization at large-needed time to trust him and see that his commitment to doing things differently was real.
Sometimes it’s not just an issue of trust for team members; they are merely accustomed to the top leader being the team’s mouthpiece. Then it’s up to the leader to remove him or herself from the spotlight. Though his group is well down the road of “spreading out leadership,” Chris Dodds, CFO at Charles Schwab & Co., observes that it is still a challenge “to help people find their own voice.” Walking the talk for him, he says, often means giving people permission to take the reins. At times it may require “ordering them to do it.”
No leader can effectively lead without a clear personal vision, says CIO Murphy. He admits that the challenge of going from successful “legacy builder” to a new mission of “developing and empowering other leaders” kept him awake at night soul-searching and pondering the commitment. Two years later, he can point to multiple successes in some very tough times and be proud that “99% of what we’ve accomplished we’ve done as a team.” He finds it particularly rewarding that “the organization has learned to draw strength, passion and energy from within itself.”
Take a Look at the Team’s Members
Using language borrowed from the Marshall Plan, Gaston Caperton, CEO of The College Board and former Governor of West Virginia, says the challenge lies in ensuring there are “offensively minded people on the team.” In his experience, once those people who want responsibility are in place, there are “only pluses” when their collective power is shared.
Granted, personnel decisions at this level may require some of the toughest choices a leader must make. Yet it’s up to the leader to ensure that all members of the team share and act on the team’s collective vision. CIO Murphy observes, “It hurts the entire organization if someone’s behavior is contradictory…Dramatic actions [such as letting executives go] can send a signal that the leader is walking the talk -and can vitalize others.”
Tough Times Call for Leveraging All Assets
Celebrity leaders may make good reading, but these days most leaders don’t actually want to go it alone. Today’s business environment requires maximum brainpower, diverse ideas and collective energy. Making and implementing difficult decisions requires commitment and support throughout the organization. And leaders who harness the power of their teams in leading the organization forward have the edge.
CEO Caperton describes a successful organization as one where “the CEO doesn’t just talk ‘team’ but truly believes that it is the team’s energy and ideas that make it happen.” We think most successful leaders will agree.