Getting a Great Senior Leadership Team

Have you ever sat around the Senior Leadership Team table and wondered – Why are we here again? What is it we are actually trying to do? Or, Why is he/she here?

I can speculate that at some point you have asked one or all of these questions. Whether in business, a charity or sport, the principles are the same.

As businesses grow and scale, the leadership of the business changes from being vested in one person to a group of senior people within the business. This evolution happens overtime, and at some point it is worthwhile to pause and make your Executive or Senior Leadership Team (ELT/SLT) a deliberate choice. And the first question should be – do I even need or want a SLT?

If the perceived benefit that ‘two or more heads are better than one’ resonates with you, here are some ideas to help your thinking and development of your SLT.

The first thing is to consider the purpose of the SLT, even for an existing team, doing this will force everyone to reconsider what it is there for, and not what it is today but what should it be. Without a real purpose it is a team in name only. For example:

  • To support the CEO to lead the business – strategically, our people, and execution, or
  • To make great things happen. To inspire, motivate, empower, communicate and provide direction.

While these may appear common sense, defining the purpose creates clarity and alignment for the team to keep each other honest about what the purpose of getting together and being a member of the team means. It is then relatively easy to develop some key objectives off the back of this purpose. These might include:

  • Defining or modifying the organization’s strategy
  • Building organizational capability
  • Managing mission-critical initiatives
  • Leading and monitoring the organization’s performance

professional-servicesSo then, who is in and who is out? In larger organisations there is a tendency to have an equally large leadership team. My suggestion is about 5-6 people. Any more and it becomes cumbersome to have decent conversations, debate and alignment. When I had an SLT as part of a large organisation, I had a ‘tight five’ made up of the principle leaders of the organisation. Beyond that there was an extended leadership team of about another 8-10, made up of the principle advisors and other senior leaders. Having this balance, and ability to use different forums was conducive to high trust, agility and decision making, while having the ability to draw on other skills and knowledge as necessary.

Once you have determined the purpose and players, you then need to set some expectations around what is expected of an SLT member such as: to lead across boundaries, be a role model 24/7, disrupt business as usual and be open to challenge, no surprises, promote our vision and values, and develop and celebrate our people.  This sets a clear expectation that it is about leadership, not about just being a functional head, a courtesy or entitlement.

Then develop some ideas around how you will operate together – some ground rules or rules of engagement for when you are together. This helps build trust, a safe and supportive environment and creates mutual accountability.

Clear expectations of members helps define the membership. As a result of this, at times people elect not to be part of the team – and this is ok. However, this then requires you to manage their expectations to either develop their desire to be part of them team and realise their contribution, or how they fit and contribute if they aren’t in the team anymore and the consequences of that ie not necessarily being involved in key decisions or in the loop. Likewise if they don’t perform to expectations a different conversation needs to be had. Similarly if some players aren’t working well together and you have a dysfunctional team, this is whole different challenge I will discuss on another day.

Getting the right mix of people is a challenge. You need diversity of thinking and input. In traditionally hierarchical organisations this can be a challenge as being part of the SLT is based upon a title or role, which can make it hard to get beyond the ‘male, pale and stale’ personas and bring fresh thinking. One SLT I work with has deliberately bought two emerging talent leaders into the SLT (and they also happen to be female) to serve two purposes a. to get different and fresh perspectives and b. to develop and expose these emerging leaders to strategic business perspectives. You can also always bring in other people to bring perspective or to gain specialist insights into an issue. Challenge yourself to think beyond who has been there the longest – to who will add the most value.

These foundations will set you and your leadership team and business up for leadership success. Bring yourself back to this charter every so often, rate yourself, and then challenge yourself to be better. It’s a journey.

Greg is a consultant at Advisory.Works

One thought on “Getting a Great Senior Leadership Team

  1. Great and timely piece Greg.
    The principles of trust, contribution and influence are overlooked through the fog of position and title rather than what the individual brings to the table.
    While I sit in the pale male and stale box ie over 50 yo Caucasian male, ( and I prefer tanned mature entrepreneur ) Ive seen innovation stifled due the lack of a supporting voice st the table.


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