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Building an effective leadership team in the digital age

For executive teams to perform, they need a clear focus and a shared ambition that inform the work of the team.

To succeed in the digital age, executive teams must learn to be agile and make faster decisions to keep up with the speed of disruption.

WE live in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. To survive, organisations will find themselves being forced to fundamentally rethink their business models, evolve their products and services, and work more efficiently and effectively.

Transformation of this scale is only achievable if CEOs are able to work effectively with the greatest resource they have at their disposal: the executive team.

A high-performing executive team can help advance the CEO's agenda more quickly, making the organisation more agile and ready for market disruptions. Executive teams are especially critical in the face of complex challenges as they can use their combined experience and expertise to manage changes, explore alternatives and facilitate transformation across the organisation.

Why top teams are not performing as well as they should

Contrary to popular belief, successful and highly-qualified executives do not automatically make effective teams.

In fact, our research finds that only 24 per cent of executive teams examined could be classified as "outstanding".

Talent-wise, executive teams often face various problems: finding the right talent, matching the available skills to the job, and learning to work together effectively in an increasingly short amount of time.

While it might be easier for a frontline team to accomplish a meaningful purpose, for example, one that might involve the utilisation of a product, an executive team's effort can rarely be tied to the performance of one single product.

Furthermore, abstract - but far too common - goals set for the executive teams are centred around improving the company's performance or implementing the company's strategy effectively.

These are far too broad to provide the required focus or shared accountability that is crucial for a team effort.


Having a clear and compelling purpose

For executive teams to perform, they need a clear focus and a shared ambition that inform the work of the team. Beyond financial success, chief executives today must recognise that there are other ways to measure the effectiveness and success of a team.

It is critical to establish what the purpose of the executive team is, starting with a clear understanding of their combined strengths, regardless of their individual function, as well as the unique value-add that they can provide to the greater organisation together.

A high-performing executive team needs a clear and compelling purpose that the team can accomplish by working interdependently while balancing current operational demands against future needs.

The purpose should be one that each member can clearly envision and understand, and that is aspirational but not impossible to achieve. Unlike individual team goals, the purpose of an effective executive team must justify the additional collective effort required to achieve its performance potential.

Setting productive norms and relationships

Most executive teams overly focus on the composition of the team as well as systems and processes, while neglecting productive norms and relationships.

However, what sets high-performing teams apart is their ability to have direct and constructive conversation that facilitates decision-making.

Executive teams need to identify and communicate standards of behaviour.

The issue with most executive teams is that they do not tackle issues together due to sensitivity and an inclination towards being conflict-avoidant. The keyword here is trust.

It is increasingly common for executive teams to identify and instil one way of behaviour in other teams, and yet are unable to walk the talk.

Effective executive teams are made up of those who regularly check in and feel comfortable giving each other feedback to ascertain that they are aligned with the behaviours.

It is important to note that when the team comes together, it is about challenging the status quo for the betterment of the organisation, and by assuming positive intent, there is less chance that people will take any challenge to their views as a personal attack.

Individual executives should understand that they do not have to like each other for an executive team to be perfectly aligned. With disciplined processes and productive norms in place, CEOs can ensure that meetings are focused, purposeful, and effective.

In fact, our research shows that norms are the second biggest differentiator between the performance among executive teams, with outstanding teams having clear rules of engagement for how members deal with each other inside and outside of meetings.

Constantly challenging the status quo

Executive teams need to question the status quo and not rest on their laurels. They should always seek opportunities to renew and improve themselves - to expand their capabilities in response to change.

Each member has spent decades perfecting ways to work and succeed in silos - this will no longer work in today's age of connectivity, where information from cross-function engagement and even beyond the industry could prove crucial to forming a strategic focus.

CEOs need to institute processes and opportunities for executive team members to step back and reflect on their own performance, to facilitate learning and a deeper understanding of the root cause of problems.

In addition, every interaction should also be done in a transparent manner so as to build an environment for success.

Having the right leadership

Lastly, and perhaps the most important factor, is having the right leadership talent - the CEO - who can build, lead and motivate the executive team that will succeed in today's age.

In Korn Ferry's Self-Disruptive Leadership study, three out of five ADAPT (Anticipate, Drive, Accelerate, Partner and Trust) traits that enable leaders to be future-ready have to do with how well they manage and interact with their teams: Drive, Partner and Trust (the other two 'A's are Anticipate and Accelerate).

Those who drive organisations through disruption are able to energise people by fostering a sense of shared purpose, while managing the mental and physical energy of themselves and others. They nurture a positive environment to keep people inspired and intrinsically motivated. Leaders with the ability to partner effectively understand that innovation is created collectively, not alone.

Acutely aware that technological advancement has dissolved boundaries both externally and internally, they are adept at creating networks and partnerships that combine different strengths and capabilities, allowing their companies to adapt and succeed in different environments.

Disruption, by definition, allows for differences, individuality, and defiance of norms. Those who inspire trust, recognise that diversity is crucial.

Besides welcoming differences in race, gender, orientation and social background, it encompasses a mindset of inclusivity: sharing goals, responsibility, and power, which can manifest in how meetings and processes are conducted, and how collective decisions are made.

However, the truth is: no CEOs, no matter how competent, visionary and inspiring, can single-handedly successfully plan and implement the new business model and culture shift that is required in today's digital age.

Because of the constant influx of information, traditional leadership styles that emphasised precision and excellence of execution through hierarchical decision-making now are lacking compared to the flexibility and inclusiveness leaders need to empower the team.

To succeed in the digital age, executive teams must learn to be agile and make faster decisions to keep up with the speed of disruption. Once the rest of the organisation witnesses such a behaviour change, they will then change their behaviours accordingly to align with the executive teams.

  • The writer is managing director, advisory, Korn Ferry Singapore

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