The Five Flawless Steps To Building A Strong Executive Leadership Team

How to Avoid Organizational Self-Sabotage

Has this ever happened to you? You need to solve a business problem with a colleague who is the leader of another department, division, or business unit. Even though you have much in common – a shared goal to solve this problem, similar values – you find it overwhelmingly difficult to get anything done together.

“Why?” you ask. Actually — you only ask yourself “why” if you are an enlightened leader in areas of systems and complexity. Most people in this situation just blame the people with whom they are attempting to interact.

Context Really Is Everything

The issue here is one of context, and to be more specific — contexts. You are experienced and adroit at operating within your context. The other person is experienced and adroit at operating within her context. But the two contexts are different enough in some way (decision-making, communication, formality, problem-solving, etc.) that you are having trouble making progress together across the boundary.

Context is “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs” ( I think you get the idea. In a broader sense, one might say “culture.” Context is a more neutral term, so let’s stick with it.

For ages we’ve had this “silo” effect in business. A silo is when there seems to be a wall between functions or departments that impedes effective horizontal communication and coordination.

Now, what if the two contexts, Context A and Context B, are not only horizontal but also vertical in nature?

Islands of Software

Since 1982, I’ve observed hundreds of team-based efforts in software and technology organizations. One dynamic – which is devastatingly destructive and self-sabotaging — shows up in most of them: Team-based organizing is promoted and allowed on the front lines of development (or manufacturing or service), but management keeps its silos. So now we have vertical walls plus one big horizontal wall.

Context A/B is a traditional hierarchical context of silos. Context C is the agile team context. They operate with dramatically different rhythms, personal discipline, formality, and transparency.

Allowing this situation to develop is the single greatest mistake I see executives make regarding teams. The premise seems to be that organizing for rapid adaptation – being able to successfully respond to change, complexity and uncertainty – is good for development but not for executive management.

You probably know this by the phrase “islands of software.” And while it may be among the new challenges in agile transitions, it’s not new and the concept has been around since the early 90s.

As you are probably well-aware, when these islands have been created, an invisible  and nearly impermeable wall forms between them. Why? Because the operating contexts are different and it is hard to get things done across the contexts. Very little communication and almost no truth, honesty, or transparency moves through the wall.

In order to deal with this “problem” (it’s really a symptom, not THE problem), we place project managers and supervisors there and ask them to translate between Context A/B and Context C. Instead of effectively translating between the contexts, they usually just appear silly and ineffective to people in each context.

Have you witnessed this? Am I on track? If so, let’s hear your stories in the comments below.

The Number One Reason You Want A High-Performing Executive Team

Yes, it would be really cool if your executive team were high-performing and would overcome their individual role silos to optimize for the whole. And in the next post we’ll give you the first of five flawless steps to achieve this. But that’s not the most important reason.

The most important reason that you want a high performing executive team is to put in motion the relational dynamics that lead to vaporizing both the horizontal wall and the vertical walls. When you can do that, then you can have one context for relating and communicating up, down, and across your entire organization regardless of size.

And that gives you unstoppable organizational advantage.

But when your own internal “walls” block you from successfully addressing external change, complexity, and uncertainty, then your organizational context is your own worst enemy — the source of organizational self-sabotage.

Good News – The Wall Isn’t Physical, It’s Social

In the first post in this series I posed this question:

“If not among executives, then at exactly what level do I want high-performance teams?”

You see, as long as you have a context-shift between groups (whether horizontal or vertical) you have The Wall. And The Wall is a significant impediment to value flow.

But the good news is that The Wall isn’t physical. It only exists because we design it, we enable it, and we empower it through mutual agreement. If you want to vaporize it you can.
Just shift the contexts around it. You can do it. I’ve seen it done.

It starts with your executive team actually being a team instead of a group of individual managers and it cascades from there. That’s where the leverage is.

Now that we’ve made the case for building the executive team (hopefully — you’ll let me know in the comments), in the next post I’ll present the first of the five flawless steps for building the executive leadership team.

From Ryan:

“Christopher’s post reminds me a work from David Snowdon on natural grouping sizes:

  • Five being the natural size of team given the communication graph and short-term memory
  • 15 is the natural size for a band given the dynamics of Trust
  • 150 is the natural size for a tribe given Dunbar’s work on number of identities you can hold in your head.

You are going to need to work in groups, and these numbers give you some ways to think about how to assemble your people into collections that can operate on a context.  You just need to be more intentional about the contexts.”


Ryan Martens is CTO/Founder of Rally Software, a mentor at the Unreasonable Institute and chief promoter of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @RallyOn.
Request a Call

Looking for support?

Send Us Your Feedback

Provide us with some information about yourself and we'll be in touch soon. * Required Field