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Coaching the Agile Executive Team – First in a New Series

by Ryan Martens, 17 July 2012 | The Agile Blogosphere

This content is syndicated from Agile Development Blog: Scaling Software Agility by Ryan Martens. To view the original post in full, click here.

The Five Flawless Steps To Building A Strong Executive Leadership Team

I am excited to welcome Christopher Avery as a guest blogger on the Agile Blog.  He and I are going to explore the topic of building a strong executive leadership team and what you can do to help leaders improve their game.

The lessons and insights that Christopher is going to share are based on years of research and original work in this area. This work applies to the creation of all high-performance teams, but he is going to put a special focus on the executive team, as it is typically the highest leverage point in the business.

As you continue on your Agile journey, your impact and implications will begin to extend beyond the scope of your current champion.  The seven posts in this new series are intended to help you and your champion create the context for continued business success and Agile expertise.  You can think of them as “The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.”

Christopher and I found this picture from one of his first workshops with us at Rally.  In the last five years, we have had Christopher involved with us at least seven times. Please welcome Christopher!

The Challenge

So, you have the opportunity to build your executive team. Maybe your Agile adoption is moving beyond development teams. Perhaps your business really wants to take advantage of your Agile delivery capabilities. And you know that excellent teamwork is required to achieve that. As a Director — or maybe a coach to an executive team — you are wondering if an executive team can operate with the self-organization, transparency and rhythm of a development team?

That’s a worthy question to confront. Congratulations! Let’s face this challenge together.

Perhaps you find it challenging or even impossible to get a herd of goal-driven thoroughbred racehorses to harness up and pull together? If you do, then you are not alone. In my nearly thirty years of supporting teams of all types (and writing extensively about it), I’ve found the executive team is the toughest to build.

But, it is also the most rewarding. And it is your single greatest source of leverage as a business leader. So it is more than worth the challenge for you to hold yourself and this group to the highest of team effectiveness standards.

The Series – How to Build a Top Team

In this series of seven posts, I’ll share the utmost important whys and hows for building the top team. These are not the same old tips you’ve heard over and over that you “should try” and that people “should do.” No, we are going to go way beyond should-and-shouldn’t and right-and-wrong.

Instead I’ll summarize a tested, honed, and repeatedly proven philosophy, approach, and framework developed over many years and teams. Whether you are the senior leader, a member of the executive team or their coach, you will take away plenty of valuable nuggets from this series. They will be nuggets you can apply everywhere.

So let’s get going. Your time is valuable.

Let’s use the remainder of this opening post to explore why you should face the fact that your executive team isn’t high performance, and why it is the hardest of all teams to build.

Why is it So Hard?

The answer is simple – most members of most teams place their individual performance in their role (i.e., accountability, be it department, function, specialization, or something else) ahead of overall business success. This is especially true for the executive team. Said differently, members consciously or unconsciously sabotage the business for the sake of the role. Ouch. It’s unfortunate and senseless when said like that, but true in 99% of executive teams I’ve seen.

It is also completely logical when you look at all of the forces.

These accomplished executives are usually accountable for running a top-notch department. Their rewards depend on it. They’ve proven their functional expertise and their management acumen in order to reach this position. And each sees the others as competitors for the attention, accolades, and discretionary resources of the senior leader — if not for the promotion to that chair themselves.

Some observers simply attribute the team-building difficulty to ambitious egos rising to senior level positions. They invoke the phrase “it is what it is” in finality — or denial.

I say: If they are the best and brightest, then they can and should be expected to operate in a high-performance team if you expect high-performance cross-functional teams in your business.

And that’s why you should demand no less of an executive team. True collaboration is at the core of organizational learning and improvement. So if out-learning your competition is critical to outpacing them (and I assume it is since your product can be copied but your organization cannot), then you may want to ask yourself this crucial question:

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

What is a High-Performance Team?

In the last seventy years, every scholarly study on high-performance teams points to three consistent findings:

  1. When teams perform highly, the members go above and beyond what they are asked to do. Think about that. What manager or HR advisor would not give a right arm for the secret sauce that inspires people to go beyond what they are asked to do! In future posts, we’ll explore this dynamic of exceeding expectations.
  2. When teams perform effectively, they indeed perform highly. They consistently produce superior results.  We’ll explore this more in two of the upcoming posts.
  3. When teams perform effectively, the experience itself is the reward. This means you can’t incentivize high performance, because it is voluntary. We will address how you can enable, allow and even demand high-performance, and how you can destroy it in a flash with simple unconscious lack of awareness.

How Do You Define “team?”

Do you define it as a group, as in “this is my team”, regardless of whether they meet the above three conditions? I don’t. I define team as:

“A group of people stepping up to an opportunity for shared responsibility.”

That’s what happens when a group goes beyond what they are asked to do, knocks it out of the park, and has a great time doing it.

And I’ll show you how you can set and meet these standards for any team on which you serve or support— even if it is the top team.

Here’s a glimpse into the most important insights I’ve learned, and where we’re going with this series:

The second biggest mistake I see execs make regarding teams is the erroneous assumption that high performance teams are all about chemistry. Specifically, that teams are about the chemistry between the individuals.  Not so.

Teams are about chemistry all right. But the chemistry of individual members is not the most important. Instead it is the chemistry of the vessel or container that is important. Think of a bowl of fruit. Without the bowl — the container or vessel — the fruit would scatter. Starting with the third post I’ll show you how to effectively address this.

But first, in the next post (subscribe to get it delivered) I will address the single biggest mistake I see executives make regarding teams.


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.

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