Why High-Performing Executives Don’t Always Operate as High-Performing Teams

Sometimes candidates check off all the boxes and look like the perfect fit for an organization. However, businesses often bring a group of senior executives together as a team without defining why they need to function as such. A new report from Odgers Berndtson offers strategies that can help organizations avoid team performance problems.

March 25, 2024 – It might sound counterintuitive, but a group made up of individual high performers does not always translate to a high-performing team. The fact that these professionals excel at their primary jobs doesn’t automatically mean they will work cohesively and effectively as a team, a new report from Odgers Berndtson explains. A poorly functioning team is problematic at any level, but when it involves executive leadership, the study says that the consequences are often more significant—hindering innovation, creating dysfunction, and preventing the company from achieving its goals. The Odgers Berndtson report, which was authored by Robert C. Satterwhite and Ann Wheeler, notes that though it’s a fairly common occurrence, proven strategies can help organizations avoid team performance problems by equipping leaders to work more effectively together. 

Businesses often bring a group of leaders together as a team without defining why they need to function as such. Many times, the leadership team is simply a group of peers who each head up a different functional area; it exists as a team in name only, according to the Odgers Berndtson report.

“When companies don’t take the time to identify a team’s purpose—articulating why a group of leaders needs to work collaboratively and collectively—it inadvertently encourages individuals to focus only on their own functional area,” the firm said. “With no shared purpose or goals, it becomes easy for individuals to advocate for and serve the needs of their functional group, rather than the collective good.”

Odgers Berndtson explains that some companies are beginning to acknowledge this pitfall and holding leaders more broadly accountable, beyond siloed objectives. A few have even gone to the extreme of telling senior leaders that if a different functional group with the company fails to achieve its goals, and your group could have done something to help them succeed, then your group failed, too.  

Why High Performers Might Fail as a Team 

Beyond the failure to define the team’s purpose, Odgers Berndtson points out that there are other reasons a group of high-performing leaders might not operate as a high value-creating team.  

• Leaders are often incentivized and compensated for achieving function-specific targets, leaving them less focused on and motivated to strive toward shared goals.

Related: Avoiding Bias in Performance Management

• When leaders get pulled into day-to-day issues, they lose sight of the upstream and downstream effects of their group’s actions, creating an even greater inward focus.

• Leaders don’t always speak a common language—primarily because their areas of expertise differ—so it becomes difficult to understand and empathize with each other.

Robert Satterwhite is a partner at Odgers Berndtson and oversees the firm’s leadership advisory practice designing, managing, and delivering selection, onboarding, development, succession, and coaching programs. For the past 25 years, he has consulted with private and public-sector organizations from small non-profits to the largest companies in the world and worked in nearly all industries, including industrial, manufacturing, CPG, transportation, aerospace and defense, retail, energy, pharma, telecommunications, internet and technology, private equity, financial services, insurance, and government.

• Since professionals who reach the senior executive level are often highly driven, in the absence of a team-level mandate they might be more inclined to compete vs collaborate.

• In some organizations, a culture of finger-pointing becomes firmly entrenched and sets up leaders to unintentionally work at cross purposes.

• Organizations often lack the integrated systems and data to support a single version of the truth, causing individual leaders to focus on and aim for dissimilar success metrics.

• Many companies celebrate heroes rather than groups, creating a culture in which individual accomplishments are deemed more important than team achievements.

• Working collaboratively as an executive team demands the ability to influence without authority, a powerful technique that even high performers struggle to master.

Setting Up High Performers To Succeed Together 

Though many forces can keep strong performers from working effectively as a team, Odgers Berndtson explains that strategies like the following can set up senior leaders to perform as well as a group as they do individually.

Help the team define its purpose. The organization’s leadership team needs to align around a clear purpose—a step that Peter Hawkins describes as “commissioning” in his Five Disciplines of High Value-Creating Teams model. “But it’s rare that a leadership team takes time to step back and consider who they serve, and how,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “The answers to these key questions form the foundation for working together as a unit toward shared goals.”

Related: The Importance of Culture in Driving Growth, Performance & Value

Rethink compensation models. While it’s critical to motivate leaders to achieve function-specific targets, be sure the compensation model isn’t skewed entirely in that direction, according to the study. Balancing functional area goals with company-level goals gets leaders thinking and working as a group and aligned around common objectives.

Encourage an organizational perspective. We’ve all seen it happen: The sales team provides incentives for customers to purchase at higher volume without discussing the plan with manufacturing. Or engineering creates a product design without fully involving manufacturing to ensure it’s feasible. Odgers Berndtson explains that aligning leaders around common goals helps them to gain a broader organizational perspective and reduce the risk of developing strategies and plans that don’t consider upstream and downstream effects.

Ann Wheeler is a principal at Odgers Berndtson in the firm’s U.S. leadership advisory practice. She has spent the past 24 years partnering with organizations in a variety of industries, including DOD and aerospace contractors, major manufacturing and industrial companies, pharmaceuticals, financial services, credit unions, retailers, and other national and multi-national organizations. Dr. Wheeler has also worked extensively with energy companies, public utilities and power generators, particularly nuclear and fossil generation facilities and their corporate owners.

Leverage the third-party objectivity of a coach. Some CEOs find it difficult to hold other executives accountable for working together, lacking the time or the comfort level, according to the Odgers Berndtson report. “And some have trouble objectively assessing how their behaviors impact the team’s ability to function,” it said. “A skilled coach can address both challenges, helping the CEO succeed as an integral member of the leadership team and as leader of that team. A coach can also help all team members understand how their behaviors affect the team, coalesce around a common vision and purpose, and leverage natural synergies.”

Assess your data sources. Since metrics are powerful tools for motivating behavior, evaluate the data sources your leaders use to measure performance and ensure they’re aligned. Where possible, discourage functional groups from creating their own ways of tracking and monitoring metrics, to avoid different versions of the truth.

Create opportunities to build rapport. “Forming bonds takes time that leaders often feel they don’t have, and remote work can make it even more difficult,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “Periodic off-site meetings don’t just help leadership teams focus on broader goals without the distractions of daily problems; they also facilitate building trust by bringing people together face-to-face.”

Build a culture of psychological safety. A widely-quoted Google study called Project Aristotle found that psychological safety is one of the greatest predictors of team performance. Take a candid look at the dynamics of your leadership team and ensure the environment is conducive to speaking freely, thinking creatively, and putting forth new ideas.

“To thrive in a fast-changing world, organizations need high performers throughout the organization, and especially at the top,” the Odgers Berndtson report said. “But bringing together high-performing individuals doesn’t automatically result in a high-functioning team. By recognizing the obstacles that can keep strong performers from working optimally as a group, businesses can take proven steps to turn their top leaders into high value-creating teams.”

Related: Hiring Talent Quickly Boosts Performance

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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