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The Path to C-Suite Effectiveness

If there is any team that needs to work in harmony, act as a single, formidable unit, and resolve conflict well, it is the C-suite team.


In a Nutshell

  • The health and success of the company depends on the cohesiveness of the C-Suite which is not always easy to achieve.

  • There are many reasons contributing to C-Suite dysfunctions and the lack of relational leadership is one of them.

  • Trusted & relationally competent leaders are skilled at creating a safe place for building trust and restoring fractured relationships.


The importance of a cohesive C-Suite team

If there is any team that needs to work in harmony, act as a single, formidable unit, and resolve conflict well, it is the C-Suite team.

The C-Suite leaders set the company’s direction. They represent the highest form of professionalism and competence. They are expected to model company values. Through their actions and attitudes, they set the standard of performance and behaviour.

C-Suite leaders need to work well with each other—the company’s health and success hinge on the strength of the team. Deloitte refers to this desired mix of synergy and performance as the “symphonic C-Suite”. Their “new collaborative, team-based senior executive model” is a vision of a C-Suite team leading the organisation with masterful business and relational expertise.

The way the C-Suite team functions is reflective of the company’s ability to withstand crises and disruption. “In a dynamic environment demanding both cross-disciplinary collaboration and deep functional expertise, operating as a symphonic C-Suite makes a great deal of sense, allowing leadership teams to tackle issues that no single function can satisfactorily address”, Deloitte says, in The Symphonic C-Suite: Teams Leading Teams.

The harsh reality: the symphonic C-Suite is still a dream for many

C-Suite leaders rarely collaborate well with one another. The fact that they have a difficult time doing so is an uncomfortable reality that cannot be ignored. Deloitte says: “Senior leaders must get out of their silos and work with each other more. To navigate today’s constantly changing business environment and address cross-disciplinary challenges, a company’s top leaders must act as one”.

Leaders who don’t work well together breed a toxic culture in the leadership team, that tends to trickle down to the staff.

Symptoms of a toxic culture include:

  • Misalignment

  • Working in silos

  • Poor relationships

  • Territorial attitudes

  • Mistrust

  • Politics

The inability of C-Suite leaders to collaborate effectively can spread negative effects throughout the organisation:

  • Poor business performance

  • Fear and anxiety for staff

  • Attrition

  • Loss of trust

  • Resistance to change

Why are C-Suite teams dysfunctional?

Here are a few reasons we have encountered in our interactions with clients and C-Suite leaders. Research also confirms that these are among the biggest hindrances to C-Suite harmony today:

  1. High functional competence, low leadership skills

  2. Political skill and orientation

  3. Pride

  4. Undeveloped relational skills

  5. Lack of self-awareness

1. High functional competence, low relational skills

C-Suite leaders are likely promoted for their functional competencies. But as one ascends the ladder of leadership, it becomes more critical to develop relational skills. Technical expertise matters less, while human concerns are at the forefront. Communication, management, conflict resolution, building trust—these are crucial aspects of leadership that get ignored when the criteria for promotion is focused on business outcomes.

2. Political skill and orientation

Harvard Business Review, in Why Do Toxic People Get Promoted? For the Same Reason Humble People Do: Political Skill, shared that “Toxic employees whose political skills were highly rated by their supervisors were more likely to have a high-performance rating. In other words, while not all toxic people possess the political skill, those toxic people who use political skill effectively in the eyes of their bosses are seen as better performers. And as we all know, those who are seen as top performers are more likely to be promoted.”

3. Pride

At the C-Suite level, stakes are high, and stress takes its toll on leaders. A desire to protect their reputation may cause them to be less open to communication, less collaborative, and less willing to share their fears and failures.

4. Undeveloped relational skills

Relational skills are not a given. Many leaders may mistakenly assume they are equipped with all the skills they need, on account of their own achievements and corporate ascent. Relational skills are not getting the attention they require for leaders at the top to be effective in both functional and relational competencies.

5. Lack of self-awareness

The StraitsTimes recently featured an article identifying self-awareness as a key trait lacking in CEOs who were recently forced to relinquish their leadership positions (Elon Musk who stepped down as Chairman of Tesla and Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber). “There is a strong positive correlation between self-awareness of leaders, their authentic behaviours and, consequently, their leadership effectiveness”, Straits Times says, in Life’s a Journey, So is Being a Good Leader.

How C-Suite leaders can achieve symphonic unity and cohesiveness

Becoming aware of these gaps is the first step for leaders to address issues and collaborate effectively as one team.

1. Build self-awareness through feedback

The StraitsTimes highlights self-awareness as the “meta-skill of the 21st century,” according to organisational psychologist Dr Tasha Eurich. “The qualities most critical for success in today's world—things like emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, persuasion, communication and collaboration—all stem from self-awareness. It is what makes us great team players, superior leaders and great relationship builders.”

Getting feedback the right way, from the right people, can help senior leaders build self awareness.

“All of us have our ‘blind spots’ and executives are no different,” ChiefExecutive.Net says in The Leader's Role: 6 Conditions to Building a Great Leadership Team. “Unfortunately, these blind spots often hold us back from being our best as colleagues, bosses or teammates – we think we are behaving one way while others see us showing up in a different way. Executives on the client teams we work with are often shocked when they get feedback from their leadership team colleagues (often for the first time) –

“What do you mean I don’t listen?”

“I don’t let my direct reports off the hook”

“I don’t waffle when making decisions; I am actually quite decisive.”

To build teams with members who are addressing their blind spots, senior team leaders need to commit to addressing their own first… relationships among leadership team members are strengthened when leaders take the lead in helping team members strive to understand how others view them so we are not clouded by inaccurate assumptions and lack of diligence.”

2. Develop humility

Humility is a trait that allows leaders to view every person with value and appreciation. The opposite is pride—when a leader views himself or herself as being superior or more important than everyone else.

In an article entitled The Best Bosses are Humble Bosses, The Wall Street Journal says that “Humility is a core quality of leaders who inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams, according to several studies in the past three years.

“Humble people tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest ... Humility gives rise to deep listening, respect for diverse views and a willingness to hear suggestions and feedback,” the Wall Street Journal says.

The article also highlights that according to a published study of 105 hardware and software firms, “companies with humble chief executives are more likely than others to have upper-management teams that work smoothly together, help each other and share decision-making.”

3. Develop empathy for fellow leaders

In Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It Most, Harvard Business Review defines empathy as “a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.”

Developing empathy among your leadership team means that each leader is able to see, hear, and understand what each person in the team is going through, and be able to care and support one another.

“...empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people,” Harvard Business Review says.

The result: a safe environment where there is trust

Self-awareness, humility, and empathy create an environment where C-Suite leaders can trust each other and not feel threatened, or opposed by one another.

Building a safe environment can address dysfunctional behaviours by eliminating the need for C-Suite leaders to be guarded, territorial, and protective of themselves.

The leaders are then able to:

  • Resolve conflicts

  • Reconcile differences

  • Set aside self-interest

  • Address the elephant in the room

  • Be vulnerable

  • Agree and have a shared vision

What companies need today: trusted and relationally competent C-Suite leaders

To become a more effective team, what C-Suite leaders and teams need most today is to develop people skills and relational competencies.

The goal is for each person to grow into a relational leader—the kind of leader that builds trust and safety among the team. The kind of leader that honours both people and results, creating a safe environment for the team to perform at their best and enable organisational success.


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