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Six problems of executive teams and how to deal with them

The board of directors, with their special training, domain and responsibility, heretically steer the organisational ship across the stormy and unpredictable seas. But all too often boards are dogged by common problems

While onlookers seem more concerned with the personality and ability of the CEO we know that it is the make up and dynamics of the board of directors that make all the difference to organisational performance.

But ask any ex-board member, or indeed ‘process’ consultants called in to ‘help with misunderstandings’, and they tell of politics and pathology, intrigue and infamy; skullduggery and spin. The first among equals may command most attention, but the board is crucial for decision making, analysis and strategy.

Here are six typical problems of executive teams and how to deal with them?

1. Bloated membership 

Bloated boardroom

Problem: Everybody wants to sit on the board and be 'in the top team'. It is sexy, well-paid and a job with power.

Solution: There is an optimum number for efficient team work: somewhere between 7 and 12. Too big and they split into factions; a few become silent and others very vocal. It is, of course, also very important that those on the board bring not only their expertise and ability, but also their motivation to succeed through appropriate co-operation. It is all very well having the optimum number, but unless they pull together in the process the board will not succeed. Any CEO needs to be clear about who is on the board and why. Is there an HR specialist on the board? Are there non-executive directors? Is some minority tokenism required? These are non-trivial questions that need to be answered with analysis and logic. Such decisions have consequences.

2. The naked ambition of many team members

Ambition

Problem: Many yearn for the top job; head honcho. They see their career clocks ticking and feel the urge for the money, power and prestige of the chief executive. Succession planning can bring out into the open and help control blind ambition. The team needs to specify a timetable, personal criteria for the top job and the process by which the boss is appointed.

Solution: It is important the process is open, explicit and apparently fair. Nepotism, pusillanimous chair-people, even laziness are reasons for massive boardroom squabbling. If it is the most important job then serious attention needs to be paid to appoint the right person.

3. Conspiracy of silence 

Silence

Problem: Big boys often cope with issues by never mentioning them. Teams often deal with emotional issues by ignoring them. Boards can refuse to discuss issues they find uncomfortable such as success planning, personal pathology, relationships at work or the future of the company. Anything to do with personal emotions is usually out-of-bounds. No evidence of emotional intelligence here. It is surprising how powerful adults resort to such primitive influence and coping strategies to deal with issues.

Solution: The way to stop groups conspiring to be silent is to help them put the issues on the table. There needs to be a rule about what can and cannot be discussed, when and why. It is often the personal pathology and interpersonal skills of the CEO that dictates what is taboo or not. Consultants who deal with top-team pathology or board-room malaise are often astounded by the history of 'non-discussables'. Interestingly it is often tough professional women – so often missing from boards –who deal with the problem best. It is an issue of EQ not IQ....and real balls.

4. Resisting centrifugal forces

Centrifugal force

Problem: Board members can, quite literally, head off in different directions. Their values and priorities can soon lead to the executive team losing its cohesiveness and focus. This is most frequently the problem where individuals have difficulty delegating. Thus directors manage, managers supervise, supervisors deliver. Delegation should liberate board members to concentrate on what they do: strategy; the vision thing; PR on the part of everybody; doing the rounds.

Solution: The CEO must become aware of the existence and power of these forces upon the members and, therefore, encourage uniformity of approach. Members need constant help with the focus and alignment.

5. Ambiguity of roles 

Ambiguity

Problem: This is not unique to top teams but can be very destructive. Executive team members are answerable to many different constituencies.

Solution: Executives need to specify very clearly how the group is to make decisions and what those decisions are about. What is, and is not, their remit. And once clarified, stick to it.

6. The personal, but not hidden, agendas of individuals

Hobby horse

Problem: The boardroom is an ideal place, some believe, to have fun to promote personal causes; to ride hobby horses. To have important and powerful people pay attention to their personal issues is too attractive in opportunity to miss for some directors whose politico-religious or other crypto-philosophical agendas can highjack board meetings for hours.

Solution: Quite simply have a clear agenda and stick to it. Boards need to be told on a regular basis what they are there for. And what is not relevant.

It is too easy to see the problems of the board in terms of the lack of ability or simply pathology of the individual members. Some directors do make it to board level with remarkably mediocre ability. Others have exploited their particular personal pathology such as narcissism or paranoia to rise in the organisation. But it is to be hoped they remain yet the minority, though in some companies this is far from clear.

It is the role of the chair person to get the best out of the board through optimum membership; appropriate control and openness; getting members focused; clarify their role and joint agenda. Sounds easier said than done with self-important grown-ups but is essential to ensure successful board functioning. The puzzle is why it is not done that often.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London and a regular PS Contributor

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