Building High-Performance Executive Teams, Part One
Too often we’re told grandiose stories of charismatic founders who seemingly achieve their goals through the force of personality alone. I respectfully disagree. Early in my career I read a book by Jack Welch who wrote that to succeed, a company needs a vision, a mission, strategy, and values. He suggested that charisma added speed to the execution but without those other four elements, charisma on its own is dangerous.
Earlier this spring, I hosted a webinar “fireside chat” on a topic that’s both dear to my heart and mission-critical to the start-ups that we fund. That topic was creating a team culture that lends itself to excellence in leadership and sustained high performance, and will become a part of a company’s DNA as it scales.
The purpose of our webinar was to help you avoid that charisma pitfall. I was joined by Jocelyn Kung, of the Kung Group; she’s coached me at various points in my career and helped Neotribe refine its own culture, improve our internal communications, and smooth our team’s ability to collaborate. We also invited four of our founders to talk about their own personal leadership styles. I’ll get to their experiences in a follow-up post soon.
No matter what your personal strengths may be, every good executive’s leadership sits on three legs of a stool: Culture, communications, and collaboration.
How do you go about building that culture? I can tell you that it’s not by way of a top-down edict. I remember arriving at my first job out of college, at Silicon Graphics, and my tech lead at the time handed me a paper on which was written, “The Spirit of SGI”; that was SGI’s culture statement. I was momentarily impressed until I looked over and saw him roll his eyes. Even at that young age, I realized that I never wanted to have a culture statement that made employees roll their eyes!
Years later, as a founder at Neoteris, I made sure that the entire team collaborated on the creation of our culture statement, so everyone would have a sense of ownership. We did something similar here at Neotribe, which is why we invite people to hold us to our published values; those statements aren’t just verbiage, they’re sincerely held.
As Jocelyn pointed out during the webinar, everyone on the call already had a culture; it begins the minute you welcome anyone onto your team. That’s why you must consciously create it; if you don’t, as your organization grows you’ll develop multiple microcultures. No company needs to be driven by warlords and fiefdoms.
“Culture is a felt quality,” Jocelyn told us. “It’s about how people get things done in your organization; how you behave. People will know what your culture is by their interactions with you.”
“You have all these pressures, the customer milestones, details you need to get done on a day-to-day basis. Most of us, being human beings, are going to start with execution and jump into tasks. I ask you to just pause for a minute and resist the urge to start with OKRs. Invest in this idea of leading with trust.”
So you must be able to look around that executive table and really know who those people are; their strengths and the things that hold them back. You need to be able to establish a rapport and tell them the truth. It may seem that hiring in your own image would make that easier, but that’s a mistake. You need diversity of thought, opinions, and abilities.
One thing Jocelyn told me years ago that really stuck with me and has proven true is that trust doesn’t necessarily require an alignment of values, but it does require an alignment of intent.
Using the TAX model to develop excellence in diverse leadership teams
In her consulting work, Jocelyn uses a model that she calls TAX, which stands for Trust, Alignment, and Execution. She describes trust between members of an executive team as being based on three factors: competency, reliability, and positive intentions.
Trust is not inevitable. It’s almost like a muscle that you can exercise and build in several key ways: First, you can demonstrate that you really understand who another person is; second, you can actively appreciate them including doing little things like thanking them in ways that matter to them; and third, you can find out what it means to have their back (as it's different for everyone). These are not things you accomplish once; like any other muscle, trust must be exercised regularly or it will atrophy. But once you’ve established trust, you can move on to the next step, alignment.
One attribute of every great executive leadership team is that the leaders are aligned. That is to say, their first loyalty is to that leadership team—not their functional departments. It’s easy and in some ways natural for people to be loyal to their functional team and to support the people who report to them. But again, this is how those fiefdoms develop.
Once your leadership team has trust, allyship, and alignment of intent, you’ve set the stage for excellence in execution. In my next post, I’ll discuss four very different leadership strengths: Vision, Execution, Speed, and Empathy. Again, this is inspired by Jocelyn’s work but has also been confirmed by our own experience. And I’ll touch base with four of Neotribe’s portfolio founders, each of whom epitomizes one of those traits.
I don’t doubt that every reader will find they identify with one or more of them. You’ll find that the best results come from identifying both your own natural strengths, and those of others on your team. You must understand your weaknesses and work even harder on them, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, it’s enough to work on trust and alignment. Check-in soon to see how this all translates into execution and to let us convince you that culture can provide a strategic advantage as you scale.