I’m troubled by a pattern that is emerging in the data I collect about executive teams. The perspectives of the individual team members are alarmingly skewed. Of the four possible profiles on the tool I use, two account for at least 80% of executives with the other two profiles about as common as the Hawaiian hoary bat or the Lahontan cutthroat trout. It turns out that the executive ecosystem (and in fact your entire organization) suffers for the absence of these endangered species.
A note about the assessment of executive style
The tool I use in executive team effectiveness work is The Birkman Method®. You do not need to know or understand the Birkman to read this post. What you need to know is that the Birkman differentiates between your intrinsic motivations and your learned behavior. The data I have collected suggest that although there is wonderful diversity in the underlying personality and motives of executives, when it comes to their behavior, the results are far less diverse.
Essentially, the way to interpret that is we take diverse groups of people with different styles and defaults and slowly, as we move them up the corporate ladder, we select for, reinforce, and encourage some behaviors while discouraging and filtering out others. So what types of behavior seem to get you a seat at the top?
There are two profiles that I see most commonly in the C-Suite.
When you look at the top of house, by far the most common profile you find is the doer*. This executive’s first impulse is to act. The doer has many strengths, he is practical, collaborative, and tireless. The strength comes with liabilities though; the doer tends to be a “ready, fire, aim” type. Impatience is an issue and he struggles to approach change methodically.
An executive team with too many doers will find itself with several bad habits, which quickly impact the results of the organization. These teams get dozens of plates spinning and fail to focus on a few key priorities. Too many doers at the top and delegation also breaks down. It fails, first, because the doers are most comfortable when they are in the weeds getting mucky doing real work. Second, because they don’t invest in effective communication and hand-offs to position the next layer for success. The business led by a team of doers fitters away its energy on too many initiatives and fails to execute well on any.
Although typically outnumbered two- or three-to-one, the other common executive profile is the dreamer. This executive is focused on innovation, strategy, and the future. The dreamer brings significant value to the table: she is optimistic, visionary, and creative. At the same time, she struggles to make the ideas practical and can iterate so many times that no one knows which way is up.
As a result, the most common executive team profile is one with a preponderance of doers and a few dreamers. Time after time I have seen the same impact on the business of this executive team profile. First, doers and dreamers are in constant tension with each other. While the dreamers want to open up the conversation and bring in new information and new ideas, the doers want to get to the point so they can get moving. This is a significant stressor on the dynamics and trust on the team.
Even more costly than the impact on team dynamics is the impact on the organization. When the doers have finally pinned down the dreamers and have their vision scrawled on the back of a napkin, they run from the room to start implementing the plan. Sadly, the gun is going off half-cocked because two critical steps (associated with two uncommon perspectives) are missing.
In my next post, I’ll tell you about the missing elements and the impact their absence has on executive team dynamics.
* These aren’t the real labels, I use them for simplicity in the post.