Building and sculpting a world-class senior management team

Encouraging cohesion, cascading strategy and nurturing talent are just some of the complex challenges faced by leaders of senior teams. Liz Mellon seeks advice from five global CEOs on how to develop and maintain a dream team at the highest level.

Illustration: Phil Hackett

Irene Dorner, former CEO, HSBC:

It is not possible for any leader, CEO or otherwise, to lead a successful team unless they know enough about each individual to understand what makes them tick and how to get the best out of everyone. This means devoting enough time to getting to know each individual on a personal level, to ensure you recognize their values, their preferences and so on.

My method is to have frequent and regular team meetings to track progress and air issues, but also to hold a regular individual monthly meeting with each person on the leadership team for specific issues and for building the relationship. These meetings should not be cancelled, even if they are short, and my door is always open for immediate, more urgent issues.

A CEO is the champion of her or his people. A champion must facilitate the success and the development of those for whom they are responsible. It is a sin for someone not to realize their potential and a sin for a CEO not to create an environment in which this can occur.

A CEO does not have to like a person (although that helps) and it is actually quite difficult for a CEO to have genuine personal friends on a team. It is, however, imperative that a CEO offers the same assistance/coaching to all, without favour; but (and it is a big but) each person will require something different. Working out who needs what, and giving it, is the crux of building a successful and effective senior team.

Every employee from the most senior to the most junior must have a personal development plan. In the case of the most senior, it is usually inappropriate to try to offer training and development related directly to their business or products as the assumption is that they are competent, otherwise they would not have got the job.

Most senior leaders benefit from external coaching or mentoring, sometimes on very specific areas of improvement. Some senior people require a surprising amount of “tender loving care” and the CEO must decide if the investment of the time and effort is worth the return, in terms of performance and outcome. The offer of assistance is usually most welcome as it shows that the CEO has been watching, is acting in their role as “peoples’ champion” and has taken sufficient personal interest in the individual to be able to help.

The biggest leaps forward that I have taken in my career have been Most senior leaders benefit from external coaching Irene Dorner as a result of coaching interventions, and having learned this from personal experience, I have always offered coaching to those who report to me directly, when appropriate, and it has rarely been anything other than a huge success. Interestingly, if someone refuses interventions and does not co-operate properly with an external coach in a safe environment, it speaks volumes about them.

Strategies are not “once and done”. To keep them alive and understood in an organization requires constant repetition and communication by CEO and senior management, so everyone does have to be “on the same page”. Any hint that someone is nodding agreement but not taking action, must be acted upon immediately.

The debates normally take place around the “how” and not the “what”. I insist, and make it an annual objective, for each team member to visit the others’ operations and also global operations, whether they lead businesses or functions. I also insist upon regular “show and tell” sessions from each head to the whole team. This
is the most difficult area to “police” because people become immersed in their own issues and find it hard to make time to visit others, but this is how you build an enterprise-wide mindset in the senior team.

Carole Woodhead, CEO, Hermes UK:

The best senior management teams are made up of a diverse range of personalities and levels of ego and  it is my job to manage this. I make it very clear that I am only interested in fact-based debate and have little patience with overly emotional discussions that are selfserving rather than for the good of the business. That said, I am quick to acknowledge and reward achievement. I also promote a “work hard, play hard” culture with regular social events where team members can get to know one another as I find this helps things gel in the boardroom.

Every year, we have at least two strategy days which are held off-site where we agree on three-to- five areas of focus for the business that year, taking into account any customer feedback and market intelligence. These sessions are managed by an independent facilitator and we actively debate and discuss these issues until everyone is in agreement. These objectives are reviewed throughout the year to ensure they are still relevant and are being delivered.

Every director receives a list of written objectives, which is reviewed and refreshed regularly. Their performance is rated against these objectives, which is also tied to monetary incentives. We have fortnightly trading meetings with detailed minutes. I also have a “random minute generator” where I will pick a few items from the previous meeting’s notes and ask the relevant directors for an update out of the blue.

Finally, I attend each director’s team meeting at least once a year so I can see first-hand how they are directing their team and driving implementation. We operate
a “country before club” ethos which means I expect each of my team members to put the overall business priorities ahead of any departmental issues.

Therefore, it is vital that they have a strong understanding of the big picture and not just their area of responsibility. To help facilitate this, I insist that they make regular operational visits, which I believe are vital and motivational for the team. I expect every member of my team to have those skills, regardless of their role within the business and we have a number of initiatives in place to help. First, we make it very clear what we expect great leadership to look like with our Hermes Leadership Framework which lists the seven key areas. Each director’s performance is regularly reviewed against this list, and where we identify areas for improvement, we take the relevant action. This might involve additional training, and in some cases, we are happy to fund external mentors to
help develop certain areas. We also have a number of group opportunities such as our Top Executive Development programme, which is designed to nurture talent within the business.

Jayne Archbold, CEO of Mid-Market Europe at Sage and CEO of Sage ERP X3 worldwide:

As a leadership team, first we ensure we understand what we need to achieve globally, and then we cascade this to our divisions. We look at all factors, both internal and external, and agree on key aspects affecting our teams. Typically, we then run a series of workshops across the business to gain feedback and finally agree on a plan.

We communicate what we expect from people and always get feedback, then consolidate and test this via a cross section of people from various areas of the business. Next, we communicate the plan to the whole business, and this is key: we communicate our plan and our progress and where we have been successful.

Teamwork is key to the effective running of the company. Some leaders don’t know how to manage the egos on their team. For me, ego management is about being really clear on decision-making rights, and making sure you have the right flows of information and communication within the business. You have to spend time making sure you have that clarity, so everyone one knows they are responsible for what, and their accountability, and the decisions they can make without reference up the chain of command. That is what real empowerment is about.

Sharing and listening are essential. If people feel part of the organization this drives accountability and engagement. Get to know your people, understand them and how to get the best out of them. Talent  planning and giving people opportunities pays dividends. Employees should understand what the organization’s objectives are and how that translates to each of them. What you get then, is everybody working towards that goal in a small way – which can be supported with a reward system. Goals have to be measurable, simple and transparent. People want to feel they are contributing and are part of the wider organization.

Leaders need to communicate the company vision, what they are trying to achieve, to ensure that everybody connects with that at an individual level. Formal and informal communication flows must be available and genuinely two-way. Give people the opportunity to contribute and feel part of what the company is achieving. The vital thing is to have variation and to tailor the channel of communication to the message. The first golden rule would be: don’t do it all by email. A second would be: don’t assume that everybody has heard the communication in the way that you want, or gets it the first time.

failing employee has to take accountability for dealing with the latter’s learning and development. They need to be having honest conversations and providing fact-based, data-rich feedback on what’s not going well and where the areas of improvement might be.

Line managers need to come up with realistic timescales for people to improve and receive feedback, and if it does not work, then line managers should receive support from the HR department for the process of managing the person to improvement, or potentially an exit. The line manager must  be accountable for developing that person, help correct action if it’s not on track, and if it’s still not working, it is up to them to have tough conversations and develop an action plan.

Martina Milburn, CEO, Prince’s Trust:

Focusing on four-to-five strategic imperatives is vital – mission creep sounds the death knell for projects and organizations alike. At the Prince’s Trust we have an exhaustive process to ensure that we are on target to achieve our central mission. We gather information from frontline staff, the wider leadership team and all stakeholders, including volunteers and disadvantaged young people. We also look at macro trends, especially political, and the funding environment. Once the strategy is agreed by senior management, we publish it and this guides us for three years.

incredibly important and we achieve this by being absolutely clear about what is at the heart of the Prince’s Trust – the desire to make a significant  difference to the lives of disadvantaged young people. If whatever we are considering is not on track to deliver this, then we don’t do it. My team of eight people, and the wider leadership team of 25, knows that it is there to lead the organization and we can only do this effectively if we work together to deliver our central mission.

There are certain core practices that enable alignment. First, my team members represent the whole organization, not just their function, when we take decisions. Being an enterprise-wide leader is a criterion for joining the top team. Second, we performance manage everyone against our values, which are defined in behavioural terms, and my team members have coaches to help them achieve this. They also coach one another.

Third, my team meets weekly, as well as for a whole day once a month. These meetings are mandatory and members have to explain to me personally if they cannot attend. Of course, we are all human and we all have egos – but we are all committed to the heart of the organization and align around it.

Setting a strategy is one thing, delivering it is quite another. We work very hard to keep information flowing up and down the organization so we know if and where we might be getting stuck. We have 1,200 staff working in nine geographical areas, so my team and I undertake nine staff days a year, one in each of the areas, talking about how and why we need to work together to achieve our mission and prevent a young person failing.

I have a quarterly open web chat where I spend 90 minutes answering questions, which is a great way of unearthing trends or general concerns. We also specify which team briefings can be done by email and which must be conducted face-to-face so that critical issues can be aired.

I, and each of my senior team members, also spend one-to-two days a year individually shadowing a  local manager just to listen to them. It is my mantra that we must keep in touch with what is really going on in the organization and be able to differentiate between someone having a bad day and an issue of broader concern that affects many people.

It’s not always the big stuff that sets you back – we recently cut the mileage allowance too deeply and this was causing real challenges for people. I need to understand what Mr Smith in the Newcastle office is really thinking, just as much as what my team thinks, if we are to succeed together.

Julia Meighan, CEO of specialist corporate and marketing communications recruiter, VMA Group:

I think the best way to focus the executive team members is to remove them from the business to discuss strategies and plans. It’s all too easy to get caught up in day-to-day activity, so discussions away from the business are crucial. For example, at VMA Group, our executives spend a weekend away every year, solely dedicated to determining key strategies for growth.

We use tried-and-tested methods which include producing an in-depth SWOT analysis to identify the biggest opportunities for growth and the barriers to company success. We also model hypothetical scenarios, including brainstorming sessions where we ask ourselves, “If we could build the business from scratch what would we want it to look like?” This exercise is central to the continued success of VMA Group; however, it is important to add that these objectives are monitored and reviewed quarterly, so the business can remain agile and responsive to external economic factors.

Leaders are naturally confident people, so there will be some big personalities in any executive team. In order to manage egos, we ensure that all practices have plain objectives and clear strategies in place defining how these are to be achieved. Success is very much aligned with business objectives, which makes any conversation with the leadership team completely transparent and much easier to negotiate.

The only situations in which egos can be really challenging are when someone is not aligned with the company objectives and resists efforts to bring them into line. In these extremely rare situations, sometimes you just need to clarify what is expected of the individual, and continue with performance management processes where necessary.

Agreeing results-orientated key performance indicators (KPI) is critical. We empower the management team to set their own KPIs and we then ensure these are matched to the business growth strategy. In this way, members are driving their own activity and are more motivated to succeed. Also, management rewards are based on achieving results which further ensures objectives are met. Getting the whole executive team involved in developing strategic objectives ensures commitment to plans.

At VMA Group, we are committed to being collaborative, so much so, that it is one of our five key values. Global collaboration is fundamental to our success, and as a result, our leadership team lives and breathes this value. Some members of the leadership team have been here for more than ten years, and this longevity of employment really helps us instill our values in the new hires.

As you would expect from a recruitment firm, our interview processes are quite stringent, and we make sure that the personal values and ambitions of potential recruits are aligned with the business before hiring. Once they are in the organization, all new staff are put through a rigorous “on-boarding” programme with ongoing training and professional development to match individual needs.

Continuous personal development underpins the ethos of the business and we are committed to constant training for all employees at all levels. For the executive team in particular, we have a leadership development programme that supports business growth and provides a mix of both internal and external training and mentoring. We also work with the UK government’s Growth Accelerator Scheme to equip the executive team with the skills to improve continuously as professionals, and ultimately to get the best out of their teams. In an industry in which ‘people skills’ are vital, we really invest in employee development – without the best people, we won’t succeed.