How To Create a Super Exec Team

Building a productive, cohesive team isn’t impossible

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As CEO of a start-up, Gayle Sheppard is plenty busy at work. Yet, each month, she reserves an evening to prepare a special dinner at her home,not for her family, but for her executive team.

"Business occasionally slips into the conversations, but it's more about families, life and children," says Sheppard, president and CEO of MarketMile, an

e-procurement company based in Mountain View, Calif. "It's a tremendous contributor to how we grow our business, and a good way to feel for others' values while building our core competencies."

Sure, catered off-site meetings during company time are a way to create cohesion and a feeling of comradery within your management team. "But at the end of the day, it comes down to key, frequent communication in staff and informal meetings," Sheppard says.

What else can you do to keep your executive team working efficiently? Here's what some company leaders told us:

1. Keep the group small.

A small executive team consisting of between five and seven members is ideal for most companies because it's just enough to allow for healthy conflicts and disagreements, while maintaining cohesion and focus, says Debra Nunes, vice president of the Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that, in conjunction with Harvard University and Dartmouth College, recently released a four-year study on what makes executive teams successful.

Sean Keohane, president of Irvine, Calif.-based SMC Networks, which provides connectivity and Internet access solutions, abides by that rule. He has several vice presidents and a finance director on his executive team, which meets every Thursday morning for about 90 minutes to keep everyone up-to-date on market trends and let them better prepare for the following week's responsibilities.

Keohane says it's vital to make sure the objectives of every meeting have been clearly set from the start to avoid topics that could be discussed during future meetings. "You've got to focus on the basic principles and objectives of the company," Keohane says. "You take your politics and leave them on the doorstep."

Keohane adds that he would not think twice about replacing an executive member of his team if the person doesn't fit the group's needs, even if a long friendship is at stake.

"I'm a very apolitical person, and the selection process for an executive team is that they're there to benefit everybody," Keohane says. "If not, that person tends to become a cancer, and that has a negative effect."

2. Check egos at the door.

Steve Giles, president and CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Oculan, which provides network and systems management products, says his team members have type-A aggressive personalities, which helps his start-up company gain traction in the marketplace.

However, Giles has some advice that seems to work for his eager team,print a sign with the word "ego" on it, and place a red slash mark through the word. Put it up in your executive conference room, Giles suggests. "We do not have time for this in the marketplace because of the speed of change in business," Giles says.

To that same point, there's a mantra within his group that he considers paramount to the company's success.

"Here, we have a saying that we're going to turn this meeting [around 360 degrees to discuss things until we see the others' point of view," Giles says. "We see why we were where we were, and go back to the same points we originally had."

While some may see that as wasting precious meeting time, Giles does not. He has lunch brought in every week, usually on Tuesdays during staff meetings, which run from 11 a.m. until about 1 p.m.

"People here rebel against spending time on nonrevenue-generating gatherings," Giles says.

3. It's all about timing.

It's also important to schedule your weekly meetings at times that are conducive to strategic thinking. While that may sound a bit obvious, how many times have you been stuck in late afternoon meetings where participants were more interested in watching the clock on the wall than hashing out new strategies and initiatives for the company?

To that end, Sheppard and her executive team at MarketMile made a decision to change their weekly meeting times because the Monday afternoon time slot wasn't convenient for everyone or conducive to thorough discussions.

"One reason for having it late in the day is that you can focus on the agenda and the meeting will last over a specific time frame," Sheppard explains.

But by the end of the day, people were anxious to go home or needed to catch late-afternoon flights, she says, so the meetings now begin around lunchtime.

"You need freedom of thinking by the entire board, so a lot of structure was almost a [necessity for building a business," Sheppard says.

But it's at the monthly dinner parties when MarketMile executive team members and their spouses really get to congregate in a casual setting to talk about their experiences unrelated to the company.

4. Seek input at all levels.

In addition to open communication with all members of his executive management team, Dr. Anthony Sforza, president of Intelligent Medical Systems, says it's important he avoids top-down management.

"The people who make the decisions and don't go to the people at the bottom for input ,that's a mistake," says Sforza of the Alpine, Texas-based solution provider. "You need everybody on the same page."

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