“With all due respect, isn’t that your job?”
We laugh about it today, but that was the reaction of one of our executives when I told him that sorting out a difference of opinion with another executive was their responsibility, not mine as CEO. The issue for that executive was not that he was incapable of having a confrontational discussion. He had never seen constructive disagreement among executives at his previous organizations.
We have fostered a different dynamic among our credit union executives where everyone understands that when one person has a problem, we all have a problem. In my experience, a high-functioning executive team is a highly active team. You will see engagement through people actively asking questions and readily giving feedback. We are transparent and collaborative in working through our issues, and everyone feels comfortable pushing back if necessary.
Creating a high-functioning executive team takes time and intentional effort. The process starts with hiring the right kind of person, someone whose competencies align with the organizational culture. When I meet a candidate during an interview, I first talk shop to understand their expertise but then move beyond their skills and experience. I want to understand the candidate’s personality to see if they will use the challenging environment to grow in ways that benefit the individual and the organization. I do not have the last word, however.
Recruitment and Hiring: A Team Sport
Hiring new executives should be a unanimous decision from the executive team. The CEO’s job is to vet applicants through interviews, an extensive competencies assessment, and a personality analysis. To contribute meaningfully to the E-team, they must be resourceful, high functioning, self-aware, and have demonstrated the tenacity and grit to overcome difficulties.
However, the interview is a two-way street. The candidate should also have the opportunity to ask questions of the CEO to ensure the “fit” is mutual. If the candidate moves on to the next stage, they are introduced to the rest of the E-team for a panel interview. This process focuses more on understanding the level of the candidate’s strategic thinking, such as providing an overview of the strategic plan and asking where they see holes.
Introducing a new executive to the team requires a resounding “yes” from everyone. If I believe that the candidate is a good fit, but the rest of the team disagrees, then it’s simply a “no.” However, if only one executive has reservations about making the appointment, it is usually because they are seeing the candidate through their personal filter. We work through this in the same manner as we conduct our general deliberations: With honesty, transparency, and for the greater good.
Creating Personal Investment
Credit union executives at this level are not just working for a paycheck. Executives will not take on this level of responsibility without a strong desire to make a difference, so we want to surround high performers with other high performers who feel encouraged to invest personally.
Setting the right communication cadence allows people to feel appreciated for what they bring to the table and invest in one another. While we decided some time ago to move to quarterly strategic meetings in response to the amount of change in the industry, our more frequent meetings have been highly successful in building trust and breaking down silos.
We have two- to three-hour weekly meetings that provide updates and present ideas for discussion from the executive’s areas of responsibility. We also use several 30-minute weekly huddles to allow team members to discuss self-development or leadership topics as diverse as personality types, upbringings, and past work relationships. As a CEO, if you make it safe for people to share their weaknesses or failures in these settings, they can more easily invest personally in the company mission because they already care.
Fostering a Healthy E-Team Culture
Conversely, when people do not feel safe to be themselves, that same care can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. Any time we put aside to connect to each other is important because humans are meant to connect. The CEO can also model the qualities of a supportive environment by showing people who they are through honest, direct, and transparent conversations.
Trust, self-awareness, and self-reflection can lead to a culture of accountability based on the bonds formed. There is a real drive on our team to keep the mutual respect we all enjoy. That means ensuring members are communicating, on the same page, and meeting each other’s expectations.
It is no different from how we maintain healthy family relationships. I tend to lead how I parent, and as I told my 17-year-old son after some recent drama with a friend: “I love you so much that I will be honest with you, even if it isn’t what you want to hear.” Sometimes, maintaining effective, trusting relationships includes calling someone out if they are in the wrong. In this culture, disagreements are an opportunity for growth.
The Executive Path of Mutual Growth
I once had a CIO candidate interviewing for a spot on the executive team who posed a revealing hypothetical: What would I do if he was explaining a technical concept poorly? I said it would make me a little agitated with potentially a large investment on the line. However, the agitation would be based on the fear of not understanding a concept requiring substantial investment, and recognizing the fear would prevent me from lashing out. He was blown away by the honesty. My response set a standard for the level of self-awareness he would encounter and which he would be expected to meet.
High-performing executive teams have enough mutual trust to welcome this degree of transparency. In fact, I get nervous when we are not constantly challenging one another. By recruiting well, we can assemble executives willing to take risks, expand their learning, and have the capacity to deal with uncertainty. In other words, they will keep showing up where others fail to, and that makes all the difference, especially at this level.
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