Senior Leadership Teams – What it takes to make them great

leadership development“With firsthand knowledge and compelling real-life examples, Senior Leadership Teams present indispensable guidance on getting your best people to work and thrive – together.”

—David Gergen, Director, Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government

The demands on those who occupy the top roles of organizationsare rapidly outdistancing the capabilities of any single person – nomatter how talented. That is why a growing number of chief executivesare turning to their direct reports – the senior managers of theenterprise – for help in meeting the challenges they and theirorganizations face. Yet, according to the authors of a new book, manyCEOs stumble when creating their leadership team.

In SENIOR LEADERSHIP TEAMS: What it Take to Make Them Great (January 24, 2008), Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, andRichard Hackman help senior executives identify the times and circumstances when senior teams are a good idea and when they are not.Based on their study of 120 top teams from around the world at companies including IBM, Sainsbury, Shell, and Unilever, they show executives exactly what is needed to create and sustain executive teams whose members both rely on one another and learn from one another as they work together to pursue organizational objectives. When set up properly, these senior leadership teams hold a number of advantages.

One advantage, the authors say, is that leaders can avoid the messy co-leader problem of who ultimately is in charge, while at the same time sharing critical responsibilities and decision-making. A second reason is when a leadership team addresses strategic issues that cut  across the enterprise; most of the people who will be responsible for implementing those decisions will be in the room. And finally, the chief executive can draw on the rich pool of knowledge, talent,experience, perspective, and creativity of the company’s most accomplished leaders in making key organizational decisions.

The authors highlight the main findings of their research: the threeEssential conditions of senior leadership teams, which are the basicprerequisites for good team performance, and the three Enablingconditions of senior leadership teams, which smooth the path toexcellence and accelerate a team’s movement down that path.

The Essentials

Senior leaders establish the essential conditions for leadership teams by (1) creating a real team, rather than one that is a team in name only, (2) providing the team with a clear and compelling purpose, and (3) ensuring that the team consists of members who have the knowledge, skill, and experience that are required for the team’s work. When these conditions are in place, the team has a solid foundation for carrying out its work, and is positioned to set out on a course of even more competent teamwork.

The Enablers

The three enabling conditions are (1) a solid team structure, (2) a supportive organizational context, and (3)competent team coaching. These conditions enable a team to take full advantage of the solid foundation provided by the essentials. The enabling conditions do not need to be fully present at the outset of a team’s work; they also can be strengthened as the team gains experience and maturity.

In Senior Leadership Teams, the authors provide an overview of eachcondition, describe the challenges of each condition, and offerexamples that illustrate particular strategies that leaders have usedto overcome these challenges. Through stories of the teams theystudied, the authors elaborate the tales of leadership teams thatultimately did especially well – and also those that struggled severelyto get the six conditions in place for their teams.

Timely and practical, Senior Leadership Teams provides new conceptsand tools for those seeking an alternative lens through which toexamine their executive teams.

By Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, and J. Richard Hackman


Ruth Wageman is Visiting Scholar in Psychology at HarvardUniversity and Director of Research for Hay Group. Wageman’s teaching,consulting, and research are focused on effective leadership and onidentifying the organizational, group, and individual conditions thatinfluence the effectiveness of task-performing teams. She has publishednumerous journal articles on a range of subjects in organizationalbehavior, especially about the effective leadership of teams and thetheory and practice of leadership development.

Debra A. Nunes is Vice President at Hay Group’s McClellandCenter for Research and Innovation, where she leads the firm’sinternational practice on executive team leadership. This practiceengages in the study of senior leadership teams around the globe toidentify the factors that contribute to senior teams’ effectiveness inleading their organizations, and translates those findings intopractical applications that executives can employ. Nunes’s work withsenior leadership teams spans more than two decades.

James A. Burruss is one of the founding members and seniorvice president of Hay Group’s McClelland Center for Research andInnovation in Boston. He has applied his understanding of humanmotivation and performance over the past thirty years to helpingorganizations in both the private and public sectors around the world.His consulting experience has focused primarily on the role of leadersand leadership teams in creating high-performance organizations.

J. Richard Hackman is Edgar Pierce Professor of Social andOrganizational Psychology at Harvard University. Hackman conductsresearch on many topics in social and organizational psychology,including team dynamics and performance, leadership effectiveness, andthe design of self-managing teams and organizations. He is author ofnumerous articles and books, the most recent being Leading Teams:Setting the Stage for Great Performances. He has consulted to a varietyof organizations about team effectiveness, leadership development, andthe design of work.

What it Takes to Make Them Great
By Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James A. Burruss, J. Richard Hackman
Harvard Business Press
Publication Date: January 24, 2008
Price: $29.95; Pages: 256; ISBN: 1-4221-0336-4

CONTACT: Julie Devoll, Senior Publicist
Harvard Business Press
E: jdevoll@hbsp.harvard.edu

Senior Leadership Teams – What it takes to make them great