How to fix a dysfunctional executive team

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

Q. I have a highly capable executive team, but members are struggling to implement Patrick Lencioni’s “First Team” concept. Specifically, my executives’ first instincts are to be frustrated with other departments rather than working together with their executive teammates to dig into problems, align on a plan, and then pull the levers  to execute on it. I think it’s compounded by a COVID remote work culture, but I’m at a loss of what to do.  

-Founder whose company just raised a Series A

 Dear Founder,

The problem you are facing is a common one. As Patrick Lencioni might put it, your execs are prioritizing the department that they lead over the organization of which they are a member. It’s not unusual for leaders to want to take care of the people who work for them first—they feel responsibility for their team members as well as the success of their org. In some ways, this attention and care demonstrates fine leadership.

However, you and I both know that the route to true success rests with being more focused on the company’s mission than an individual department’s—in other words, prioritizing the entire entity first.

It seems fair to assume that not too long ago, you had a small cohesive team that was aligned on everything. Now, you have different departments with different agendas—and a lot more battles.

Too often we are unprepared for this next phase of business. But with a few shifts in behavior, we can shift this scenario to something that inspires seamless integration that drives growth.

Obviously, you’re doing something right to be expanding—but now you need to find a way to make First Team part of your strategy. Here are some things you can do:

  • Ensure that you have a process that identifies and specifies the company goals. This could be common operating reviews. Or it could be a specific process to ensure alignment, such as Marc Benioff does with his V2MOM method at Salesforce, which is done by everyone every quarter to calibrate and elevate what matters most.
  • Demand peer alignment on goals.The company goals should be clearly articulated and agreed upon and ownership should be defined for each goal. Everyone at the executive level should give input on each other’s goals. This also includes knowing what trumps what and which goals matter most. When I first joined eBay, I had the head of Development focused on shipping fast and I had the head of Operations focused on availability. There was a lot of head butting between the organizations. Resolving it required me intervening to decide what goal was most important. Eventually, I changed the goals of each team so that Ops shared the delivery goals and Product Development shared the availability goals.  When I added Customer Support to the conversation, we realized that we needed to add customer satisfaction to all the goals as well. Everything works much more smoothly—and pleasantly—when everyone is working towards the same goals.
  • Find ways to surface issues. I ask everyone at my investment firm WIN to submit things they need help on every week. In my 1:1s, I ask how things are going and why. Is there a weekly staff meeting where you identify things are going well and things that aren’t? I recommend that all CEOs engage in broader communication. It’s likely that whatever you’ve been doing regarding communication may not be enough.
  • Give people control. Once problems are identified, ask the team to solve them. Create a cross-functional group that will address and find a way to fix the issues. You’ll see increased energy and morale.
  • Build trust. Trust is built from big moments that test you as well as smaller everyday moments. Become a culture where people aim to be an ally to others instead of being demanding about others respecting their own needs and wants. When there are issues make sure people feel supported, not beat up or small. Promote the idea that if you see someone struggling, offer to help. That is so rare—and becomes so appreciated. Encourage people to see the whole company as their tribe and see the competition as what is outside the door.
  • Celebrate the wins and give validation across the whole company. When behavior is great, call it out and celebrate it. My customer support team at eBay gave out “silver star awards” to those people who went above and beyond to help other departments out.

Companies that know how to work as one entity end up much more successful. And the people who work there are a lot happier.

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter below and never miss the latest news.