By Ed Barrow, Strategic Facilitator, The Raffoni Group
Anyone with young kids has probably heard of the term “executive function.” It refers to the management of cognitive processes that includes things like working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, as well as planning and execution. You don’t need to be a psychologist to observe that kids who have strong executive function skills have an easier time in school than those who don’t.
Kids who lack executive function skills have real trouble focusing on their work, curbing impulses, and completing tasks they start, in addition to a host of other challenges that make basic activities very challenging. And the problem doesn’t go away as they get older; adults with weak executive function skills struggle at work and in their personal lives. If your starting to wonder if this piece is about you personally, don’t worry, it isn’t. The executive functioning we're discussing here is the kind that applies to top management teams as a whole.
How does executive function apply to a management team? What’s interesting about the definition above is that it includes three aspects of individual cognitive ability that are equally important to any successful top team: Planning, Execution and Problem Solving. What we’re finding more and more as we engage with clients inside and outside of the CEO Collective is that these three skills—which together comprise our concept of execution function—vary widely across organizations.
What we see is that senior teams with well-developed executive functioning skills seem to do better, a lot better, than those that lack them. The good news is that each of these subordinate skills can be developed if the top team commits to doing so. It’s not easy and there’s no quick fix. Over time however, execution functioning can be developed. If you’re wondering how strong your team’s executive function skills are, we’ve created a series of questions within each of the three categories that leaders can use to assess their team’s overall executive function.
1. Does your leadership team plan effectively?
Research shows that about 60% of small to mid-sized organizations engage in formal strategic planning. That number grows to 90% for large organizations. Moreover, most companies who engage in strategic planning do it annually, even if the planning horizon is longer than that. The annual planning process has become a key vehicle for a top team to think through important issues, set goals and actions, and chart a comprehensive course for the future. It’s vital to overall direction and alignment, which is why so many organizations do it. If your organization does engage in strategic planning ask yourself if the leadership team is effective when doing so.
Is your leadership team highly functioning in the area of planning? Does your team:
- Adequately prepare for planning meetings by collecting background data and supporting information?
- Use a structured process that guides them in a way that addresses the most significant challenges facing the organization?
- Actively engage with each other and participate in a meaningful way?
- Challenge one another so that the very best thinking is brought to bear on the issues the company is facing?
- Make key decisions during the process?
- Produce an actionable plan that everyone is committed to and able to support going forward?
NOTE: When assessing your team’s performance, it’s useful to apply a simple four-point scale: 0-poor; 1-fair; 2-good; 3-excellent. We’ve included a summary assessment at the end of this article.
2. Does your leadership team execute effectively?
Planning strategy is important but getting the strategy executed is the sine qua non of high executive function leadership teams. Some might argue that planning strategy is relatively easy and set aside a few days with a top team, engage a facilitator to guide the process, set goals and measures, align key projects, and develop a schedule for periodic review and follow up. Completing projects, making measurable progress and ultimately achieving the documented goals is much more difficult.
Strategy execution requires teamwork, discipline, flexibility and almost a singular focus on task completion. When we ask top executives how may strategies fail to get implemented most respond with answers well over 50%. Not great odds but clearly odds that call for a leadership team with strong executive function skills.
Is your leadership team high functioning in the area of execution? Does your team:
- Possess a sense of urgency regarding accomplishing the organization’s most essential priorities?
- Have clear roles and responsibilities relating to strategy execution?
- Fully accept accountability for completing their strategy projects and strategic goals?
- Align the actions of their subordinate organizations to the overall strategy?
- Take the appropriate initiative to drive the strategy through to completion?
3. Does your leadership team effectively solve problems?
Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernard Gar Von Moltke is probably not someone you know, but his advice should be. As the architect of Germany’s Wars of Unification he is credited with saying, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” or, as we say today, “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” This same can be said of strategic plans, which invariably encounter problems as soon as execution begins. It is for this reason that problem solving rounds out our set of key execution function skills. Each and every leadership team encounters problems and, if they are not looming on the horizon at present, they soon will be. High functioning executives must be able to detect problems, frame them appropriately, analyze them for purposes of generating realistic courses of action, and then choose the best one among the set of alternatives. Doing this well calls for the very best of any executive team’s abilities.
Can your top team effectively solve complex problems? Does your team:
- Agree on what the biggest challenges facing the business are today?
- Actively use business cases to analyze and communicate the specifics of major issues?
- Think both critically and creatively in generating novel solutions to big problems?
- Know how to analyze possible courses of action and effectively reach decisions regarding what to do?
- Scan the operating environment regularly looking for signals that indicate disruption may be taking place?
Definitions aside, executive function is really the highest order skill that any executive team can have. As is the case with a youngster in school, deficiencies in three areas presented above will lead to the top team creating performance issues throughout the organization. The good news is these skills can be developed if the time and investment is taken to do so. The sixteen questions below in the Executive Function Team Assessment Tool provide a good starting point. Great leadership teams have great execution function. There’s no reason your team shouldn’t have it as well.
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