The True Role of an Executive Team

One of the most critical distinctions that differentiates effective teams at an executive level is how they address the crucial Executive Team question:

“What is it that requires us to come together interdependently and for which we are collectively responsible?”

Navigating the transition from individual or functionally-based accountability to organisation-wide accountability is a defining characteristic of effective Executives. Clarity on exactly what is the business of the Executive Team, is a hallmark of high-performing Executive Teams[1].

Every Executive leader has three sets of responsibilities they must fulfil concurrently:

  1. Independent Responsibilities
    Those things that are exclusively within their functional area of responsibility.
  2. Dependent Responsibilities
    Those areas where Executive Team members must work in close collaboration with one or more of their colleagues, but do not require the input of all members.
  3. Interdependent Responsibilities
    The collective responsibilities of the Executive Team which require high degrees of interdependence.

High-performing Executive Teams are clear on what they are collectively responsible for that requires a high degree of interdependence amongst its members. Importantly, these responsibilities are limited and do not represent all things – in fact high-performing teams distinguish between the issues that need everybody’s involvement and those that need only some members’ involvement; where an individual expert is trusted to ‘get on with it’ and be personally accountable.

But most important of all, Executive Teams organise themselves, schedule their time and structure their meetings, such that they allocate the lion’s share of the time they spend together, exclusively addressing the issues for which they are collectively responsible.

To be sure, there is some review and reporting back on the dependent or independent activities of members. At times Executives might also ask for input from their colleagues on wholly independent matters, in the interest of generating new insights or solutions to particularly challenging problems. But these functions are ancillary, incidental and occupy a small proportion of the time of a high-performing Executive (in low-performing Executive Teams, it often consumes all of it).

The Focus of the Executive Team

So what are these high level, interdependent tasks that are grist for the mill of the best Executive Teams? It is a function of many factors, ie there is no definitive list. Internal culture, external environment, the organisation’s strategy all influence where the Executive should spend its time. That said, some of the most effective teams we’ve worked with give a disproportionate amount of time and energy to issues such as:

  • clarity on ‘why’ or ‘what’ we do (purpose)
  • creating a context and vision through a clear description of a desired future state for the organisation
  • defining, articulating, promoting and repeating the strategic direction of the organisation
  • regularly reviewing progress on strategic goals
  • role modelling and leading through values
  • defining structure, roles and accountability to support the strategy (eliminating ambiguity)
  • working across boundaries, integrating the operations of different parts of the organisation
  • representing the organisation to the outside world, linking it to the communities, stakeholders, sector and world within which it operates
  • being the antenna to the outside world, collecting information and scanning the horizon for change
  • encouraging spontaneity, flexibility and creativity
  • accessing discretionary effort through effective motivation
  • ensuring staff have the resources and information to get the job done
  • influencing a ‘whole of organisation’ approach to talent development.

So what are the interdependent responsibilities for which your Executive Team are collectively accountable? Are they clearly articulated, understood and agreed? Are they clear to the rest of the organisation and do they drive the strategic effectiveness of the top team?

Authored by Marshall Cowley, an ODI leadership coach, facilitator and consultant.

If you’d like some help with identifying and embedding your Executive Team’s interdependent, collective responsibilities, contact Nicky on or 03 943 2373.


[1] Hackman, J. Richard (2002). Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

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