News & Insight
February 2005

To Optimize Productivity, Focus on Your Senior Leadership Teams

Terrence Overholser

When we ask the members of senior leadership teams to identify their mission as a team, what we hear are things like “to drive profits” or “to build shareholder value.” None of them articulates this mission in terms of creating a culture in which people can thrive and do their best work. As a result, people don’t excel.

But isn’t that what corporate leadership is all about? Isn’t a culture where people can thrive and do their best work the foundation for driving profits and building shareholder value?

Most corporate executives would answer in the affirmative … yet many lack a realistic understanding of what defines their current culture. Without this understanding, senior leaders can’t create the kind of culture they need to strengthen market leadership and optimize their bottom line.

Poor communication, low trust and unresolved conflicts are only symptoms of the underlying problem within and among senior level management teams -- a conflict of values. Such conflict is like a cultural “cold war” among powerful individuals competing for influence. Successful executives are going to promote different values -- evidenced in their strategies, behaviors and overall leadership style, based upon what has worked for them in the past. It is altogether natural that there will be conflicts.

Frequently, corporate leaders don’t even agree on the “what,” but most often the disagreement is about the “how.” How do we become market leaders? Do we do it primarily by focusing internally and creating an environment in which our people can thrive? Or do we do it by focusing externally on the customer?

Other questions also illuminate this disharmony:

  • How do we best enable our people to thrive -- through individual initiative or teamwork?
  • Do we best achieve our goals through centralized controls or by enabling flexibility and creativity?
  • What is the appropriate balance between these inherently conflicting values … and how do we manage that conflict?

To avoid conflict -- which, “coincidentally,” enables personal agendas to prevail -- executives will nod their heads in acquiescence to the company’s or team’s stated values. But unless these underlying conflicts are put on the table and fully debated, and there is mutual accountability among the team members for promoting and defending the desired culture, the “cold war” will continue to drain productivity.

Lack of accountability in many ways defines the culture and inhibits change. Let’s say there’s a high-performing chief technology officer or chief marketing officer who’s a real genius, someone upon whom the chief executive officer is totally dependent. But the CTO or CMO is also abrasive with his staff -- and even his colleagues -- to the point where people do not communicate when they need to or resolve problems effectively. Although this behavior may violate the company’s explicit core values, it is tolerated because the executive is a star who is critical to the success of the organization. But these behaviors “dis-integrate” the culture and sub-optimize engagement and productivity.

Unless you show offending executives how their behaviors adversely impact the cohesiveness of the management team and organizational productivity, they have no motivation to change. More often than not, these executives are reasonable people with strong “bottom-line” values who are just unaware of the impact of their behavior on productivity. They haven’t received the kind of feedback that will motivate them to change. But if you show them objective and subjective data of how their collective and individual behaviors negatively impact the organization, you will appeal to the one thing they can agree on: the opportunity to significantly improve productivity. Only then will otherwise intractable and often destructive behaviors begin to change. Those who are indifferent to these consequences belong neither on the management team nor in the company. Their impact is too corrosive -- and potentially life-threatening to the organization.

Team cohesiveness correlates highly to cultural integrity and productivity. At the end of the day, culture is about values evidenced by the decisions that management makes every day. One of the most important and courageous decisions senior team leaders can make is to assess the effect they are having on productivity, and to hold themselves mutually accountable to their people for creating a thriving, generative culture.

Next issue: Using technology to conduct high-impact assessments and initiate transformational change.

Terrence Overholser is founder and CEO of, and a WJM Associates faculty member. WJM-ManagementCentral is a strategic partnership that focuses on the design and delivery of assessment-based solutions that enhance organization and leadership performance.

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