CHROs Make the Executive Team Work Better

By Roy Maurer Nov 28, 2012
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​A chief human resource officer (CHRO) plays a significant role in getting executives to work as an effective team, according to a recent survey.

The 2012 Cornell/Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies Chief HR Officer Survey of senior HR leaders examined the positive and negative dynamics of a company’s executive leadership team (ELT) and described the ways in which CHROs help these teams to function more effectively.

The CHRO and the Executive Leadership Team

Lead author of the report, Patrick M. Wright of the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, said that confidential conversations with CHROs revealed many problems among ELT members, with the primary issue being that the team doesn’t function as a team, but rather as a group of individuals pursuing their own self-interests. This requires CHROs to step in as referees, counselors and mediators, Wright said in the report.

The survey found that from the CHROs’ perspective, the ELTs’ effectiveness varies considerably. CHROs gave ELTs the highest rating for performance focus and lower scores for collaboration and teamwork among team members. Effective teams were characterized as having great cooperation/collaboration/teamwork, candid dialogues, members who put the enterprise above their business, and members aligned around common goals and strategy. Poor teamwork was attributed to lateral communication siloes and passive-aggressive or immature behavior, respondents said.

Some statements from respondents include:

  • “We operate autonomously—we’re a collection of high-performing individuals, but that doesn’t translate into a high performing team.”
  • “We often avoid confronting each other directly and time is wasted as issues are vetted in hallways and in small groups.”
  • “There tends to be a great deal of passive-aggressive behavior.”
  • “Lack of frequent communications outside of meetings leads to misunderstandings of tactical execution of common goals.”

Facilitating Communication Among Team Members

By far, CHROs identified various forms of providing feedback, coaching and facilitation as core activities in which they engage to help the ELTs.

Surveyed CHROs said that they spend a lot of time coaching ELT members. This involves helping them to explore how to raise certain issues with the CEO, or in the ELT meetings, or how to approach a peer. Coaching often extends into acting as a mediator among two or more ELT members in conflict. For instance, a number of CHROs mentioned that they often have to give messages from the CEO to an ELT member, or be able to give a message to the CEO from an ELT member who doesn’t want to risk being associated with the message. CHROs also said that they have to give feedback frequently to ELT members regarding the appropriateness of their conduct. One respondent said, “I meet individually with members to help them understand their behavior and coach them on more productive ways to engage in dialogue.”

CHROs noted a lack of candor as a frequent area of weakness for the ELTs, and said that it falls on them to ensure that the proper discussion takes place. Because opposition must be considered in order to vet decisions fully, CHROs said that they take a proactive role by asking the questions that others might be afraid to ask, voicing unpopular opinions, or otherwise forcing a dialogue that did not appear naturally.

Building Team Capability

CHROs reported taking a more proactive and strategic approach to building the capability within the team to work as a team, the report found. CHROs reported working with the CEO and other ELT members to come to a consensus on the organization’s purpose, strategic priorities and strategic alignment. They also found themselves seeking to gain consensus among the ELTs regarding the operating expectations for the teams in terms of communication and conflict resolution. In practice, they instituted specific team-building interventions aimed at helping the ELT members to learn how to work together more effectively. These interventions were focused on either defining areas of responsibility and accountability or building social relationships among the team members.

Finally, CHROs said that they play a key role in defining and building the talent on the team. They identify individuals who lack the necessary skills and work with the CEO to replace them with better talent.

CHROs have tremendous potential to shape the agenda, provide valuable expertise and influence the strategy of the company, the report found. The role they play in making the ELT work more effectively as a group may be just as important to the organization’s effectiveness.

“Even superstar business people, while possessing outstanding business acumen, are still human and as such, exhibit a number of human frailties that can impede team dynamics and ultimately derail strategies. This report provides a clear set of ideas for how CHROs work to ensure that these human frailties are minimized and that their negative impact on organizational effectiveness is avoided,” the report concluded.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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