Now, alerted to all of these network dynamics, the top team began to build connections to other R&D professionals within the company. Team members worked on changing their own behavior, building relationships with those who had ideas about innovation. These new perspectives gave people on the top team a broader sense of the possibilities for new products. Some of them also saw that if they wanted the resistance to diminish, they would have to personally make themselves more accessible — especially to groups that had had little contact with them in the past. Within a year, the number of people who felt connected to the company’s strategy went up, the resistance among some informal professional groups began to wane, and the company invested more in new product launches — with less contentiousness among both the R&D staff and the top team members.
Renewal at the Top
Sometimes it takes a crisis to show just how effective the top team is — versus how effective it needs to be. In the mid-2000s, the Microsoft Corporation discovered its managerial mettle when the company faced antitrust suits from the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union. A few senior executives seriously considered breaking the company in two — but ultimately Microsoft’s leaders decided to do whatever they could to remain whole. One of the most compelling factors in this decision was the recognition of the company’s long-standing management capability: focused informal networking within and across the firm. Everyone, from Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer on down, paid a great deal of attention to clear communication with people throughout the company. Senior leaders at Microsoft were seldom isolated; they were always in touch with others throughout the company. And for that reason, breaking the company apart would have been risky and counterproductive. Fortunately, the regulators agreed.
Not every company has that caliber of teaming at the top. Having a powerful executive team is not just a matter of obtaining cohesive behavior and collaboration among the CEO’s direct reports. It also requires disciplined efforts to interact in ways that can seem counterintuitive at first: to make disciplined choices about when you need subgroups with real-team accountability and focus, and when the clarity and speed of a single-leader unit is better; when a focused network is better than a team; when to build network relationships among the senior executives and the rest of the company instead of fostering conventional team-building and leadership bonding efforts; and when to settle conflicts at the grassroots level rather than within the top team itself. Accomplishing this kind of integration requires great leadership instinct, good intent, and a series of deliberate choices about whom the senior leaders interact with, and how they work together. These factors will allow any executive leader to take the typical top team game to a much higher level.
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- Rob Cross is a faculty member at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia and an expert on organizational network analysis. He is the coauthor, with Robert J. Thomas, of Driving Results through Social Networks: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks for Performance and Growth (Jossey-Bass, 2009).
- Jon Katzenbach is a senior partner with Booz & Company. Based in New York, he leads the Katzenbach Center, which focuses on leadership, organization, culture, and human capital. His most recent book is Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (in)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results (with Zia Khan; Jossey-Bass, 2010).