On Leadership Teams, Feedback, and Coaching

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

Many executive teams do not perform anywhere near as well as they could. In particular, while all the members might be individually competent, they fail to become more than the sum of their parts  – they are stuck in Tuckman's forming stage. Ideally, a CFO is not just a CFO, but a sparring partner who encourages informed risks. A CIO is not merely a CIO, but a catalyst for transformation, etc.

The fact that each exco member has their own resources and strategies can, like an alliance of medieval houses gathering for battle, be a great asset. Sadly, too often these partnerships do not reach their full potential. There are a multitude of reasons for this – from friction between personalities, to competition for investment, misalignment of incentives, etc. A commonality is a lack of trust.

Building trust requires open, reciprocal communication between parties. Yet when you manage a large organisation, you often communicate in a scripted, uni-directional manner. While this might make you an efficient presenter, it does not exactly open you up to feedback. When you suddenly find yourself in a forum of your peers, particularly with different agendas, this can be a major handicap.

It is easy at times to mistake speaking for communicating. Photo by Reid Naaykens.

In an ideal world, members of any exco would quickly build trust due to the need to be open about their ambitions and concerns. They would both solicit and provide feedback about how to better collaborate and achieve shared goals. Yet executive myopia often get in the way and instead of talking with one another leaders end up talking at one another – a missed opportunity to build trust.

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." – George Berhard Shaw

How then can we conquer this challenge? People are often hesitant to open up for fear of criticism, or negative feedback. That said, few of us have objections to being complimented, or receiving positive feedback. Becoming comfortable with giving and receiving all forms of feedback is an important step in building trust, but it requires the right mindset coupled with the right tools.

This is where coaching comes in. Coaching can help executive teams role-play being vulnerable and courageous enough to give honest feedback. While it might feel contrived to give each other feedback one by one – according to a predefined script – it helps you realise that there is little to be afraid of. Like a muscle, the more you work it the easier it becomes to use, even when stressed.

There is no shame in not being aligned – the key is being honest about it. Photo by Khyta.

When the stakes are high, it is tempting to shut others out as a means of self-preservation. Coaching can help break this habit. Remembering how the world did not end when you gave feedback or how much closer you felt after you solicited feedback from your fellow executives can provide the impetus you need to take a deep breath, lower your guard, and truly engage with those around you.

The benefits of doing so are clear both from a personal perspective, in that you will feel less burdened, as well as an organisational one, in that the executive team will be more performant. These types of skills are also critical in maintaining healthy friendships and marriages – arguably one of the few examples where "taking your work home with you" is a good thing.

At the end of the day, high-performing teams are built on a foundation of trust. Trust requires open and honest conversation, which includes the ability to give and receive feedback with an open heart and open mind. Coaching is not just for those looking to fix obvious problems, it is also a powerful means of unlocking the full potential of any leadership team, and of yourself as an individual.

– Ryan

Ryan den Rooijen

Now Chief Ecommerce Officer; formerly Chief Data Officer.