High Performing Executive Teams

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The CEO’s most important asset: a high performing executive team

Digitalization, demographic shifts and the global pandemic are radically reshaping the world of business. To survive, organizations are being forced to fundamentally change their business models, evolve their products and services, redefine the customer experience, and work more efficiently and effectively. 

The question on every CEO’s mind is, “How can I make this transformation happen?” The pace of disruption requires CEOs to transform organizations almost continuously while delivering consistently stronger business outcomes. This kind of constant transformation demands alignment and agility, which can be difficult given the speed of change.

No CEO—no matter how talented, visionary and inspiring—can successfully plan and implement a new business model single-handedly. Transformation on this scale is only achievable if CEOs are able to fully leverage the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal: the high performing executive team. A high performing executive team can advance the CEO’s agenda more quickly and make the organization more nimble and responsive to market changes. Executive teams are especially critical in the face of complex challenges or issues. They use their combined experience and expertise to manage paradox, explore multiple alternatives and build a commitment to new strategic initiatives across the organization.

Executive team performance is Korn Ferry's research-based, pragmatic way to help CEOs and senior executives get traction on their strategy by fully harnessing the collective power of their executive team.

The six challenges

Get the best performance out of your executive team

A research-based, pragmatic approach for getting the most from your executive team. In our work, we have found that executive teams typically encounter six challenges:

  1. The team’s collective work is often vague, leading executives to focus on their role-specific accountabilities rather than the enterprise agenda.
  2. The most talented, hard-charging executives are not always the most effective team players.
  3. Team processes, particularly decision-making processes, are often implicit rather than explicit, leading to issues of trust. 
  4. Teams do not attend to adopting the standards of behavior (norms) that foster trust and productive relationships necessary to integrate and energize the team.
  5. Leadership teams typically give little thought to their ongoing development and, as a result, they fail to grow as a team. 
  6. Effective team functioning occurs in phases and can decrease if the team leader does not consistently focus on fostering the conditions for a high-performance team.

Essential factors for executive teams

Korn Ferry consultants work with the leader and their team to strengthen the six factors that are essential for outstanding executive teams. Here’s how:

  • Leadership

    We tell it like it is, acting as an honest mirror for team strengths and opportunities and supporting the CEO in leadership by providing coaching to enabling them to lead an outstanding executive team.

  • Purpose

    We work with the CEO and the team to define team purpose: not only why the team exists, but also the collective work that only a high performing executive team can do, clarifying the unique value of the team now and in the future.

  • People

    We help the people on the team to deliver value, collectively and individually, bringing Korn Ferry’s unique blend of assessment, leadership development, and search capability to the team.

  • Processes

    We set the team up for success, clarifying decision-rights and establishing the processes (e.g., agendas, pre-read, meeting minutes, etc.), that can so easily derail performance if not properly established.

  • Standards of behavior

    We work with the team not only to set norms (standards of behavior) but to activate them and build the inclusive culture required for collective intelligence to thrive.

  • Development

    We enable the team’s continuous development through coaching; structuring time to pause and reflect so the team has the feedback and tools that enable them to grow in capability over time.

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FAQs about high performing teams

What are the benefits of having a high performance team?

High performance teams offer a wide range of benefits for an organization, including these:

  • Increased productivity: They work effectively toward their goals. They complete their tasks faster and more accurately.
  • Improved results: Executive leadership teams that perform at a high level typically produce high-quality work, which can lead to higher customer satisfaction, deliver stronger sales results and build a stronger organizational reputation.
  • Better problem-solving: Skilled executive leadership teams are better able to solve complex problems because they can mine their members’ diverse perspectives and skill sets to come up with creative solutions.
  • Increased employee engagement: When employees are part of a high performance team, they’re usually more motivated. Higher engagement can lead to increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover.
  • Greater accountability: High performance teams hold themselves accountable for their results. They set clear goals and track their progress toward achieving them.
  • Better communication: Effective top teams share information effectively and work collaboratively toward a common goal.
  • Greater agility: Strong executive leadership teams pivot rapidly in response to change. They’re able to flex as circumstances shift and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

How can an executive leadership team be effective?

What an executive leadership team requires for success today differs markedly from what was needed before. In the past, executive teams were successful if each business unit met its performance targets. But today, success is defined based on much more.

Top teams need an enterprise mindset. In other words, they must address internal and external realities, viewing their role as one of shared responsibility for an interconnected ecosystem. They must understand the landscape where the business operates and what risks it faces. And they must look for partners to help them navigate change.

CEOs today must inspire their teams and the public. They can’t do that alone. Their executive leadership team must support them and view their role less as siloed leaders but as leaders of a holistic enterprise. They must lead with purpose and courage, lead horizontally and vertically and welcome diverse perspectives.

The CEO must also recognize that leadership is a team sport and share aspects of their role, such as interfacing with the board, with other executive team members. The command-and-control approach of the past won’t work. Power should be distributed among a collaborative, empowered group of leaders.

The executive team must also align on its purpose, values and culture. When there’s a meeting of the minds among executives, it enables the top team and ensures their independent decisions are compatible. It also makes it easier for the top team to implement organizational effectiveness strategies and achieve financial targets. This alignment also frees the CEO to focus on the organization’s broader impact and success.

Finally, the most effective executive teams consist of top talent. This talent must reflect the diversity of the organization’s employees, customers and investors. And the team must also have a diverse range of expertise, particularly in emerging fields such as diversity, sustainability and cybersecurity. The more diverse the team members are, the more they can minimize groupthink, optimize their collective intelligence and execute their strategies.

What are some key factors that contribute to executive team performance?

We’ve identified six factors that lead to high performance top teams.

  • A clear, compelling purpose for the top team: A high performance top team has a purpose that each executive understands and that is challenging, but not impossible, to achieve. The purpose must have an impact on the organization and the lives and work of others. The team should be able to accomplish the purpose only by working interdependently. The CEO should clearly communicate the top team’s purpose.
  • The right people: Small teams are more effective than larger teams, particularly when it comes to decision-making. A top team doesn’t have to include a representative from every part of the organization or every person who reports to the CEO. The ideal size is nine or fewer people. The right people to make up those nine are those who are willing to put things on the table that affect the entire business. They must be capable of taking an enterprise perspective, hearing others’ concerns and standing by the team’s decisions. They must be able to engage in healthy debate without resorting to personal attacks. A collaborative, congenial spirit is key.
  • Disciplined processes: Clear procedures that establish protocols for how team members should work together and make decisions improve a team’s ability to deliver on its purpose. CEOs themselves must adhere to a disciplined process. For example, they should retain control of setting meeting agendas and ensure everyone on the top team has the materials they need to discuss agenda topics well in advance. CEOs should also ensure that there are no conflicts in executive compensation among the leadership team.
  • Norms for productive relationships: Setting productive norms is the second-biggest differentiator for top team performance in our research. The CEO should outline how team members should behave and engage with others when working one-on-one and as a group, both in and out of meetings.
  • Continuous development: Top teams don’t just happen; they’re made with deliberate effort. They take time to evolve and mature as team members learn how to work together effectively. Unless you invest in the continual development of the top team, it’s likely that your team won’t grow or progress. Note that individual coaching isn’t a best practice here; a team has to be coached as a singular entity and in real time. The most effective coaching focuses on team dynamics and interaction.
  • Team leadership: With all of the things on a CEO’s plate, there’s little time to prepare for interactions with the top team. CEOs must devote the same level of preparation they do to external calls to their internal meetings.

How can organizations implement high performance management?

Motivating a top team to reach its potential and achieve its goals can be challenging. High performance management starts with these foundational steps:

  • Set clear expectations and goals: The goals that an organization sets for its top team must align with the organization’s overall strategic objectives. All of the goals should be measurable and specific. The top team should measure its progress toward goals and revisit and update them regularly.
  • Provide regular feedback: Feedback must be a normal part of the work cycle. For an executive leadership team, feedback should address both individual and team performance. All feedback should be actionable, constructive and timely.
  • Focus on leadership development: The top team should have opportunities for continuous development. It’s best if you can target learning opportunities to the gaps in the executive’s experience.
  • Measure performance: The organization should establish key performance metrics that measure the team’s performance.
  • Foster collaboration: Executive teams must maintain open lines of communication. The more opportunities this team has to collaborate, such as meetings and brainstorming sessions as well as informal chat sessions and social events, the better its communication — and results — will be.  
  • Encourage innovation: The organization should empower executives to take risks and try new ideas. Measured risk-taking can drive growth and build a competitive advantage for the organization.
  • Recognize and reward high performance team members: To incentivize continued growth and high performance, the leadership team should receive recognition and rewards, such as bonuses and promotions.