Professional services firm Plante Moran surprised me during a business meeting last year.
It wasn’t what their top executive at the time, Gordon Krater, said during the session.
It was what he did during the lunch break. Krater stood up and opened the food containers. Then he set the table for all of us, who were gathered to talk about Plante Moran’s workplace culture.
During my 10 years as a management consultant, I’ve rarely seen the senior-most executive play such a servant role to their team. And nearly as remarkable to me was the way the rest of Krater’s executive team responded to his humble behavior. They simply took it in stride as if it were no big deal. During this lunchtime assistance from Krater and throughout the entire meeting of the team, hierarchical status didn’t color people’s interactions with each other.
It turns out my observations are consistent with the data. Plante Moran ranks among the highest companies on Great Place to Work’s Executive Team Effectiveness Index. And other organizations seeking to improve their cultures and their bottom lines would be wise to learn from Plante Moran and its peers when it comes to executive team excellence. After all, our research shows that companies that score in the top quartile of executive team effectiveness enjoy 5 times the median year-over-year revenue growth compared to certified companies in the bottom quartile.
So what do we mean by executive team effectiveness, and how do you get to be great at it? Our index on executive team effectiveness measures the level of alignment management shows by being congruent with their words and actions, as well as the degree to which it avoids favoritism, demonstrates competency, honesty and approachability, and shows genuine interest in people. Our research into hundreds of companies shows that the most effective leadership teams are more than a collection of individual top performers in areas like strategic planning and operational excellence. Instead, they are strongly aligned and show up as a unified “team” to everyone in the organization
Both our research and my experience with clients over the years show that within highly effective executive teams, all members have high levels of professional respect for each other and truly believe in each other’s competency. They are honest, ethical and transparent with each other and with the rest of the organization. When they disagree, they know how to have constructive discussions to find agreements that put organizational interests before personal interests. They intentionally work through their differences of opinion based on the foundation of trust and respect they have built.
As a result, employees experience good coordination from the top. These leaders’ actions match their words, and the staff receives consistent instructions and guidance regardless of which executive they talk to. The transparency and clarity provided create workplaces where politicking and backstabbing are not necessary as ways to getting things done, because people know what it takes to be successful in their roles and how they fit into the success of the organization.
There’s more to it, though, than intra-team respect, transparency and solid coordination. Here are five other features of highly effective executive teams:
- Executives are no strangers to employees. Employees know who the executives are because they are continually visible through the organization. They are intentional about creating spaces to connect with all levels within their department, and also across departments. They know many or most people by their first name. At Fortune 100 Best Companies, many CEOs and top executives conduct “Road Shows” at least once a year. That is, they travel across the country to visit all locations and talk to their frontline folks, because they genuinely value the input from every single person delivering their brand promise.
- Executives are accessible and approachable. Take the simple example of elevator rides. If you share an elevator with an executive, there is no sense of nervousness. They will greet you and take the opportunity to chat with you as a regular person does.
- Executives understand that people are not only motivated by a sales target or a profit margin. These leaders get the importance of a higher purpose. They continually connect the special purpose and meaning that everyone’s contribution has in the mission of the organization. The impact of this connection, is exemplified by a comment an employee from Plante Moran shared with us: “We just had our annual firm conference which is open (and encouraged) for all staff to attend… During Gordon's "farewell" speech, he asked all of the non-practice staff--essentially administrative, marketing, tech, and internal accounting--staff to stand. He had us stand for several minutes while he talked about the value that group of people brings to the firm, and that the CPAs wouldn't be able to do their jobs without the group standing. He understands, and that mentality is being passed from literally the top down!”
- Executives provide constructive feedback. The leading leadership teams do not shy away of difficult conversations. In fact, they can turn cultures of “niceness” into cultures of high-performance. In all companies, leaders need to make difficult decisions, give bad news, or difficult feedback to people they value. Highly effective executive leadership teams, though, do it in a trust-building way—where they respect the person and their dignity. These conversations, in turn, set the standard for acceptable ways of giving and receiving feedback throughout the organization.
- Executives genuinely care. Executives deliver meaningful feedback and listen to their frontline people because they genuinely care about everyone’s success in the organization. They are approachable because they genuinely care about people as human beings, not just as employees.
Let’s stay with the Plante Moran example to show the business benefits of executive team effectiveness. Gordon Krater retired a few months after the meeting I described above. He was replaced by another Plante Moran executive, Jim Proppe, after a careful succession planning process. When I visited them again in 2018, the leadership team’s egalitarian, transparent way of working together felt the same. And in fact their scores on executive effectiveness had remained steady. The staff knows Jim and comments how much they respect him. This is not a small achievement. Our research shows that a new CEO is a significant cultural challenge even for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. In some cases, Best Companies that have a new CEO have fallen 10 ranking spots or more.
But on the strength of its executive team effectiveness, Plante Moran’s ranking on the 100 Best list went from 51st in 2017 to 20th this year.
Plante Moran is a live example of the resilience and continuity built by a highly effective executive team And they are reaping the business benefits of this leadership team excellence: In the last 20 years the firm has more than tripled its staff, increased revenue by more than 500 percent, and expanded to 20 offices throughout Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, along with international locations in Mexico, and Asia.
If you see these characteristics in your executive team, Great Place to Work wants to know more about your company! If you don’t, we are here to help. Eventually you may find yourself serving lunch if you’re the CEO!