C-Suite: Development & Alignment

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Does Your Leadership Team have High Executive Function?
March 14, 2024

Anyone with young kids has probably heard of the term “executive function.” It refers to the management of cognitive processes that includes things like working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, as well as planning and execution. You don’t need to be a psychologist to observe that kids who have strong executive function skills have an easier time in school than those who don’t.  

Kids who lack these skills have real trouble focusing on their work, curbing impulses, and completing tasks they start, in addition to a host of other challenges that make basic activities tough. And the problem doesn’t go away as they get older; adults with weak executive function skills struggle at work and in their personal lives.

How does executive function apply to a management team? What’s interesting about the definition above is that it includes three aspects of individual cognitive ability that are equally important to any successful top team: Planning, Execution and Problem Solving.  What we’re finding more and more as we engage with executives inside and outside of the CEO Collective is that these three skills vary widely across organizations.

We see that senior teams with well-developed executive function skills seem to do better, a lot better, than those that lack them. If you’re wondering how strong your team’s executive function skills are, we’ve created a series of questions within each of the three categories that leaders can use to assess their teams.

NOTE:  When assessing your team’s performance, it’s useful to apply a simple four-point scale:  0-poor; 1-fair; 2-good; 3-excellent.  

1. Does your leadership team plan effectively?

Navigating the complexities of leadership demands more than just a once-a-year strategic planning session. It requires a continuous, proactive approach to planning and decision-making. A leader's ability to chart a course for their team's success hinges on their capacity to anticipate challenges and steer towards desired outcomes in real-time. Beyond scrutinizing the effectiveness of your organization's leadership team in strategic planning, it's imperative to assess their day-to-day planning prowess.

Is your leadership team highly functioning in the area of planning? Do they:

  1. Adequately prepare for planning meetings by collecting background data and supporting information?
  2. Use a structured process that guides them in a way that addresses the most significant challenges facing the organization?
  3. Actively engage with each other and participate in a meaningful way?
  4. Challenge one another so that the very best thinking is brought to bear on the issues the company is facing?
  5. Make key decisions during the process?
  6. Produce an actionable plan that everyone is committed to and able to support going forward?

2. Does your leadership team execute effectively?

Often times, there's a solid plan in place, but it's in the execution - making measurable progress and ultimately achieving the goals - that things fall apart.

Execution requires teamwork, discipline, flexibility and almost a singular focus on task completion. When we ask top executives how many strategies fail to get implemented most respond with answers well over 50%.  Clearly these odds call for a leadership team with strong executive function skills.

Is your leadership team high functioning in the area of execution?  Do they:

  1. Possess a sense of urgency regarding accomplishing the organization’s most essential priorities?
  2. Have clear roles and responsibilities relating to strategy execution?
  3. Fully accept accountability for completing their strategy projects and strategic goals?
  4. Align the actions of their subordinate organizations to the overall strategy?
  5. Take the appropriate initiative to drive strategy through to completion?

3. Does your leadership team effectively solve problems?

Is your leadership team proficient in problem-solving? Strategic plans often encounter obstacles during execution, highlighting the importance of problem-solving skills. Every leadership team inevitably faces challenges, whether they are foreseeable or arise unexpectedly. Excelling in such situations requires the ability to identify, frame, and analyze problems to devise practical solutions. Executives must select the best course of action from a range of alternatives. Achieving proficiency in problem-solving demands the highest level of skill from any executive team.

Can your top team effectively solve complex problems? Do they:

  1. Agree on what the biggest challenges facing the business are today?
  2. Actively use business cases to analyze and communicate the specifics of major issues?
  3. Think both critically and creatively in generating novel solutions to big problems?
  4. Know how to analyze possible courses of action and effectively reach decisions regarding what to do?
  5. Scan the operating environment regularly looking for signals that indicate disruption may be taking place?
  6. Possess the agility to pivot quickly when needed and find new opportunities when others run dry?

Executive function is the highest order skill that any executive team can have. As is the case with a youngster in school, deficiencies in three areas presented above will lead to the top team creating performance issues throughout the organization. The good news is these skills can be developed if the time and investment is taken to do so.  Great leadership teams have great execution function.  There’s no reason your team shouldn’t have it as well.


Looking for a deeper assessment of your team's executive function skills? Our Strategic Leaders program provides a trusted process for aligning your team around a clear strategic plan, with built in accountability that shines the light on team members' abilities to plan and execute. Learn more about Strategic Leaders.

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