The Suite Spot: A CEO’s Story of Building a Future-Fit Executive Team

This is a story of C-suite success—the strategic process of building a high-calibre top team and securing long-term business performance—from the point of view of DirecTV’s CEO, Bill Morrow.

 

 

How it all began

It was 2021 and the global pandemic was still in full swing. The world was in flux, and so was DirecTV. We were getting ready to spin off from parent company, AT&T, with the help of $1.8 billion investment from TPG, a private equity firm, and were just months away from closing the deal.

After six years under AT&T’s wing, the carveout would see us take flight as a standalone company again. “It’s a new day and new DirecTV,” I told reporters when the deal went through.

It was an hugely exciting time for DirecTV. But it was also an uncertain time. We had a new strategy, an investment thesis to deliver against, and, of course, a new CEO. After a 40-year career in media and communications, and a two-year stint at AT&T, I’d been picked to head up DirecTV. My remit was clear: [to Insert].

But with so many unknowns, I needed to make sure that we were putting our best foot forward. The pace of change in the TV and media world is phenomenal. It’s a wild ride out there right now. If we were to deliver, the whole company would need to align around our new vision (quickly) and pull together from the get go.

I knew that the performance of the executive team would be key here. They would be the ones helping me steer the company into its new future, setting the right tone at the top, and helping our new cultural identity take shape. I wanted to make sure that they all had what it would take to handle this immense transition and power the organization forward.

It’s not that there was a particular problem that was worrying me. In the two years I’d spent at AT&T I had already got to know the executive team well. I respected and trusted them. But it was also true that we were now in completely new territory. The pressure was on to deliver.

 

Getting the team together

  Getting the team together

The board and I agreed that getting an outside partner was the best way to get an objective sense of our leadership strengths—and to identify any opportunities to improve.

It was TPG who first put Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) on my radar. I’d worked with leadership advisory firms before, but never RRA. I had a go-to firm in mind. But TPG had been impressed with the leadership assessment and development work RRA had done previously for its portfolio companies. So we threw RRA’s name into the hat.

Working with various leadership advisors over the years, you get familiar with the people and the processes. But when it came to the pitch meetings, RRA rose to the top. I was impressed with the breadth of advice they could bring. They could take a forensic look at everything from our C-suite to our culture and succession strategies, give us the full picture of what was working and what was not, and then deliver a roadmap for where we needed to be. It was the total end-to-end advice that got me hooked.

But more than that, the teaming approach that RRA deliver is exceptional. Led by Erin Zolner, Nada and Gretchen Anderson, the team brought in experts from across its assessment, development, and culture offerings. [Insert].

 

Choosing the right partner

There are several executive search and leadership advisory firms to pick from—each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few good rules of thumb to look out for when you’re assessing partners:

1. Choose someone straight-talking and honest
There’s nothing less useful than an advisor who is afraid of giving you honest feedback—especially when you’re dealing with something as high-stakes as assessing and developing the leaders of your company.

When picking a leadership advisory firm to partner with, go for the one that is not afraid of telling you the truth about things—even (or especially) when the truth is a hard pill to swallow.

2. Choose someone familiar with the company and its needs—or comparable companies and situations.
A good advisory partner will have some knowledge about the intimate workings of your company and its unique needs. This is easier when you already have an established relationship, but is still relevant when considering a new partner: a team that takes the effort to understand the nuances of your organization and its history and culture will be a better partner to you than one that doesn’t.

And, while no two companies are the same, there are common threads. Advisory partners who have expertise in related industries or companies will be better able to serve you and your company’s needs.

3. Pick a firm with a good reputation that is known to key stakeholders
Getting stakeholder buy-in is imperative for a process as drawn out and intensive as CEO succession planning. That job is made easier when stakeholders are familiar with the advisory partner’s brand and reputation.

 

The scope of the work

I’d never been through such a comprehensive process of analysing C-suite performance. The first thing that RRA/Erin told us was [insert]. But we were more than ready. We knew just how important it was to get the right organizational culture and leadership dynamics in place if we were going to be remain competitive in a world that was spinning faster than ever before.

To kick-off the project, RRA spent a month meeting key stakeholders from DirecTV [and TPG?] to deep dive into our strategy, structure, and what we needed for leaders, now and in the future. That was the foundation for an 18-month project that spanned three core phases: fortifying today’s leadership team, invigorating our organizational culture, and building robust future-fit succession strategies.

 

Fortifying today’s leadership team

Fortifying todays leadership team  

RRA’s first deliverable was to work with [insert] to develop a leader profile, which set out the specific skill sets, personality traits, and experiences that each CxO would need to perform well today. Then, by charting out our future plans for the company, we also worked out the additional skills each would need if they were to help the organization hit its long-term strategic goals and get ahead.

RRA was instrumental in helping us think about this. Through their work with other global organizations, they knew what skills were in-demand, as well as the personality traits possessed by leaders at likeminded organizations inside and outside our industry.

Once we agreed this blueprint, the next step was to understand how well the functional leaders in our C-suite aligned to it. Each underwent a rigorous assessment that involved workshops, in-depth 1:1s with psychologists and market advisors, and 360-degree referencing.

Throughout the [x]-month process, RRA brought science to the art of leadership success, giving us solid insight into the difference between a good executive and a great one, and the confidence to understand how well our C-suite was positioned for performance.

 

How to determine what traits to include in your leader profile

Every company should create their own bespoke leader profile. No two companies are the same, and while many elements will be similar, not all will. A CxO that would work for one company may be misplaced at another.

Some skill requirements will be very situation-dependent. For example, if the company is going through a challenging financial period—or an M&A, or a shift in strategy and direction—their leader profile will need to reflect that. In those cases, you’ll probably want a candidate with proven previous experience in handling the challenge.

But there are a number of universal traits you’ll want your CxOs to have:

  • Empathy and openness
  • An ability to communicate effectively
  • An ability to inspire and invigorate others
  • Excellent stakeholder management skills
  • An ability to collaborate and work well with others
  • An ability to make difficult decisions—and carry them through
  • Honest commitment to values
  • Most importantly, they must be someone your people will respect and trust

 

Building robust future-fit succession strategies

It was time to assess the next layer of talent within the organization. We were already building out our own HR team and structure, but RRA helped us reinvent the way we were thinking about C-suite succession. The idea was to focus specifically on building talent benches for the 30 or so leaders who drove most value for our firm.

And then we did assessments of all of the incumbents as well as the succession candidates for all those roles. That allowed us to create succession heatmaps where they know now where they have a succession pipeline and where they don’t.

 

Invigorating our organizational culture

Most culture and engagement surveys fail to paint clear pictures of what’s really going on. RRA was different. It’s culture imaging diagnostic lifted the lid on what our people really thought, rather than what they thought management wanted to hear.

The survey was designed by a team of behavioral economists, political scientists, and neuroscientists, in such a way to encourage employees to answer questions honestly—even the most delicate ones.

Sensitive statements are bundled with neutral, odds-based statements (such as dice rolls or relatives’ birthdates) and employees simply indicate whether any of the statements are true. It’s known as randomized response, and it gives us a more precise understanding of our organizational-wide beliefs and behaviors.

The output of this work was a “cultural MRI” which…

 


 

Results

The assessment process was the best I’ve seen and the findings were presented sensitively. It’s never easy telling people that they need to brush up in certain areas, but the delicate process of providing feedback in the debrief sessions was handled with tact. And everyone remained engaged in the process, and motivated to begin their development journeys.

Ultimately, RRA’s review of how well each person fit the leader profile relative to other candidates in the market, gave us confidence that we had the right people for the job. Of course, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t room for improvement. And where we did find knowledge gaps, we were able to scan the market with a clear picture of what to look for.

When it came to our culture, it was clear that we’d created a workplace where employees wanted to be, scoring well on dimensions like integrity, openness, DE&I, and wellbeing and growth. Our people felt that their health and wellbeing was supported, and they got the feedback and recognition they needed to grow in their careers. We also scored highly on a collaboration, with team reporting that they were able to foster healthy and valuable relationships at work.

But there were other areas that we needed to focus on. Through the analysis, we found we could go much further in developing a culture that would support our strategic goals. To better align around our purpose, and foster a culture of innovation and agility. It was clear that our leaders needed to do more to clarify the company’s future and show how we would innovate to drive competitive differentiation.

A similar finding had materialized from our individual leadership assessments. Across the board, we found out that the executive team could do more to galvanize the company around a new shared vision. One of the most powerful findings was that our executives did show disruptive and innovative thinking in their own functions. However, there was a big opportunity to role model these behaviors across the wider organization.

The ExCo met and agreed to focus on three priority areas. Through the same afternoon, we ran a “hackathon” to share perspectives and experiences and commit to behaviors that would move the needle on building the culture that we needed.

Finally, the succession work gave us confidence that we would…

 

 

 

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