C-suite Performance: Are You Thinking About Your Top Team in the Right Way?

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipAssessment and BenchmarkingTeam EffectivenessExecutive Search
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September 01, 2022
8 min read
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipAssessment and BenchmarkingTeam EffectivenessExecutive Search
Executive Summary
We set out the four myths that hold CEOs back from building supercharged C-suites—and how to move forward to deliver stand-out performance.
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Back to Enabling C-suite Success


C-suite performance—both individually and collectively—makes or breaks a business.

When you get it right, C-suites deliver greater shareholder value and ensure you stay one step ahead of a fast-changing world. In fact, our research shows that CEOs who believe they have a high-caliber C-suite say their team scores on average 30% higher on a range of financial and cultural indicators than poor-performing teams. That’s a lot of upside.

42 %

more effective at managing complex initiatives

27 %

better at delivering on strategic priorities

27 %

better at ensuring the organization’s future readiness

Yet too many organizations are not realizing these opportunities. Instead of powering business success, C-suites are dogged by high rates of executive failure and poor team dynamics. Why? The short answer is that the world has changed. But the way organizations think about the C-suite has not changed with it. 

We share four outdated myths that are holding CEOs back from building a supercharged C-suite, and how to now move forward to deliver stand-out performance



01. The CEO is the biggest influence on organizational success.

The issues facing organizations are more complex than ever before. What it takes to meet these challenges—and even anticipate them—has become increasingly nuanced.

For years, it was thought that just having the right CEO in place was enough. That led to the rise of “hero CEOs” in corporate folklore—leaders valorized by employees, investors, and the media for their talent for changing companies’ fortunes. Of course, the CEO is still the core player in delivering organizational success (that will never change), but it’s no longer the whole story.

Today’s CEOs are under pressure to navigate emerging threats, future-proof their business model, and continuously secure competitive advantage—all at clashing timescales. It’s becoming a tough job for any one person to do, whether you’re a “hero CEO” or not.

At the same time, the arrival of extraordinary challenges, such as a global pandemic, the sustainability agenda, and geopolitical tensions, have left CEOs in completely new territory. With no playbook to fall back on, CEOs have no choice but to admit that they don’t have all the answers—something that would have been unheard of just a decade ago.

In this new world, the idea of the lone-wolf CEO no longer fits. You need the right people and team around you to help you make high-impact decisions in real time. With this, what it means to be a great C-suite leader has changed. Being a successful CxO now demands a completely different set of skill sets than before. More is expected from each C-suite leader, both in terms of their specific role as well as how they perform as a team.

So, look at your executive team and ask yourself whether it's made up of the right leaders for now and the future, who thrive in ambiguity, challenge the status quo, and understand how to make progress even in times of fast-paced change. Answering this question won’t just be critical to business success, but your success as a CEO, too.



02. You just need stand-out business and functional leaders.

  You just need stand-out business and functional leaders

Organizations are moving fast to hire new CxOs who have the right expertise to deal with fast-changing external pressures—from DE&I and sustainability to tech transformation. It’s why so many new roles now jostle on the C-suite (Chief People Officer, Chief Culture Officer, Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Information Officer…) alongside the traditional mainstays like the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operations Officer.

The increase in C-suite roles has helped to diversify the expertise and experience of the executive ranks. And that is only a good thing. But it has failed to solve a bigger problem: Emerging challenges do not touch just one function or business line at a time. Solving those problems requires leaders who can work horizontally across the company, not just vertically.

In this time of constant and complex change, the old model of individual leadership is falling short and fueling underperformance—of both the team and the business. CxOs can no longer afford to work in individual siloes, only meeting their own goals and priorities. They also need to understand how to work hand-in-hand with other C-suite leaders, including the CEO, to fuel organizational performance.

Think of it this way: It’s no longer about finding exceptional soloists. You need to think about the whole orchestra. As the CEO, it’s your job to set the tempo, manage the dynamics, and make sure the team works together as one. Leaders must be assessed not only on their individual skills but their ability to enhance the broader C-suite—and fulfill their role as torchbearers of organizational culture.

In addition, leadership is ultimately the single most important lever when it comes to establishing the cultural identity of your organization. Changes from the top trickle down to every part of the business. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you have the right people at the top of the house, role modeling the right behaviors. They need to help your culture take root. They need to own it and embody it in everything they do.

So, next time you are looking to find a stand-out CMO, CDO, CFO, or category/regional leader, remember that you need to think beyond filling individual leadership gaps. That is how you win in today’s landscape. Adopt a more holistic approach to identifying, assessing, and developing your leaders to ensure your entire C-suite syncs and succeeds together, and sets the tone of your entire organization.

This team-wide approach will exponentially increase your company’s ability to face and overcome complex challenges. But getting it right? That can be a challenge in itself.



03. CxOs always need to work in harmony.

Every executive team is made of a diverse mosaic of personalities, each with their own style, behaviors, and expertise, and each focused on delivering their own set of goals and priorities.

But in the most successful C-suites, everyone pulls in the same direction to deliver against the CEO’s strategy and vision. Executives have respect for each other and are passionate about working together to drive results.

This cohesion does not mean that the team is homogenous in its thinking or unwilling to engage in vigorous debate and disagreement. Effective top teams don’t shy away from tension. Competition and debate are part of the job. But so are support and collaboration. The difference is that high-caliber C-suites know how to productively navigate interpersonal friction. And they know when to pull away and when to knit together.

It takes a special kind of leader to be able to flex their approach like this, including knowing when to disrupt the status quo, and when to be pragmatic about the pace of innovation within their organization. When to take risks and when to show vigilance before steering the organization off a cliff. When to be heroic and when to be vulnerable. And when to galvanize support and when to step back and share credit, promote the success of others, and connect to something greater than themselves.

This ability to span seemingly opposing goals at the same time is one of the key things we look for when assessing a leader’s readiness to move up from a functional leadership role or general management role into the C-suite. Ultimately, being able to flex your leadership style for different situations is what differentiates a good CxO from a great one, particularly in a complex and changing world.

Ultimately, there is no static definition of a good top team. Instead, CEOs must constantly recalibrate team dynamics as organizational priorities and market conditions change. For example, an organization in need of a turnaround may require strong, directive leadership with an emphasis on innovation and short-term wins; others may need exactly the opposite. There is no one right way. Instead of striving for absolute harmony, strive for productive tension. A C-suite that doesn’t shy away from conflict, but instead knows how to harness it for performance.



04. C-suite success should focus on performance today.

C-suite success depends on performance today  

Getting the right C-suite team in place, and making sure it has the right leaders and team players, is no mean feat. But your job as CEO does not end there. The C-suite can’t be a set-and-forget process. It’s also important to actively plan for the future and build a deep talent bench of future-ready leaders within your ranks.

There is work to do here. Consider this research, which shows that 62% of global executives believe their organization doesn’t have a successful strategy for C-suite succession. With executive churn on the rise (44% of C-suite leaders told us recently that they would move to another employer for the right opportunity), CEOs who don’t actively plan may find themselves scrambling at every CxO departure.

Future-proofing C-suite teams requires foresight and commitment. You need to get to know your rising stars, understanding their strengths, weaknesses, leadership styles, and the crucible experiences that will unleash their potential. A critical part of this is ensuring they don’t just develop as individuals, but also as team players, understanding how they can successfully harness the strengths of others to make smart decisions. The final piece, and perhaps most important piece, is ensuring they remain engaged and invested in your organization, so they stick around, ready to take over when the time comes.

So, develop that succession strategy for every C-suite role. Look inside and outside your walls for your next-generation leaders. Create clarity around growth opportunities, invest in development, and connect them to your organizational purpose. And don’t forget to tell next-gen leaders they are part of your long-term vision. Only then do you mitigate the risk of vacancies and position your organization for uninterrupted, long-term performance.




In 60 Seconds

  • The world has changed—and your C-suite must change with it. Your success (and legacy) as a leader depends on your ability to construct and lead a high-performing C-suite at the individual and team levels—for today as well as tomorrow. There is an urgent imperative to build a C-suite that can help you meet complex challenges head-on, which is a multi-faceted challenge.

  • Look beyond CV credentials. Your next CxO will need much more than the right skills, experiences, and capabilities. They will also need to model the right behaviors to drive team and enterprise-wide culture and performance. Think about the orchestra, not just the soloists. And ensure that leadership is 100% aligned with building and perpetuating the right organizational culture to deliver against the strategic priorities.

  • Don’t strive for absolute harmony. Every C-suite will experience tensions. The key is to ensure they are productive, bringing the best of the whole team and fueling performance. And don’t forget that team dynamics will need constant development and recalibration.

  • Prioritize CxO succession strategies. You don’t want to be left scrambling when your next CxO departs. The best succession plans start three to five years out. Find your future stars, invest in their development, and keep them engaged so they are ready to step up when the time comes.






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