A story of courage, responsibility and trust within the exec team


Historically, executive teams are often the last to be true teams. Yet, the context is changing. To be a true team where collaboration is strong and mutual accountability is evident, sets the cultural tone for an organisation that supports the same values throughout. An organisation that has the capacity to be innovative and adaptable.

All characters in this story are fictional and developed from my recent experiences within organisations.

Kym opened the door to the boardroom and ushered Michelle through, offering a half smile as she passed him. Kym had only been CEO for six months at Just Cause, and it felt even shorter. It felt only a matter of weeks since he’d done the signing of papers and shaking of hands to make it all official. As quickly as the time had gone, the conversation he was about to have was his first tangible statement about what constituted acceptable behaviour, and what did not. It was a big conversation for himself and the organisation as whole. Michelle was his current Director of Operations, and had recently had some serious allegations of bullying levelled against her. Kym had ordered a formal and independent investigation, which had just proven the allegations to be true.

Michelle had taken a seat at the table with her back to the door. She had taken a mint from the bowl in the middle of the table and was intently flattening the wrapper out on the table. Kym gently closed the door and crossed the room to sit opposite Michelle. Kym clasped his hands on the table, took a breath, and began.

“Thanks for coming, Michelle – I know this is difficult. As you know, we uh, need to discuss the result of the investigator’s report into the allegations of harassment and bullying that we talked about last time.” Kym paused, searching for eye contact. “As such, Michelle, I’ll get right to the point and then we can talk more generally. I uh, need to tell you that the report has supported those making the allegations of bullying. And I now need to ask you to show cause as to why your employment here shouldn’t be terminated.” He paused to allow this news to sink in a little, and then preceded,  “You have a week to respond to this request.” Michele was looking downwards at her hands. “Do you understand Michelle?” he asked gently yet firmly.

Michelle nodded and looked up, her brow furrowed and lips pursed. Michelle straightened up, inhaled and shut her eyes for several seconds, trying to find the words. Then it all came out. She began to explain to Kym about her problems outside of work; tumultuous personal matters that no-one on the executive team was aware of. Kym listened, and the conversation became less formal as Michelle described how much she had been coping with. All these things had been piling on top of one another; each exacerbating the other. But she’d soldiered on. Once she’d finished, she looked Kym in the eye. “I stood by Just Cause! I didn’t just give in!” she said.

A week later, I met with Kym for a coffee to reflect on Michelle’s departure from the organisation. “It’s strange,” said Kym as he nursed his mug, “how something like that could have gone unaddressed for so long.”

I was curious and allowed Kym to process his thoughts. He continued. “Everyone on the executive team was finding Michelle difficult to deal with. She’d make excuses for work in her department not being completed on time, she even set one exec member against another by telling different stories to each member. I guess people didn’t know what to believe or whom to trust. It was making people pretty frustrated. People had spoken to the previous CEO about it, but she’d apparently done very little. I know its not easy. I got the impression it had been going on for over a year – well before I came into the position. So when I arrived and people realised I could be trusted, the flood gates just really opened.”

“Why do you think no-one else on executive spoke to her about it? In fact, why did no one really know her plight?” I asked. I harboured my own theory because I had seen this dynamic before. 

“I’m not sure. I guess it goes back to the culture within the team. We don’t like other people to feel uncomfortable.  We want to be tolerant and supportive. We step over things. Maybe we didn’t really even know her.” Kym sipped his coffee, swallowing slowly, “But we can’t keep doing that – we need a new team culture in exec. And within the whole of Just Cause for that matter.” 

“What will happen if the team culture stays the same?” I asked as leaned back in my chair and sipped my coffee, giving Kym as much space to think as I could. 

Kym’s brow furrowed just a bit and I saw a determination come into his eyes as he answered, “We will not be able to deliver the new strategic plan for a start. It’s quite demanding, just as the times require. But it needs the exec team to actually work together and to perform at a level that we haven’t achieved yet. A large part of that is leading the whole of Just Cause to face some big mindset changes. From just doing good, which is important still, but we need to become a whole heap more focussed on delivery, accountability and finances at the same time. We also need to stop being so siloed.” He was on a roll and continued quickly, “I’ve been thinking a lot, and I think it is impossible for the whole of Just Cause to work across our departments as we need to, unless we can also do that within the exec team. And we need more robust conversations. What happens in exec, kind of leaks out everywhere. Our biggest challenge is the culture that we have perpetuated. And now we need to come together to shape something that serves our people and customers better.”

“Well, you know, your problem is not that uncommon in one form or another. I have another client where the circumstances were different, but again, no one on the exec team pulled the ’emergency stop cord’.” I said raising my right arm and imitating pulling the cord that I remembered from my many train rides when younger. “No-one stopped and placed the issue on the table for discussion.” 

“Hmm, that’s interesting isn’t it?” said Kym, “When I talk with other CEOs in our sector I hear the same challenges – I guess we are all facing similar situations.”

“Yes, I see it as a systemic challenge arising from similar patterns within government, the economy and even within us as humans.” I agreed. ” But the good news is that this problem is fixable. There are two parts to this challenge that seem apparent to me. The first is a conversation about leadership in your executive team. The question is about whether the CEO is the only source of leadership in the team and how they can all benefit from forming a true team. And the second is about how the exec team then leads this cultural evolution you need to deliver the results that are most important.” 

Kym was nodding as I spoke and he interjected “I am not the only leader. I expect the exec team to lead with me – they are not paid just to comply and be comfortable all the time.”  Kym continued passionately while tapping his forefinger gently on the table, “Clearly, I have some authority and responsibilities with my role as CEO that others don’t, but I can’t know everything. I want an environment where we get broad perspectives on the table as we make decisions and share the responsibility even though I hold the accountability to the board.” 

I leaned forward and drew a diagram on a piece of scrap paper illustrating three work designs. “These are three basic ways we structure people to deliver work. The first is the old command and control design, the second a work group – which is probably how your exec is currently operating – and the third is a true team.” I said pointing to each as I went. “What you have just described is a shift to your exec team being a true team.” Kym leaned forward to look more closely. “ We often use the word team, very loosely.” I continued,  “A true team is one where the members actually collaborate together for a common purpose, rather than just being responsible for their own KPI’s individually. A true team holds themselves mutually accountable for a common purpose.” 

Kym was listening, “Just like in my old footy team.” reflected Kym. 

“Sports teams are a metaphor that we can all grasp. What’s the old saying? A champion team will beat a team of champions?” We both smiled at the cliche as I continued just a bit further, “And the research shows that there are five simple basics to shape a true team at work. My experience over 15 years is that this research and process works. It’s not rocket science – it just takes some discipline and some courage to engage in the honest conversations together – to develop the trust to be real together.”

“And if we can do that, then we have a chance of transforming the organisational culture too.” Kym sat back in his chair. He was seeing a possibility; a way of making progress on the challenge of change that was evident within the executive team and outside it.  

Maybe you are facing a similar situation? Please feel free to contact me about how the story turned out and how it might also be relevant to you and your team(s).