As the United States beats back the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are implementing return-to-work policies. But in the aftermath of isolation from colleagues, social skills are rusty — and so is executive teamwork. Throughout the pandemic, chief executive officers (CEOs) told us that executives stayed in their lane, minding their own business unit or function. They did not pursue collaborative activity unless absolutely necessary.

For the most part, CEOs and their executive teams seemed fine with this state of affairs. The CEO was at peace, feeling secure that each executive was taking care of business. It was enough to keep the business afloat during a difficult period. Teamwork was not a consideration.

To complicate matters, biases developed among executives who began judging who came into the office and who did not, and these biases won’t disappear on their own. The first step for teams to regain trust is to recognize and move past these biases, which are often unfair and a waste of mental energy. We advise leaders to let go and give others the benefit of the doubt, and learning and development (L&D) professionals are great sounding boards and advisers in this area.

Why Does It Matter?

High-performing executives fulfill two roles: They lead their organizational unit, and they act as fully engaged and committed leaders of their enterprise. During the pandemic, most executives focused almost solely on the former role. After the pandemic, they must again fulfill the latter. It is what senior executive teams do.

Staying in one’s lane — that is, minding one’s own business — enables executives to sidestep problems that cross boundaries. For example, in one organization, the accounting team questioned the sales team’s productivity while failing to inquire about the sales team’s strategy, which had morphed during the pandemic. It would have been easy to ask the sales team to explain its approach, but the accounting team did not do so. Similarly, the sales team could have reached out to the accounting team to inform them of the revised strategy from the outset. The misunderstanding surfaced only when the sales executive made a concerted effort to check in with his colleague in the accounting department.

Discretionary cross-functional effort, especially at the informal level, diminishes without an integrated senior leadership team.

Another reason executive teamwork matters is that there is white space between the lanes. This white space is where ideas are fertilized, and business advantage is created. Without that white space, strategy development, growth and agility became limited. Some organizations are scrambling to reconstitute one-, three- and five-year strategies in light of the emergence of new contingencies, including shifts in the market; environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) objectives; and business and financial modeling.

Realigning the Leadership Team

During the pandemic, many organizations emphasized business continuity and employee well-being. Now, businesses can — and should — move beyond these priorities. To do so, the leadership team needs to model and reinforce a new enterprise-wide mentality.

L&D professionals can make an impact here by creating awareness of how the executive leadership team is functioning and showing its potential to do even more. The process begins with diagnosis. We suggest interviewing the CEO or business unit leader to understand the state of the business and where it is headed. Identify what the business has salvaged and what is left to do to build or reinforce a robust strategic plan. The leader will also have a view on how the team is functioning and what he or she needs from team members to achieve strategic goals.

From there, we recommend interviewing each executive team member to gather his or her views on the state of the business, where collaboration is or is not needed, and facilitators and barriers to collaboration. The executives will likely have diverging views. It is also likely that the themes that emerge from the synthesis of the interviews will differ from the themes that emerge from the CEO. After all, communication channels during isolation were more between the CEO and individual executives and less among other the executives themselves. Should this be the case, the team needs to work to realign itself.

Our recommendation is to share the composite interview themes first with the CEO (or, if this activity is being performed with a different team, the team leader). L&D professionals can then work with the leader to develop a plan that ensures all players are accurately and equally informed about the business as a whole. This information is necessary to take the team to a higher level of collaborative and strategic functioning. Facilitating a session with the team to share and discuss the interview findings will then help to raise awareness and reset integrated teamwork.

This work is essential to bring back effective teamwork, rewarding not only collaborative effort but also equipping the senior team to aggressively and creatively address the business challenges looming on the short- and long-term horizon.

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