Adaptive Leadership Teams – Renewed Clarity and Future Focus

October 26, 2020

Throughout 2020 we’ve seen leadership teams pull together decisively, at speed and with great focus. They have successfully implemented unprecedented levels of change and demonstrated immense agility.

From our discussions with leadership teams many feel the adrenaline-fuelled drive they unleashed at the start of the pandemic isn’t sustainable long-term. Merryck mentor, Peter Hutchinson, has observed that many leaders still have a huge number of commitments but are exhausted.  “The breathless pace they face really shuts them off from doing the kind of deep thinking that opens up other possibilities. They’re [still] in this urgency and busyness addiction.”

As people look ahead to 2021, there is a consciousness to retain the benefits of clarity and focus but without the potential burnout of leadership teams. In our previous article – Adaptive leadership: Re-energising and focusing your leadership team for greater impact we discussed how leadership teams are at their best when they create value collectively.

Those that rose well to 2020’s challenges were conscious of how they worked as a team, and how they partnered with teams across the new business landscape to deliver that value. While this consciousness isn’t new, the pandemic brought a fresh dimension with them quickly adopting remote working and covid-secure conditions.

The three lenses of leadership teams

We have found leadership teams collectively create positive impact in their organisations when they use three lenses to strengthen their approach.  These are:

Underpinning these lenses is the trust we mentioned in our previous article. With trust in place the lenses can be used to consider how to strengthen the leadership team’s own capability, impact and performance, and that of the organisation.  For the remainder of this article, we’ll focus on the first lens.

Create clarity and focus

This lens is often used as a starting point when leadership teams want to accelerate their strategy. It prompts the team to question their purpose and what outcomes they and the business need to achieve. Fundamental and timeless questions like; Why does this business exist? What is the Team for? What does success look like? What do we stop/start?  2020’s unprecedented changes have brought wider considerations though.

Merryck mentor, Pam Fields, says that leadership teams are currently having to consider two different time horizons. “One is a survival horizon — to get through the pandemic and its impact on business. The other is, when it ends, you want to be able to floor the accelerator.” She adds that current questions being discussed include, “What is that new normal going to be? How would we reimagine the company if we were starting it now, based on what we think the new normal will be?”

From our observations, clarity and focus comes from leadership teams adopting several practices and we discuss these in more detail below

Understanding and focusing on stakeholders

To be effective, leadership teams must balance satisfying the value needs of multiple stakeholders (for example, their people, customers, suppliers and wider society). This means not only understanding the value sought now, but also what will be desired in future.

Returning to Peter, he says leaders don’t always have as clear an idea of what stakeholders expect or need from them. “Generally speaking, when we go through the individual’s key stakeholders, there are all kinds of “aha” moments like, My colleagues need to understand some of the things that I’m trying to do on behalf of the whole team that I probably haven’t explained properly.”

Here are some questions to start your team’s thinking:

Do you know who your stakeholders are?

Do you know what they value now and in the future?

Is the team focused on delivering high value for all stakeholders?

Aligning around a clear, common team purpose

A deep understanding of their stakeholders helps leadership teams to forge a clear and aligned team purpose. This in turn focuses them to apply effort and resources to the things that really matter.

When he first took over the CEO role at Microsoft Satya Nadella said, “One thing we’ve talked a lot about, even in the first leadership meeting, was what’s the purpose of our leadership team? The framework we came up with is the notion that our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment, and intensity. What is it that we want to get done? Are we aligned to be able to get it done? And are we pursuing that with intensity? That’s really the job.”

Here are some questions for your team to consider:.

What are you trying to achieve?

Why are you trying to achieve it?

What collective value is being created by our team?

Planning prioritisation and mutual accountability

Leadership teams who generate great impact in their organisation often devise simple plans that reflect their purpose. This typically includes a concrete summary of their goal and the main levers to pull to execute their plan. In the process they outline the biggest challenges they will have to overcome to succeed and often create something like a scoreboard or charter for tracking progress. This is used to keep every team member accountable for achieving the agreed outcomes. The plan is also regularly reviewed.

Some questions to help your team’s thinking here.

Are team members committed to and aligned around your plan?

Have the team identified their top five priorities?

Do team members hold each other mutually accountable for achieving agreed outcomes?

John Donahoe, former CEO of ServiceNow, in describing prioritisation and mutual accountability in his leadership team said, “We create a document each year with both collective and individual priorities that we distribute to every VP, but anyone in the company can have them. We discuss our purpose and our values. And then for each area, it has the desired outcomes and priorities for each area… By listing these outcomes, it becomes really clear how interdependent they are, and how everyone’s priorities have to cascade off them.”

John stresses these plans are not just about the financial results. They focus on achieving desired outcomes and list the priorities to get to them.

Effective communication and storytelling

Once they have identified their plan, the more effective leadership teams recognise the need to communicate it in a way that inspires and engages others. To achieve this, they explore their own and others’ communication preferences so their messaging is clear, concise, and connected. Many utilise a storytelling approach to engage and inspire others.

Paul Kenward, Managing Director of British Sugar, is a good example. “I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of storytelling. Yes, you have to have a clear strategy, but you then need to be able to communicate it in ways that have emotional hooks and a clear beginning, middle and end.”

A good measure of effective communication is the repetition and consistency of message being radiated across the organisation by the leadership team.

Some questions to help your team’s thinking

How well do team members communicate within the team and across teams?

Does the team demonstrate consistent and effective messaging on the purpose and execution of the plan?

Does the team use stories to engage and communicate why, what and how?

As Joseph Jimenez, former CEO of Novartis said,  “you have to distill the strategy down to its essence for how we’re going to win, and what we’re really going to go after….so that the guy on the plant floor, who’s actually making the medicine, understands the three priorities that we have as a company”


With 2021 on the horizon, many leadership teams are asking how best to navigate the ‘new normal’. Recognising the need to be future focussed despite an unclear landscape, there is a growing need for increased reflection on how to be more effective as a leadership team.

Creating value as a collective makes a team greater than the sum of their parts.  Having a shared clarity and focus on the leadership team’s purpose and agreed outcomes is paramount.

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About Merryck & Co.

Merryck & Co. has been helping organisations for 20 years accelerate the impact of leadership.

Merryck & Co. is a global firm of experienced CEOs and top business leaders who bring an operator’s lens to executive development. Their services focus on succession, senior leadership development, strategic enterprise transformation, and emerging leadership development. The firm’s clients include some of the most successful executives within the highest-performing companies in the world, boards of directors, and select teams of individuals.

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