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Leadership Moments

“When You Get To The Executive Suite, It’s All About Relationships.”​

October 7, 2020

In our interview, Peter Hutchinson, one of our Merryck & Co. mentors, shared smart insights about team-building and other challenges that many senior executives face.

Q. What are the most common themes that come up in conversation when you’re advising senior executives?

A. Time is a huge issue. Probably 90 percent of clients arrive with a ridiculous number of commitments, with meetings scheduled wall-to-wall throughout the day and busy travel schedules. That breathless pace really shuts them off from doing the kind of deep thinking that opens up other possibilities. They’re in this urgency and busyness addiction. A big goal is to just slow them down.

Q. And once you do that, what are some of the big issues you discuss?

A. There’s a great deal about relationships. When you’re working your way up to the executive ranks, everything is about speed, competence, being right, being quick, and working hard. And then when you get to the executive suite, it’s all about relationships. What got you there didn’t prepare you for the new role.

We spend a lot of time on how they are working their relationships with their colleagues and their stakeholders. I’ll ask questions about different individuals and what makes them unique to better understand how they should work with them.

It’s about being intentional with how you spend your time.

And relationship work isn’t all about socializing and spending a lot of time with people. It’s a matter of what you do with the time that you have with them. How can you manage the relationship better? It’s about being intentional with how you spend your time with the person.

Q. What are other issues?

A. Everybody has stakeholders, the people who depend on them. Surprisingly, they don’t always have as clear an idea of what the stakeholders expect from them 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.”

We also talk about their strategy — what they’re trying to achieve, how to prioritize, what’s changing. But then the real question is: Is the team that they have now, which was built to manage yesterday’s problems, the right team for today’s and tomorrow’s problems? We look at team members individually and the team collectively and how it works together, and we try to resolve decisions about team members that they may have been slow to make.

Just sitting on the fence and not dealing with it isn’t the right answer.

Nobody likes letting people go, but not letting people go when they’re about to fail isn’t particularly helpful for anybody concerned. Typically, people will say things like, “Well, I just want to give them one more chance,” or, “I just want to give them a bit more time, because they have been loyal.” To which I’ll say, “So how long are you going to wait?” I want them to decide whether they’re going to get behind this person or make a change. But just sitting on the fence and not dealing with it isn’t the right answer.

Q. Other thoughts on how to build a high-functioning team?

A. Most executive teams that I have encountered are too big. A team of four or five always works. A team of six or seven has a pretty good chance of being a good team. Chances are it’s going to be quite difficult for a team of eight, nine, ten or more. And twelve people isn’t a team; it’s a conference. You are guaranteed to have a difficult team process with long, irritating and unproductive meetings.

So I often start conversations by asking how the team is constructed. How many people are there? How productive are the team meetings? How many people should be on the team? Often the answer that comes back is a lower number than is on their team.

Then the question is how do you deal with the people who are going to have to step off this new, smaller team? But the size of the team is the most important thing about the effectiveness of teams and meetings that often is not talked about.

Q. The bigger-is-better thinking is common in many companies.

A. As we’ve grown corporations, there are benefits of scale. But there are also substantial disadvantages of scale, one of which is the matrixed organization. It’s very difficult for people to deal with, and it’s extremely time-consuming. In matrix structures, people have to go to too many meetings, and there are too many people in the meetings. You may have two or even three bosses.

We make structures too complicated.

The scale of the organization has created a complexity that means that we have relatively little discretionary time anymore, or at least we think we have relatively little discretionary time because we believe we have to be in all the meetings — otherwise, who knows what’ll happen if we’re not there? The challenge is to learn to delegate better. And wherever you see a matrix, the question should be, how can you simplify it? How can you make the matrix have as few dimensions as you possibly can get away with? We make structures too complicated.

Q. What was a key leadership lesson you learned earlier in your career?

A. I was very confident in my twenties, but that confidence wasn’t always attractive because it drifted into arrogance. So I learned to listen and to tone down what was happening inside my head to a level that was more comfortable for everybody around me. I wouldn’t say I ended up being humble, but I was a good deal less of a pain in the neck.

I learned that from being a line manager. It was my first management responsibility. I found out in the first conversation with my two direct reports that they weren’t really looking forward to working with me because they thought I was an arrogant loudmouth. I just sat and listened to them and asked them a few questions and got them talking.

They both ended up talking a lot about what they were trying to achieve in the team. At the end I said, “How are we doing here?” And they said, “Well, this is all right. You’re not as bad as we thought.” That made me more conscious of the image I had been projecting from a distance.

Q. What about early influences in your life?

A. My inspiration was my maternal grandfather, who started off as a designer in an engineering business and became one of its executive directors and then went on to lead another business afterward. I just found what he did really interesting, and he would engage me in everything he did when I would stay with him.

One minute I’d be the plumber’s mate, helping him fix a dripping tap or something. The next minute I’d be his secretary, and we’d be opening his mail and sorting it into piles. Then he’d take me to his plant, and we’d meet some of the people. So I decided at a pretty early age that that was the kind of thing I wanted to do in my life.

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