If your team is underperforming, it’s probably because you haven’t yet done everything you can to help them flourish.
I’ve heard it said that leaders get the teams they deserve.
When it comes to the C-suite, this philosophy is especially true.
No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on—whether you’re someone who has a strong, competent team, or someone with an underperforming team—the people around you are a reflection of the leadership you exhibit.
Sometimes, that reality can be a tough pill for senior execs to swallow.
“But what about bad employees?” you might be asking. “How do my actions have anything to do with an employee who isn’t accountable / doesn’t hit their goals / doesn’t model our values?” (Fill in the blank with however your team is falling down).
Well, to that I say:
Great Leaders are Unconditionally Responsible
To be an elite executive, you have to take accountability for everything that happens under your stewardship.
Record sales numbers and an increased market share? Awesome job.
Poor performance in the second quarter, and you lost a star employee to the competition? Well, if you’re in the C-suite, that’s on you too.
So when it comes to leading rock star teams, what does unconditional responsibility look like? How do you earn a high-performing team?
Well, leaders are responsible for recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining top talent. Start to skimp in any of these categories, and it’s going to show fast.
Executives are also responsible for developing company culture, articulating organizational values, and outlining the standards of work everyone should strive towards. If adherence to any of these fundamentals starts to slip up top in the C-suite, that lackadaisical attitude will permeate your team, too.
So if your team isn’t performing… it could be time to take a hard look in the mirror.
Instead of focusing on the ways your team members aren’t meeting your expectations, ask yourself, “How do I need to improve? What can I do differently? What do I need to do differently?”
For example, let’s say you’re the Chief Revenue Officer at an organization with clear sales goals. You’re reviewing the numbers as you approach the end of the second quarter, and your sales department hasn’t hit those marks. Even worse, lead generation is weak.
Sure, you could blame your sales team. You could say they aren’t working hard enough, or something is wrong with their sales pitches. You could even pinpoint a couple of employees who you think are the main problem.
But remember that leaders get the teams they deserve—and you are responsible for the recruitment of those employees, their development, and the creation of systems and processes that they use to make (or not make) sales. And you’re responsible for repositioning underperformers in a timely (and dignified) way.
So shift your perspective from their perceived shortfalls, to your opportunity. What could YOU do to start steering your team towards a solution?
Are there opportunities for professional development that you could offer to your sales team? (Like coaching or training)
Do you need to roll up your sleeves and model the behaviors you expect from others?
Could you better align people with roles that play to their strengths?
Do you need to champion systems, processes, and tools improvements that better equip your people for success?
Chances are, if your team is underperforming, it’s probably because you haven’t yet done everything you can to help them flourish.
But that also means you’re positioned to create and lead greater success.
This mindset of unconditional responsibility and solutions-oriented problem solving is the key – and it trickles throughout the organization as you model it.
The standards you set, how you hold yourself accountable, and the values you work by all combine to set the cultural tone for your team.
When you put in the work, you get the team you deserve — and you’ll be happy with the results.
What Business Executives Can Learn From The World’s Best Soccer Players
In every situation, there are elements within your control and elements outside of it. How you succeed virtually never depends on the things you can’t control (like the economy, the competition, customers’ shifting demands, etc) but on how you choose to respond to them. Your response is always within your control.
Think of a soccer match. There are plenty of elements outside of an individual player’s hands: weather conditions, whether the pitch has real grass or artificial turf, the friendliness or hostility of a stadium’s fans.
But what matters is how the player shows up on that field. Their job is to focus on what they can control, and choose the best possible response to what they can’t.
Executives can take a page from that playbook.
Let’s look back at the example of the CRO’s underperforming sales team.
If the CRO routinely blames others, and deflects responsibility for fixing the underlying issues, a couple things happen:
First, the problems inevitably get worse. Sales don’t improve by pointing the finger at someone—just like your teammate isn’t going to score a goal, just because you yell at them for giving up the ball in midfield. You have to examine your role (and opportunity) in the problems and take action to remedy them.
Second, this victim / blaming mindset trickles downward to the rest of the team. When an executive shirks responsibility or a high standard of work, they signal that victimhood is just fine around here. It’s how we react when the going gets tough. The team starts to orient around problems, not solutions—because their leader has shown them the way.
When an executive fails to take unconditional responsibility for their organization’s culture, standards, and talent… well, they get the teams they deserve. This often looks like:
Lack of problem and solutions ownership
Pervasive discouragement and frustration
Poor-quality work product
What Kind of Team Will You Earn?
Leaders getting the teams they deserve could be a boon to your business—or it could be your Achilles heel. It all comes back to the leadership you display as an executive.
Many executives struggle to pause and thoughtfully consider their own responsibility for organizational shortfalls. Instead, their knee-jerk reaction is to blame others, complain about external factors, or generally try to deflect responsibility. While this behavior may be common, it’s not necessarily a reflection of an executive’s overall talent or potential — it may simply be an area for growth.
That’s why awareness and unconditional responsibility are two of the fundamental tools I teach my executive coaching clients. They’re evergreen strategies you can employ in any situation because they make an outsized difference in an organization's success.
Simply pausing can be a powerful tool in difficult moments. When a goal isn’t met or when an external circumstance causes strife within your organization, it can be easy to shift into what’s easiest: blaming someone else, or just robotically reacting.
But instead, stop for a moment. Think about what’s going on and how you want to respond.
Before Making a Decision, Answer These Questions:
What elements within my control can move us towards a solution?
Am I acting according to the organization’s and my personal core values? Will this decision lead to peace in my heart and pride in my actions?
What message does this decision or action send to my team? What precedent or standard am I setting?
When this kind of awareness guides your decision-making, your team will follow suit. Suddenly, you’ll have a team that’s willing to step up when things go poorly, take responsibility within their sphere of control, and work together to craft innovative solutions.
When you take on unconditional responsibility for the people within your organization, you’ll get the team you deserve — and the results will speak for themselves.