Leading a Team of Leaders

  • Dan NorenbergEmail author
Part of the Management for Professionals book series (MANAGPROF)


In this chapter, we continue the journey to create highly effective leadership teams by listening to the executives that head up these teams. In every leadership team, there stands one person that encourages, guides and sometimes demands things from the team. How does one balance being a member of the leadership team and at the same time, as the head of this team, challenge and stimulate them to move beyond their comfort zone? How does the leader hold team colleagues accountable when one deviates from agreed norms? How, as the most senior executive, do you decide which of the many initiatives to choose from, that will steer the company successfully into the future? In this chapter, meet C-levels leaders who share their successes, and their challenges to create highly effective leadership teams.

In the last three chapters, we explored how to make meetings matter (Chap.  6), the steps to build and lead a senseful strategy (Chap.  7) and the path to create an ownership epidemic in your organization (Chap.  8).

The leadership team shapes and anchors these cornerstones of high performance through the way they work together and interact with their organization. We know now what must go right as executives make choices (and sacrifices) to forge together as a true team of leaders, rather than a collection of soloists, committed only to their personal or functional success.

The journey to perform as a highly effective leadership team would not be complete without looking at the executives that head up these teams.

In every leadership team, there stands one person that encourages, guides and sometimes demands things from the team. How does one balance being a member of the leadership team and at the same time, as the head of this team, challenge and stimulate them to move beyond their comfort zone? How does the leader hold team colleagues accountable when one deviates from agreed norms? How, as the most senior executive, do you decide which of the many initiatives to choose from, that will steer the company successfully into the future?

Literature even today continues to spotlight the heroic leader, an extraordinaire individualist, as the “saving grace,” for many a team or company’s success. Experienced executives today know better. It is easy to shine the light on one person, and say they made it all possible, but this would only be fitting for a Hollywood script and not truthfully explain how real leadership teams succeed. Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball superstar, was heard to have said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.”

Renowned leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith says this about leading teams of leaders:

It is not realistic to expect any one individual to possess all the various iterations of strengths and skills necessary to lead a company through a decade or more of roller coaster markets, global expansion and economic changes…the global leader of the future should concentrate on building a team of leaders who (1) feel a sense of ownership for the business, and (2) can rely on each other’s strengths during different challenges the company will face [1].

Unfortunately, Michael Jordan, Marshall Goldsmith, or any executive that leads teams of leaders, cannot give us a simple checklist to make all of the above happen. We can accelerate the speed at which we adapt, grow and ultimately perform by listening, and learning, from executive experiences, reflecting on their struggles, and their successes.

Some of the deepest insights about life, leadership and teamwork come during after-hour exchanges, fireside chats and small, intimate settings where leaders speak candidly about their concerns, frustrations, and aspirations. Executives often say that when they look back at their team transformation process, the fireside chats, with its non-judgmental atmosphere, were team-tipping points for them.

With this in mind, I invited six executives to share their experiences and wisdom. They come from a variety of industries and different cultural backgrounds. Each of them asked me at some point to support their executive team growth process and at that time, each led a business or company that was doing business across the globe. (I have described their business and their role as it was when we worked together.)

They are very successful leaders yet in no way do I want to describe them as perfect, or always getting it right. Nevertheless, their approach to business, their intention to create a true team of leaders, and most importantly, their willingness to share their vulnerabilities and own their challenges as the starting point for team and organizational change is executive courage in action, and therefore worthy of our attention.

9.1 Fireside Wisdom Exchange

To make the most of our experience exchange, imagine that we are sitting comfortably with these executives, around the fireplace, wonderfully warm, intimate and inclusive. The atmosphere is open and inviting, everyone is willing to share, and eager to listen and learn from the experiences of the others.

As you listen to the wisdom shared by these executives, reflect on their experiences and how they address the following questions and what these insights could mean for you:
  • What are the “must haves” for an executive team to play at their best?

  • How have you managed and come through tough challenges?

  • What is important when stepping into an executive team role?

9.2 Ervin Appelfeld, Global Head of Manufacturing, ZF

Results through respect

ZF is a leader in automotive driveline and chassis technology as well as active and passive safety technology, with a global workforce of 146,000 at approximately 230 locations in some 40 countries. With annual sales of nearly €40 billion, it is one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world.
Ervin is the head of global production, responsible for 20,000 people spread over 45 production sites. He is originally from the Czech Republic and is now based in Koblenz, Germany. Here are Ervin’s insights:

It is not the machines, technology or the processes that makes you successful. At the end of the day, the deciding factors to your success are people, the behaviors they practice and the culture that you (and the team) create so people can perform.

This is the message that I consistently share with leaders and people throughout our organization.

Our success resides in our people and this comes down to respect. If people respect me, they will follow my leadership. If I respect others, it allows me to develop deeper relationships with them. This is core to the success of any leadership team.

When you respect someone’s strengths, and their needs, you form stronger, more trusting relationships with them.

In the German culture, where I am based, business and private life is separated. I tell my people, if you want to keep your private life separate, that is fine and I will respect that. When you do share with me what is going on in your life, what is running in the background or when you have troubles; I can support you in deeper ways.

For example, sometimes you sense it is time to come down hard on something or somebody, and you do so without knowledge that something is running wrong in their private life; it might get even more complicated.

Here is my advice for newly appointed executives:

– Do not take decisions because you do not like something.

– Make decisions that support your aspirations and what is good for the business.

– I do not like negatively driven decisions - they always come back and make your life, and your business, more complicated.

– Do not be afraid to use outside help, I have used outside consultants over the years, especially when it involves a lot of change or team redesign and this has been very valuable for us.

When I asked Ervin what was helpful or valuable about my contributions to his leadership team growth process he said,

Getting leaders to run their function and be a valuable member of the senior leadership team involves a lot of give and take, making adjustments and, at times, compromising. You continually adjusted the off-site agendas to address the issues that were essential to us. This was very helpful and a good example of how we needed to work with each other to manage the different agendas that all of us bring into the senior leadership team. Be prepared to compromise and listen behind the words – often we say things differently but mean the same thing. You were an example to the team of how we could work together, in a fluid way with less rigidity.

9.3 Amer Ahmed, CEO, Allianz Reinsurance

People make the difference

Allianz Re is the reinsurance arm of the Allianz Group, a global financial services provider with services predominantly in the insurance and asset management business.

Allianz Re, with its headquarters in Munich, Germany, provides reinsurance solutions for the diverse business needs of their global customers. Amer has led this business since 2007, and during this period, he and his team of 550 professionals have grown the premium business from 4 to 6.6 billion euros, with annual profits of €500 million.

Amer reflected on his experiences and lessons learned as an executive leader.

I have always worked where significant change was required and I enjoy working through and improving situations where there is a lot of uncertainty. I come from a strong technical background, and my focus, in the past and even now, is on facts, figures and objective information.

One of my learnings, that I continue to work on today, is the importance of the human side of change and the time it takes to address the emotional issues. When you are at the top of an organization, it is easy to drive change, and understand it intellectually, and it is another thing to be confronted with a change process that you did not initiate.

We are in the reinsurance business. On one hand, our business is strongly influenced by facts and figures, yet through countless examples, I have learned how important it is to really involve people in this process. Often we get it right and sometimes we do not, and this continues to be a personal area of development for me, and my leadership team.

My advice for upcoming executives is to make certain that you continually inform, engage, and debate with your people so that they feel included. You can make all the right business moves, but if the people have not been brought along, you will not achieve what is truly possible.

Being an effective executive means learning to let go and trusting others to run with things. I still love diving deep in the details of the many exciting new things we bring to our clients, but I am learning to accept that listening to others and trusting their judgement is really the only way an effective executive can operate. This means spending more time and effort talking about why something is important versus how to do it.

Leadership teams can consume all of their time and energy discussing functional aspects of the business, (that is how things work), and company objectives, (the results we create), yet all high performing leadership teams, in my opinion, must invest time to discuss the purpose and role of what they do. When you do this at the leadership team level you can encourage these discussions at all levels of your business, but it has to start at the top.

People are the single most important part of our business, and I believe this is the case for most businesses, so it is essential that you pay attention and hire the best people you can get, for every position in the business. After they are on board, the real work starts and you have to invest in people or you will find yourself short of bench strength when you need it.

9.4 Dietrich Fechner, Managing Director, Ciba Vision Germany

Humble in the jungle creates relationships for results

CIBA VISION, now known as Alcon Vision Care, produces high quality contact lenses for daily and extended wear. The CIBA VISION DAILIES business segment involves 2,500 employees, manufacturing about 2.5 billion contact lenses annually and revenues of an estimated USD1 billion.

Dietrich led a group of pooled production sites in the US, Singapore and Germany as well as a large pan-European logistics organization. For more than 15 years he also led the largest and most advanced European manufacturing and R&D site in a highly regulated medical device field.

Dietrich shared his insights about creating buy-into a common agenda, one that is more comprehensive than simply a local agenda.

As CIBA Vision’s Managing Director of Europe’s largest contact lens manufacturing site located in Germany, I additionally was charged with the leadership role for all daily disposable contact lens manufacturing of CIBA Vision. This role involved plants in Atlanta, Georgia and Singapore.

All the plants were using the very same technology platform and all had the capacity to produce all variants of DAILIES. This setting required very close technical cooperation, mutual day-to-day support and accumulation of joint development projects for the greater good of global operation.

However, the three plants were also competitors. Their HC, TPC and quality data were easily comparable. Based on this data and performance, allocation of capital, cost budgets and product portfolio were determined.

The individual plant interests led to conflicts, some personal but more so due to cultural misunderstandings and the great distances and different times zones that people worked. Conflicts were present, yet each site had technical challenges that required the support of another site. My challenge and our business opportunity was to reconcile these adverse interests and to have all players volunteer for the greater good. I decided to conduct “Cultural Trainings” to bring together and bond the 25 top leaders of the three plants with Asian, American and German backgrounds.

Over the course of three years, we met for about a week each year in typical settings for each of the three regions: in a most basic Malaysian rain forest resort, a homespun Appalachian farmhouse and in an unpretentious German hunting lodge.

The simple and inexpensive settings served multiple purposes: leaders were asked to be humble and to focus on the essentials, they lacked any fancy distraction, thus fostering the get-together.

These daily training sessions aimed to generate cultural knowledge and understanding as well as friendship amongst the leaders. Business topics also came on the table, with the intention of putting ourselves in the other’s shoes, looking to understand how other people operated and learning to develop common ground. The leisure time in morning and evening was not more (or less) than talking, bonding, having good times together.

Our cultural trainings garnered outstanding results: based on friendship and understanding the collaboration amongst the plants became a matter of daily course and the imminent competition turned into a healthy, constructive and collective battle for the greater good.

9.5 Jacques Richier, CEO, Allianz France

Listen, listen, listen, and then propose

Allianz provides insurance, assistance and financial services for individuals, professionals, businesses and communities, operating in more than 70 countries, with nearly 140,000 employees worldwide.
Jacques is the CEO of Allianz France, a multi-line insurer, specialists in wealth and social protection. He leads 9000 employees, with annual revenues of €12 billion and almost six million customers. He is based in Paris, France.

To be successful, diversity is key in an executive team in terms of profiles, characters and backgrounds. It is obvious that the entire team needs to share the same ambitions, methods and goals, but each one with their own perspective. Team members must feel free to speak frankly with the others, with consideration to their colleagues. In addition, the lower politics, the better.

One of my toughest challenges was when I became CEO of a large company, with more than 10,000 employees. I came from outside the company, whereas the tradition was to promote executives internally. Initially, coming from the outside was not an advantage. To succeed in such a situation, it was necessary to gain the acceptance of executives and to get support from managers who were recognized as ‘transformers’ or ‘opinion leaders.’ To build a highly effective executive team, it is essential that these executives share the same ambitions.

For a first executive team role, I would advise the following: listen, listen, listen, and then make proposals!

Another insight that has served me well: Consistency. Consistency is key in an executive team role. It is important to keep the consistency of the strategy and to explain it. You also have to be consistent regarding people issues, when it comes to promoting or dismissing someone – decisions have to be undisputable and exemplary.

9.6 Frank Wiemer, CEO, iwis motorsysteme

Think of yourself as an orchestrator, helping a talented team do what it does best

iwis motorsysteme manufactures high quality, precision chains for the automotive industry, with production facilities in Germany, China and the USA, through nearly 1,000 employees worldwide. iwis motorsysteme is part of the iwis Group, a fourth generation family business that specializes in high performance chain technology, headquartered in Munich, Germany. Frank is the CEO of iwis motosysteme and here are his reflections:

Trust is the ingredient that moves good teams to great teams. Trust means the team members accept each other as responsible and competent to manage their particular function. When people start questioning each other’s competence, you start to fail. The overall leader has to ensure that the right players are in the right positions.

This was a big shift for us when Dan came in and started working with our leadership team. The quality of our questions is different now. Blaming is gone and our questions are more process driven and less about personal attacks. The trustful way of working and talking with each other has been institutionalized in our leadership team – and it moves to the other levels too.

You do your best, but everyone at one point or another has hired the wrong person for a particular job. I have gotten personal feedback over the years that sometimes I wait too long to let the wrong person go. People get a year with me, and if I see that something is not working, I step in and see how I can help this person develop, to step up their game so they can play in the team. I am not a fan of letting people go too soon, before you have tried to help them make needed changes. When I do have to let someone go, I feel like I have failed.

One of the things that is important to our future success is becoming more diverse. We are successful, yet very German, more than that, very Bavarian, and to continue to grow it is important that we develop a more inclusive culture.

My advice for someone stepping into an executive role is simple. It is something my grandmother constantly shared with me: Treat people the way you want to be treated. This sounds so easy, but people do not always behave this way. I am conscious of my “grandmother rule” and think about this before I take major actions. I believe we meet people twice in life so this is a good rule to keep in mind and I just feel better when I act this way. I have tried to raise my kids this way as well.

There are always pros and cons when you think about being a very strong, authoritarian type leader (a dictator for lack of a better word) versus building a well-balanced team of contributors.

Yet authoritarian, dictator-driven structures have no sounding board to consider diverse ideas or changes in markets and at some point, all dictators fail. I much prefer working and leading a team of leaders. Certainly discussing issues takes more time, but a balanced team can help any senior leader, no matter how good they are, to cover for weaknesses that they have. We all have weaknesses and this is how a good team compensates. I would rather be seen as an orchestrator, helping a talented team learn who does what best and then how to support each other through the different challenges that come up through the business cycle.

I grew up in Eastern Germany, part of the Soviet Bloc. While some might think this was a dictator driven society, I did not have that experience growing up. For me, it was teamwork in action. Our family had a farm, so we had a variety of ways to create food. Things we could not get, electrical wiring, tiles for the bathroom, or spare parts for the car, you had to go out and trade food that you had grown or raised for something that you needed. We were constantly negotiating and in most cases, trying to create win-win solutions. It was very different in the West. In the West, money would get you what you need, in the East; money did not have nearly as much influence.

The take aways working with you, Dan, were that you helped us create deep levels of trust between each of us and as an entire team. This was very different from how we had been working previously. We got to know each other better, learned how we ticked, and this helped us understand each other’s behaviors much better.

The second big take away were the tools and system for success you shared with us. Simple and effective. The result was that we are able to use these tools and frameworks throughout the organization. It is interesting to watch them move down through the different teams, helping people solve problems and giving us a common approach to dealing with our challenges.

9.7 Lars Henrikson, Group Vice President, Implants, Dentsply Sirona

Each of us sets the example for the change we expect in others

Dentsply Sirona is a global provider of professional dental products and technologies. Lars was Group Vice President of the Implant Group, with 2,400 people operating in 27 countries and revenues of $550 million. Lars shared the following insights:

Family is for me the most important thing in life and without this strong foundation, I could not have done the professional career that I have experienced. Also in my professional life, I have had a lot of luck. I have happened to be at the right place at the right time and thereby been given many opportunities when I was very young and an inexperienced leader.

I also have had the pleasure to work within the medical device industry, which means that you help people improve their quality of life. On top of all this, during my first 25 years as a leader (almost the whole time as part of the leadership team), the companies I worked for nearly always produced double-digit annual growth and gained market share year after year.

In these companies, we had a very strong customer focus and worked closely with our key customers, continually developing our products and services.

In the early days, we could sell our products based on product features and benefits but over time the products became more and more alike and service and support to the customers became a key differentiator.

To work in a company that grows every year and continually gains market share creates a positive corporate climate. You have of course challenges and obstacles to overcome, but with a strong momentum in the business, these are normally not too hard to handle.

I am, as a person, positive and optimistic. With the combination of my personality and the strong business momentum we had, our record of accomplishment was very good and I believed I was a good and strong leader during this time.

Things changed when a large global player acquired the company I worked for and within this global group, they merged my company with one of our major competitors, with the objective to become number one in the world.

18 months after the merger, I became the CEO, and during the time, our momentum and our growth stagnated. Before the merger we took growth for granted, now, after the merger, we were one company, but we still operated as two different company cultures. On top of all this, the mother company that owned us initiated a major reorganization of the whole group and we became very internally focused.

During my first year as CEO, I worked very hard and travelled around the world, first to communicate our new common values and strategies and try to convince my organization that the large restructuring of the group was going to be to our benefit even if I internally had, however, some doubts about the way forward.

I also was leading a new leadership team, one that I had more or less inherited because of the integration, 18 months earlier.

During this time, I slowly became more and more frustrated about how things were developing. Our topline had stopped growing, integrating two different corporate cultures proved to be extremely challenging, and on top of this we had become so internally focused that we had almost forgotten about our customers. I also felt that the way we worked in the leadership team was not what I was used to or what should be expected from a group that leads an organization of nearly 2,500 people.

I also realized at this time that my personnel frustration influenced me as a leader and that I was not as effective in my communication and interaction with my team as I used to be. This was a new experience for me; initially I did not know what to do. I was certain however, that I had to do something first about my own behavior, as well to create a more positive climate in our leadership team.

I have historically been skeptical about using external consultants, but this time I realized I needed someone coming from the outside, to help and support me and also work with my leadership team. Several members of my leadership team had worked with Dan in a European wide strategic leadership program and I invited Dan to support our executive team growth process.

I arranged a set of off-site meetings with my leadership team. The initial objectives were to get to know each other better as well as to create a strategy and story that truly could energize and engage the whole organization.

This first meeting was the starting point of a true turn around for me as a leader, and I regained my optimistic, energetic leadership style instead of being frustrated and negative. This led to a reset in the leadership team where we started to build a stronger, more resilient leadership team that could openly discuss and challenge each other, and finally agree on our way forward.

A key step in this process took place during the first off-site meeting with my team. Sitting in front of the fireplace, on the first evening, I opened up and told the team about my frustration, and how I felt bad about how I had worked as a leader during the last couple of months.

I believe my honesty and openness created the foundation for the others also to speak about their own feelings, concerns and frustrations.

From there on, we were able to slowly turn the situation around, creating one new corporate culture, and again getting the customer back in focus. In time, we slowly started to see our business grow again.

This took some time, but most important was that I was convinced we were now on the right track and my leadership team was onboard. This meant that we could show our ownership and alignment as a leadership team to the rest of the organization.

My key takeaways from this experience:

– To lead a growing and winning business can be very different to what it means to lead when things are not developing as strong.

– Be aware of how you, as a leader, react personally when things are not going exactly as you had hoped. You are still the one that people in the organization look to and they expect you to show them the way even if it is a tough road ahead.

– Be open and transparent with your team about challenges you see and how they can help you overcome these challenges as well as how you can help them.

– Never lose sight of your customers. It is so easy, especially when companies go through internal reorganizations, to become internally focused and forget about your customers. This gives your competitors an open door into your customers.

My final words: To work as a leader is in my experience extremely rewarding and one of the best things in life!

9.8 Executive Wisdom Consolidation

Ervin, Amer, Dietrich, Jacques, Frank and Lars lead executive teams in distinctly different industries and come from vastly different professional backgrounds. Their stories, however, are not told in isolation, but are part of a bigger picture. Through their lessons learned and my experiences of working with dozens of other senior leaders and their teams, we recognize behaviors and patterns that contribute to highly effective leadership teams and attitudes and actions that are counter-productive, which can sidetrack executive teams.

Leaders hinder teams when they fall into performance pitfalls and enable leadership teams when they use best practices. Let us look at performance pitfalls that leaders need to minimize or avoid and best practices to use generously with leadership teams.

9.9 Performance Pitfalls

When the senior leader does this, their team seldom plays at their best

  1. (1)

    Insist on showing they are the smartest person in the room, and have the need to win every argument and take most if not all decisions in the leadership team

  2. (2)

    Fail to admit their own shortcomings and how they contribute sub optimal performance, instead blaming someone or something else

  3. (3)

    Hold individual team members accountable to personal and functional objectives, but fail to hold the team accountable for team or strategic priorities that could involve two or more members, thereby encouraging ownership for the overall team objectives

  4. (4)

    Allowing the team to run down operational rabbit holes, distracting them from real executive teamwork and not staying true to purposeful, clearly defined strategic objectives

  5. (5)

    Ignoring or not acting quickly and consequently when behavior issues fall outside of agreed upon norms or promises made in the team


9.10 Senior Leader Best Practices

When the senior leader does this, they help their team to play at their best

  1. (1)

    Act upon the belief that their leadership team is the starting point and the tipping point for organizational change and renewed performance

  2. (2)

    Able to express the challenge or poor performance present, coupled with their own authentic and emotional expressions of frustration, anger, not centered or blaming others, but taking ownership themselves

  3. (3)

    Use outside expertise and consultants appropriately – not relying too heavily on outside consultants to do the job that the team should do, but rather using external expertise as a catalyst for change driven by the team

  4. (4)

    Communicate a picture or vision of what future success could look like, with a compelling invitation for the team to influence, shape and construct how this future success comes to life. An equally important practice is the ability to convince others that the current status quo approach will not sustain or lead to a successful future

  5. (5)

    Able to create an atmosphere where people feel safe, secure (yes, even at this senior level) and supported to stretch themselves, make mistakes and to show that they truly enjoy where they are and what they do


These best practices and performance pitfalls are not only for the senior leader in the team. These can and should be practiced by everyone in the leadership team. It is one of the huge benefits of executive ownershift. Everything that has been introduced can be replicated throughout the organization, creating a common language, common practices that lead to breakthrough results.

I have learned much from the six executives who shared their stories here. With an attitude and leadership approach that emphasizes success instead of perfection, they gain respect and attract like-minded professionals who value the same. With so many initiatives, challenges and surprises coming at them all the time, being able to learn from mistakes, focus on helping others succeed and being able to laugh at themselves from time to time are important ingredients for a leadership team brewing to play at its best.

Let us now move into Chap.  10 and review how you can make the most of your executive ownershift.


  1. 1.
    Hawkins, P. (2017). Leadership team coaching, developing collective transformational leadership. Great Britain and the United States: Kogan Page Publishing.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author, under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MunichGermany

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