The Next Leadership Team: Insights by Thomas Keil and Marianna Zangrillo

group of people celebrating after conversation about on how to achieve effective leadership team

When it comes to running a company, the strength of the teams put together by top leaders is crucial. In their book, "The Next Leadership Team,'' Thomas Keil and Marianna Zangrillo—our guests on the latest Qonversations episode—share valuable insights on creating an effective management team and guiding that team to achieve the best outcomes. This blog highlights some key findings from their research, including how to choose, support, and enhance a top-tier leadership team to maximize success within an organization.


The Organization of the Leadership Team

No one-size-fits-all solution

When they began their research, Mariana and Thomas hoped they could find a single solution that could work in all organizations and with all kinds of leaders. However, in conversations with multiple CEOs and top executive teams, they discovered that every leader has their own approach that fits their style and their company's unique needs. Successful teams blend personal comfort with what the organization requires. Building on the idea that leadership depends on the situation, their research sought to distill the practical elements from different scenarios and create practical frameworks for leaders to apply to their own situations.

“Leadership always depends on what you need to do and what you can do. We tried to understand the rational elements and the building blocks of different situations that one can learn from and apply to another situation.”


Three Team Approaches


Different teams suit different business needs. In their research, Thomas and Marianna discovered that three different approaches stand out: the Team of Stars, the Synergistic Team, and the Stretch Team. Each strategy requires unique leadership qualities to be successful.
The Team of Stars embodies individual prowess, driven by ambitious and competitive individuals who primarily work independently to achieve personal success within their assigned responsibilities. This team thrives on high achievers' raw energy and determination, where collaboration occurs selectively to ensure alignment.
In contrast, the Synergistic Team champions cooperation and collective achievement. Here, individuals collaborate seamlessly, combining efforts to solve challenges, integrate diverse functions across the company, and unite various geographies or departments toward shared goals. The focus lies on the success of the whole organization, setting aside personal ego or individual recognition for the greater good.
The third is the Scratch Team, a hybrid approach that skillfully navigates between competition and collaboration. These individuals possess competitive and cooperative skills in complex scenarios, adeptly shifting gears as situations demand. They compete when necessary, collaborate when essential, and avoid competing when collaboration is required or stepping back when assertiveness is necessary.
Understanding these dynamics and matching the team style with the organizational needs is fundamental for maximizing performance and achieving overall success. 

“When one understands the situation of the company and the possibilities, which one can play with, along with the type of behaviors and leadership secrets, it's easier to make successful appointments.”


Successfully Choosing Team Members


Selecting team members begins with understanding the company's goals—whether it's maintaining the current strategy or making significant changes. This helps determine whether internal or external candidates are a better fit. For example, sticking to the existing plan might favor internal candidates, while changing direction might be better served by external hires.

Personality traits and the type of business also play a pivotal role in selecting team members. For instance, a single-business company might benefit from a more synergistic team with personalities that align closely. Conversely, a diversified organization, spanning different regions or industries might thrive with stronger, more independent personalities—akin to a team of stars. For highly complex organizations, a balanced approach is needed that consists of individuals capable of operating within both synergistic and independent setups. 

While there's an analytical aspect to this selection process, the personal and leadership compatibility factor can't be overlooked. A leader's comfort with the team's approach and dynamics is vital for success. However, solely aligning with personal preferences without considering organizational needs can result in negative outcomes. Balancing the analytical assessment with personal alignment is key to forming an effective team.

“Teams work better with personalities that fit the team better.”


When the Leadership Team isn’t Working


When dealing with an existing leadership team during situations of change or ineffectiveness, strategies differ. In transformations or turnarounds, new leaders might partially or completely change the team based on the new goals, analyzing the current team against the new mandate and making selective changes. This might involve removing toxic individuals or those resistant to change, aiming to retain internal talent where possible to maintain organizational cohesion.
For completely dysfunctional teams, drastic changes are needed. This could mean rethinking how the team works together rather than just swapping individuals.

“When things aren't working, you have to make radical interventions. You have to see if it's individuals or if it's the old team. You have to really radically rethink the way you're working and how you can align that with what you need to accomplish, and that often has to do more with how you work than necessarily the individuals.”

Spotting problems early matters. Often, issues linger until they affect results, but it's crucial to notice warning signs like bad behavior or poor performance and deal with them swiftly. But figuring out when a team's not working involves more than just numbers—it's about noticing early signs of trouble within the team. Assessing this often depends on personal views and values in evaluating what makes a successful leadership team.


Diversity in a Leadership Team


Diversity holds immense importance for leadership teams because diverse teams tend to make better decisions. They explore more options and have deeper discussions, leading to better performance.

“Diverse teams make better decisions. They process information more completely. They consider more options.”

However, managing diverse teams demands more effort. Having various viewpoints and opinions can lead to intense discussions and the need to find common ground, which isn't always easy. The process requires patience, energy, and goodwill to navigate differences during important decisions. Leaders sometimes bring diverse individuals on board without investing the necessary effort to integrate them deeply into the team. This can result in fragmented teams where individuals feel peripheral and their impact remains limited, despite their inclusion for appearance's sake.

Diversity goes beyond gender—it includes various backgrounds and perspectives. Managing this diversity is complex because people naturally gravitate toward those similar to them. Differences in speech or behavior might lead to exclusion. Thomas and Marianna note that despite having diverse leadership teams is important, fully integrating diverse perspectives into teams still remains a rare achievement because individuals often feel inadequately integrated into their teams even though they have good positions and compensation.

“Very often, people tend to remain in the periphery and are not properly integrated.”


The advice Thomas and Marianna give to people is to stay open and welcome whatever comes their way. Fighting back rarely helps in challenging situations. Embracing new opportunities and dealing with them as they come can be a helpful approach. Marianna shares the lesson she learned through challenges she faced early in her career—embracing rather than resisting is the key. It's okay to feel disappointed or occasionally angry, but it shouldn't stop us from moving forward, maintaining relationships, and handling life's challenges. The journey of building a top-tier leadership team is not without its challenges, but it's a crucial investment for any senior executive or CEO. Embracing change, staying open to diverse perspectives, and focusing on strategic alignment with organizational goals are the pillars of forging teams that drive businesses toward their greatest achievements.



Listen to the full conversation.

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