Marten Mickos on effective teams

The former CEO of MySQL weighs on in the principles of building an effective executive team

Following up on yesterday's post about Peter Drucker's principles of effective executives, I asked former CEO of MySQL Mårten Mickos to discuss the principles that we has used in building an effective executive team. After all no single executive can be successful on their own; to build a high-performance culture requires a discipline that extends across the entire leadership.

The single most useful management advice I have ever received or studied was the eight practices of effective executives defined by Peter Drucker. His insights (in general) are so profound that in my mind he deserves a place among the world's absolutely most significant thinkers on leadership and management over the last 1,000 years.

[ See also: "Peter Drucker on the effective executive" and "Marten Mickos: Contrarian interview" | Keep up with the latest open source news with InfoWorld's open source newsletter and topic center. ]

Inspired by Drucker's clear and concise eight practices for executives, I tried to write down a corresponding set of eight practices for executive teams. My experience or insight is a fraction of a fraction of what Drucker possessed already in his youth, so I realize my practices may not deserve to be placed next to the ones of Drucker. But being a great fan of his, I nevertheless take the liberty of doing so, hoping readers will forgive me.

What I have learned about teams and managing teams, I have learned from those I have had the privilege to work in a team with. All my insights are from them. At the same time, all the inaccuracies or failures to capture the situation completely in my below eight practices are of my own device. Below is my attempt at describing eight practices for effective executive teams:

What makes an effective executive team

Great executive teams may be aggressive or conservative, intuitive or calculating, conflicted or harmonious. But every effective executive team follows eight practices:

  1. The team members ask each other "How can I support you?"
  2. The team members hold each other accountable while also allowing each one to show vulnerability.
  3. The team practices open and authentic communication.
  4. The team arrives at key decisions together through discussion, debate, and synthesis.
  5. The team has fun.
  6. The team members see success of the whole team as the best form of success.
  7. The team operates at a strategic level and empowers the organization around them to make and execute operational decisions.
  8. Each team member builds his/her own teams following these principles.

And there is an implicit characteristic number zero (which should be self-evident): 0. Each team member individually follows Drucker's eight practices for effective executives.

Some observations and further comments on the team practices:

Item 1: In a great executive team, all executives help each other, and they engage in the broad management of the business and not just in their own area of responsibility. This cannot happen if there is a team member with a supersized ego. So by defining this practice, we are also saying no thanks to people with egos too big to fit inside an effective team.

Item 2: There is a virtuous circle in all of this (and a vicious one in the opposite scenario): When each team member does his/her job, trust emerges between team members. When there is trust, you can admit and show your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. When you can admit your weaknesses, you are also bound to improve. When you improve, you do your job better. When you do your job better, more trust ensues.

Item 3: It could be added that this practice is both about communication inside the team and outside.

Item 4: How a team arrives at decisions is a very important issue. Note that it says "key decisions" -- non-key decisions can be made individually or at a lower level in the organization. Arriving at a decision "together" means that everyone will be heard, dissent will be encouraged, pros will be weighed against cons, and so on. But it does not mean that it is a democratic decision or a decision by consensus. At the end of any decision-making process in a corporation, there will be a single responsible decision-maker (many times, but not always, the CEO) who will have to make the final call. But during the process, he/she will engage the whole team and build up better insights, common understanding, and broad commitment, no matter what the ultimate decision will be. Many times in such an open decision-making process, new ideas emerge that shape the ultimate decision.

Item 5: Fun means genuine fun, not superficial fun. Fun doesn't require money, great surroundings, great food, or great wine. We have nothing against those things, but at the end of the day they are not vital for having fun. They only add luster to something that it is fun by itself. Fun happens when human beings interact on a plane deeper than what they are used to or what they expected.

Item 6: It takes a lot to get a team in a condition where overall success is more rewarding than success of any given individual. But when it happens, it is an amazing feeling for all involved (and for all who are observing from around), and it produces better results.

Item 7: Teams need to not micromanage the world around them, but to build layers of managers and teams that can run the show.

Item 8: Building a team is very difficult, but also incredibly rewarding.

My hope is that these practices can be useful to those who build executive teams. I have seen, participated in and built a number of executive teams in my career and I know firsthand the turbo boost a company gets from having an effective executive team. The one we built at MySQL was unique in this regard, if I may say so myself. I am very eager to hear comments and suggestions for improvements on this text. Please send them to

--Mårten Mickos

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.