Home Leadership Harnessing the Power of Cognitive Diversity on an Executive Team

Harnessing the Power of Cognitive Diversity on an Executive Team

by Guest Writter
Kim Christfort, National Managing Director, The Deloitte Greenhouse™ Experience team

In a time of accelerating change, increasing disruption, and heightened uncertainty, success demands unprecedented levels of resilience and flexibility from executives.  CEOs in particular must strike a dynamic balance between seemingly paradoxical priorities – embracing risk while mitigating it, exploring new, untested, business models while executing efficiently on the existing ones, capitalizing on proprietary expertise while challenging established orthodoxies, and of course driving short term yields while fueling long term opportunities [i].  It takes real mental and emotional energy to maintain these tensions as an individual.  But the challenge of leading a truly associative organization, one that can operate effectively while sustaining unresolved tensions, is best met by CEOs that can harness the diverse strengths inherent in their leadership team.

Most teams possess a mix of working styles that offer unique, and complementary, strengths.  It is this source of cognitive diversity – of ways of thinking, processing, and acting – that CEOs can tap into.

Our research reveals four primary working styles:

  • Pioneers value possibilities and spark energy and imagination. They’re outgoing, spontaneous, and adaptable. They enjoy going beyond established truths.  They’re very comfortable playing on the frontiers of new ideas, and are comfortable with the risk that goes along with that.
  • Guardians are the counterpoint to Pioneers.  They value stability and bring order and rigor. They’re practical, detail-oriented, and reserved.  They work tirelessly to keep things running according to plan.  They are the ones that will promote and defend the status quo, and are averse to risk.
  • Drivers value challenge and generate momentum. They’re technical, quantitative, and logical. They identify and cut through extraneous data in support of their bias for action.  They’re direct in their approach and appreciate healthy debate. They are laser focused on achieving goals.
  • Integrators are at the other end of the spectrum from Drivers. They value connection and draw both ideas and teams together. They accept and even embrace ambiguity. They’re empathic, diplomatic, and relationship oriented.  They appreciate context and prioritize collaboration and alignment.

While people are a mix of all four styles, most individuals are characterized by one or two of these. Across the general business population, these types are found in equal measure – on average, you would expect to find a quarter of each type in a large group.  While each of these types brings unique strengths to a team, the real power comes through them working in combination with one another. And yet, simply having different styles resident in a leadership team isn’t sufficient. This potential must be activated.  CEOs can explore these three approaches to get the most out of the working style diversity on their team:

  1. Appreciate the different types. It’s basic but true. People think and process in unique ways, and yet it can be easy to overlook these differences or worse, to assume that a different style is inferior to one’s own. Particularly if senior executives have a style that appears well-aligned with the company’s priorities or positioning, they can be susceptible to dismissing a style that does not. For example, one Pioneer leader said to me “Our company is innovative and fast-moving. We can’t afford to have Integrators slowing us down trying to build consensus.” And yet after further discussion it became clear that the Integrator’s focus on how to create buy-in and promote adoption was exactly what the company needed to be successful.Seemingly paradoxically, companies oriented toward particular styles, are the ones that can draw the highest value from alternative strengths. It’s up to the CEO to orchestrate carefully the interplay among the different styles and sustain a productive level of tension.
  2. Mind the Gaps. Chances are, your executive team won’t have a perfect balance across each of the types. And missing a perspective could have a major impact on the group’s ability to calibrate the tension points and paradoxes of business leadership. In the short term, as a stopgap, it’s important therefore to give explicit voice to any missing types by asking people to wear different hats and “think like” the missing type, or having people lean into their secondary type if those characteristics are present there. In the long term, CEOs should consider working style diversity as an important criterion for hiring C-Suite executives.You can still have a gap even if you have all the types though, if some styles are underrepresented – particularly because certain types are intrinsically more introverted and typically less eager to jump into the fray. In this situation, you can elevate those styles by giving them an explicit role on the team that requires their strengths, or by encouraging the minority types to speak first to make sure that their diverse perspective is represented before a cascade of the majority takes hold.

    CEOs can intentionally engineer leadership interactions to draw out divergent perspectives and cultivate complementary strengths, even if the composition of their team or the mix of contributions are unbalanced.

  3. Put Cognitive Diversity to Work. Even if you do have all four types represented, that could end up creating more headaches than help if opposing types clash and work at cross-purposes. To get the best out of each, start by ensuring you have the essentials they need in place, for instance a clear goal for Drivers, broader context for Integrators, data for Guardians, and opportunities to brainstorm for Pioneers. Then provide them with ways to use that strength for the benefit of the broader group, for instance asking a Guardian to research risks, asking a Pioneer to create different options, asking an Integrator to solicit input from key stakeholders, and asking a Driver to test a hypothesis. Also by systematically raising the team awareness of the differences in style (and their implications), the CEO can, over time, cultivate trust among C-Suite members and transform working style clashes into fruitful debates.By taking advantage of the full spectrum of strengths present on their team, CEOs add dimensionality to their leadership without requiring as much personal contortionism and, over time, improve team dynamics and productivity.

    Ultimately, CEOs will lead more responsive, flexible, and dexterous when they can leverage their leadership team and draw upon the full spectrum of strengths from each of the four styles.


About the Author

Kim Christfort is the national managing director of The Deloitte Greenhouse™ Experience group, which helps executives tackle tough business challenges through immersive, facilitated Lab experiences, and client experience IP such as Business Chemistry. As part of this role, Kim leads US Deloitte Greenhouses, permanent spaces designed to promote exploration and problem solving away from business as usual.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this publication.

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[i] Deloitte CEO Program, “Can CEOs be un-disruptable? Why today’s best leaders are flexible, not steadfast” https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/topics/talent/ceo-new-leadership-models-for-responding-to-disruption.html. For questions about the CEO Program, please contact Benjamin Finzi, managing director. He can be reached at bfinzi@deloitte.com.

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