Senior executives need to balance the long- and short-term demands of their businesses, and meetings need to mirror this balance. But they rarely do when executives don’t realize the pitfalls of meetings that conflate strategy and operations.
Leaders also like to solve problems and check them off, and short-term items provide us with visible ways to mark progress. We feel as if we’ve accomplished something. Even though executives are supposed to delegate solvable problems to their direct reports, walking away from a concrete, short-term issue is as hard as driving past an accident without rubbernecking. Encountering such a topic is one of the most common causes of postponing the strategic agenda.
And executives sometimes treat a strategic discussion the way they would a short-term issue. Instead of using a meeting just to brainstorm and expand on ideas, for example, they may grab the first idea that seems viable and solve for it, therefore missing critical data and the opportunity to view the problem from multiple angles first.
Fortunately, there are ways you can avoid these traps as you plan your own strategic meeting. Consider the following tips from Sabina Nawaz:
Design a learning environment. People will be much less likely to derail a strategic conversation if they feel more confident in their own ability to participate. Invite people from other departments and even outside the company as guest speakers — customers, experts in particular domains, and proactive thinkers — so your leadership team can learn together and expand their perspectives. This levels the playing field, gives everyone permission to ask questions in the spirit of learning, and creates common frameworks and words through a shared experience.
Detach operational meetings from strategic ones. When you blend short-term and long-term agenda items into one meeting, the short term will almost always win. Schedule separate meetings for operational and strategic topics. Sometimes focusing on the long term can fix a problem before it even occurs, or help you better solve short-term issues.
Explore strategic issues from multiple angles. Issues that need to be addressed over the long-term benefit from exploration before solution. When executive teams do this, they are often surprised by how differently each person on the team has interpreted the challenge they face. These strategic topics benefit from divergence before convergence.
Deliberately look for approaches to generate the right dialogue different from short-term problem solving. This might involve using different brainstorming techniques where no initial idea is a bad idea; channeling other constituents’ thoughts, such as your worst critics and competitors; or creating a process for dialogue that involves a slower, more deliberate, and evenly participative methodology.
Declare your intention and go. Finally, if you’re serious about shifting the conversation from the mundane to the strategic, declare your intention explicitly at the start of your meeting, and hold people to it. As the most senior leader, it’s your job to kickstart the discussion and keep it on track.
Day-to-day issues eat strategy for breakfast. Fortify your intentions to operate strategically by understanding the common temptations that will veer you off course and by applying the appropriate antidote.
From HBR, Cathy McCullough hears this all the time: “Our Weekly Meetings are just routine report-outs about who’s doing what; they’re so tactical!” For teams who are looking for ways to have higher-level discussions that are more strategic and targeted at growth, consider the following to make your meetings more strategic versus tactical.
(1) Discuss One Key Roadblock. Prior to your Weekly Meeting, have each person identify one key roadblock that needs discussion. If it morphs into something that suddenly you realize is bigger than imagined, then this makes for great discussion at a Monthly Meeting (for a “Deep Dive”).
(2) Discuss What We Learned this Week. Some companies have a Weekly Meeting agenda item around “what we learned this week.” Instead of a “report-out” about what each person learned, extend this discussion by asking: Of all the “learnings,” which one can we scale and how?
(3) Strengthen Mutual Accountability & Joint Problem-Solving. Spend more time on quarterly priorities – especially those that are behind. It’s like asking “Why” five times to get to the root of the problem. This also helps to create a culture of mutual accountability and joint problem-solving.
(4) Challenge Thinking. What is something that we really should be doing differently? Why?
(5) Learn from Your Team’s Collective Intelligence. Create a list of key questions to engage the team’s thinking (and see what emerges). For instance:
- Is our Brand giving us sustainability from a client retention perspective?
- Who are our top 3-5 competitors? What do they do well? What are they not willing to do that we could? What can we do to get customers to leave a competitor and sign-on with us?
- Which employees (specifically) are each of us coaching in order to develop our next level of company leaders? Have we identified the right people? Is anyone missing? What (specifically) are we doing to develop these leaders?
- What’s our next big thing? (This should keep you busy for several Weekly Meetings!)
- Who in our company isn’t cutting it, and why? Have we given them a chance to succeed? If so, then what is the tough conversation that needs to be had, and by when?
- What are we sacrificing to accomplish this quarter’s (or year’s) plan? What are implications of those sacrifices? Are there any “Parking Lot” issues here for future discussion?
- What is it about our corporate culture that’s positive? What’s not so positive?
- Do we want to be “good”…or, do we want to be “great?” What are we doing to raise the bar? What about us is different? What are some major logjams holding us back?
(6) Keep Smart. Prior to the Weekly Meeting, each executive team member the same article and discuss it relative to how they might use those insights for the betterment of the company.
(7) Dive into “Starts” and “Stops.” More than likely you’ve identified what you need to “Start Doing” and “Stop Doing,” So what have you actually started or stopped doing from that list?
The degree to which you can up the ante on the content of your Weekly Meetings is the degree to which you can build a great organization.