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  • John Chambers, PhD

Meandering Meetings: Costly Indictments on the Culture

Years ago an executive was dismissive of a steering committee session. The host of this meeting would arrive on a monthly basis and seek counsel, deliberate ideas against a problem set that was refined and structured. The forum purpose was advancement of the IT Strategy. It was at the highest level of the enterprise. It worked. Over time, one executive peculiarly became tired of the format and apparently missed the point. He said, “We sit here and are presented a palette of initiatives with some goals on it. This meeting should be about strategy!”

So be it.

Then what is it that this executive wanted to do? Unfortunately, and based on history, he wanted to pontificate and shoot the breeze, without structure, resolved approach and business decision-making.

Forgive the contention but becoming an executive is not carte blanche to sip coffee over ideas that go nowhere. The meeting requires a theme, a succinct set of topics to resolve. As executives leave that meeting the company should be closer to its goals, its costs should be nearer to optimal, and the strategy nearer to its success. It should not be a weekly, ad hoc collection of chit-chat topics, or reminders that we all are busy with a thousand to-do's. That’s already understood. Intra and interdepartmental communications are not optimized by extra meetings, especially at the executive level.

How do we host our staff meetings?

Is it a status update, an ad hoc issue juggling act, a habit?

What are the returns gained from the meeting?

Consider that an executive review hosts the leaders of the department or the enterprise. As leader, are you using the forum to educate and elucidate? This is not the time for a laundry list of items where the senior executive asks, “Did you speak to Marketing about this conflict?” “Did Sales commit to a date?” “Can you get together with Shane on this?” These questions are transactional. If they are rhetorical or conversational then we might be nit-picking. But if it’s a corporate way of life, it implies a lack of leadership. Is it the case that the leaders really don’t know the answers to the above questions without asking? These types of questions are table stakes; they go without saying. The leadership team is expected to be expert in driving a culture of communication. Aren’t our direct reports, leaders themselves, already experts in collaborative environment? Don’t they already know with whom they must speak, agree, settle, engage?

If departmental staff meetings are laced with questions that are transactional, items that should already be standard in daily operations, then reset and deliberate on how to incorporate the thinking in the culture.

An enterprise issue in some of the largest corporations continues to be fundamentals in trust. For the executive who is discussing a current project or initiative, asking if Jane spoke to Mary, what is the answer the exec is expecting? Isn’t the expectation that these leaders are doing just that? Is Jane going to say, “No, I didn’t have a chance”? And if Jane does say that, then the exec has an opportunity to talk about communication expectations and how these table stakes must be embedded in the enterprise daily life. The original question to Jane in open forum (if commonplace) does not portend an efficient organization. Are we leading or micro-managing?

More importantly, are meetings consumed with a relatively minor cost savings issue, whereby the 90 minutes of chit-chat just cost ten thousand dollars in the salary line item? Professionals’ time is money. How much time is spent in the meeting discussing a cost savings item that is small change compared to progressing an initiative that will save millions? These examples may seem rare as we again consider that we, as executives “already know all this.” Yet in all our environments, this behavior recurs.

Executives must have their ears to the ground, noticing ambiguity and confusion. It may concern financial governance and how budget changes impact the customer base. There could be strategic issues to which the board is struggling, and the impact to all direct reports needs to be assessed. Perhaps there is confusion as to how one group will support a program, or what the program is about. So will the meeting move closer to improving the situation, or will it meander with a hanging action item for someone to follow-up, whatever that means, festering the issue for another week?

Go back to basics. Oftentimes, issues are discussed, which imply several of the team don’t understand the objectives of the initiative. Perhaps there is good reason that they don't. Has the initiative been documented? Programmatically structured? Is the objective in plain business terms and business outcomes? Is there a shared baseline?

Even in discussions where the team is quite familiar with the topic, still start with the business case in a few sentences. Briefings without a basic artifact, accompanying the problem set and a handful of alternatives are sucking the cash from the coffers. What is the savings, advantages, goal in currency? Remind the group at the outset of the initiative's purpose. Do we have the luxury of meetings that are not formalized?

Executive forums are an opportunity for one leader to present the issues and concerns to the other leaders. This is fair and right with a caveat. How much of this should have been observed in the day-to-day activities of the firm? If these discussions are problem-solving then so be it. If they are informational, then keep them short and direct.

Each of our meetings requires a theme, a succinct set of topics to resolve. As executives leave that meeting the company should be closer to its goals, its costs should be nearer to optimal, and the strategy nearer to its success. Make your executive meetings a commitment to resolve a problem and set a standard for future tactics and strategy, not problem recurrence. Don’t spend an inordinate amount of time diverting.

Your executive meetings should not be an ad hoc means to trade a few war stories and deliver an obligatory acknowledgement that the attending departmental managers are going along, doing their already-expectant jobs.

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