7 questions to make your annual leadership meeting matter

By Charlie Sull on June 27, 2013 in Strategy Execution

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About this time every year, the top hundred or so executives at big companies escape the crummy weather at home and flock somewhere sunny–think Orlando or Phoenix–for their annual leadership summit.  The cost of these meetings, including managers’ time, travel, and event expenses can run into seven figures.

Managers spend most of the year in their own fox holes working on their team’s objectives. The annual meeting provides a chance to raise their sights from day-to-day operational matters to talk about the big picture. When done well, these meetings can turbo-charge execution.  The managers in attendance can use their personal networks, credibility, and positional power to drive strategy execution throughout the organization. If they leave the meeting confused or underwhelmed, however, they can also drag their feet, implement half-heartedly, or subtly sabotage any strategy top executives concoct.

  1. Have you simplified your strategy?  Senior executives often deluge participants with loosely-related or conflicting ideas collectively labelled “our strategy.” One bank introduced a strategy consisting of a mission, a vision statement, 3 key transformation initiatives, 4 core competencies, 4 strategic priorities, a house with five layers and seven pillars (including core beliefs, values, and rules of conducting business), 5 customer service priorities, and 20 promises to customers, employees, investors, and communities. The CEO left it participants to figure out how these items all hung together and charged them with communicating this jumble in a coherent way to their teams. It is the board’s job to define a concise (stated on one page) strategy that lays out a handful of must win battles and explains why these matter in terms everyone can understand and communicate to their teams. Unless top executives define clearly what matters most—and by extension what is not as important—participants spend much of their time confused, talking past one another, or checked out.
  2. Are you reflecting on the past as well as forecasting the future? These sessions often consist of a series of presentations laying out the objectives of each business unit and function. There is little public discussion of what the units promised last year, how they did against those commitments, and what they learned as a result. This is a mistake. Publicly reviewing past performance builds in a higher level of accountability. These are difficult discussions, and that is the point. Public reviews increase the discomfort level when managers fail to deliver. They also provide an opportunity to learn collectively from what hasn’t worked in the past, to reduce the odds of making the same mistakes repetitively.
  3. What is your ratio of broadcast to dialogue? The typical meeting consists of a long series of presentations. They are typically scheduled for 90 minutes, run over, and leave only 5 or so minutes for questions and discussions at the end. These conversations, tacked on as an afterthought, compete with participants desperate need for a cup of coffee and a break. Presentation accounts for 90% or more of the most important sessions, and this ratio is way off. To execute the strategy, middle managers need to understand what it means not in abstract terms, but to them. To fully commit, managers need to kick the tires to ensure the strategy stands up to challenge and resonates with their view of markets. These optimal sessions include an equal mix of presentation and discussion.
  4. Are you talking about things that don’t matter for strategy execution? The limited time allocated to discussion is often squandered on conversations that are not that important. One large software firm, for example, devoted more than half a day (of a two day meeting) to small group discussions of each individual’s personal passions. These discussions were interesting and fun, but given that company’s failure to execute its strategy in the past, they were hardly the best use of time. More productive discussions, in my view, include small group conversations about what the strategy means; cross-unit dialogues about what units need from functional partners; plenary discussions on what could derail execution at the enterprise level (and how to overcome these obstacles); one-on-one mentoring sessions with senior colleagues; and fire-side chats with senior executives for more informal discussions.
  5. Are you moving beyond talk to committed action?  Even if the managers discuss the right things in the right way, annual meetings stall if they fail to channel the energy and insight into concrete action. Companies often want managers to write up their personal “to do” list, and this opportunity for reflection is no doubt helpful. The most productive commitments, however, are social. I don’t mean that every individual stands up and commits before the entire group (although that can work in smaller group), but rather that they make commitments to colleagues whom they work with regularly. By making public commitments, managers signal to one another what they intend, which makes it easier to flag potential problems and coordinate activities. Public commitments create peer-pressure to deliver and increase accountability.
  6. Are you trying to force commitments? In many meetings, the CEO or President stand at the front of the room and say things like “Everyone who is committed to executing this strategy stand up.” Everyone, of course,  rises to their feet, which is read as unanimous commitment. It is nothing of the sort. Later that night, the managers congregate with their pals at the bar and discuss their misgivings. The pressure to do what the boss is the corporate equivalent of putting a gun to someone’s head to force them to sign a contract. In the law, contracts signed under duress are not binding. Likewise, managers who feel bullied into committing, will not feel personally bound by their commitment (although they might comply out of fear). Managers are most likely to execute with vigor and urgency when they have understood the strategy, talked it through, and committed of their own volition. In the end, forced commitments undermine accountability. Managers who fail to achieve objectives that were forced on them, always have a good excuse for failing to deliver.
  7. Are your top executives walking the talk?  Annual meetings are an outstanding forum for top executives to model behavior they expect to see. If top executives do not challenge one another in public, they send the message that it is acceptable to dodge difficult conversations. If they fail to hold themselves accountable for results, they signal that middle managers can dodge accountability as well. When they wander in and out of the meeting or peck away at their iPhone, they show everyone in the room that the meeting is not that important. And if they fail to stand up and admit where they made mistakes or failed to deliver, they encourage everyone else to hide behind a mantle of managerial infallibility.

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