Barnaby would like to thank Ed Barrows of Palladium Group, Inc. for his contribution to this month's column.

As anyone who has ever defined a strategy and tried to get an executive team on board knows, establishing the right meeting behavior is a critical ingredient to success. It can often be a much tougher challenge than establishing the right meeting content and process (a topic I addressed in last month's column) because executing strategy involves both taking action and implementing change. If leadership and team behavior are not conducive to change, the organization will continue to stay mired in the status quo.

I worked with a large insurance company we'll call XYZ Global that, with the help of a very capable team of senior finance managers, did a tremendously good job preparing a new, strategy-focused report for the executive team's quarterly business reviews. The core team spent countless hours assembling this report. Upon reviewing it, the president declared that it was exactly what he needed to manage the business.

But when the meeting was held a few days later, something went terribly wrong. Despite the clear agenda and the robust report, the team never made it to the key points. The discussion was circular, and territorial issues kept surfacing. Where results were less than desirable, certain executives became defensive and questioned the reliability of the data, pointed the finger at others or tried to cover up the truth. By the end of the session, the core team wondered if their strategic reporting initiative would be effective after all.

The story of XYZ Global is not a unique one. Almost every organization struggles to establish the right behavior for its leadership team meetings. This is because team behavior is typically governed by a set of unwritten rules such as, "Don't bring the boss bad news," "There's no career benefit to taking risks" and "Don't waste your time getting other people's approval - just do it." These rules that govern behavior tend to create a dynamic that affects how decisions get made - and whether they are good or bad ones. The strategy review meeting forces the leadership team - and, by extension, the entire organization - to confront its ability (or inability!) to change. It tends to bring out the best and worst of corporate culture. As a result, running strategy review meetings takes leadership.

Breaking these behavioral patterns and keeping people focused on the strategically relevant often calls for a whole new way of thinking and acting. You need to promote openness and candor rather than punish subpar performance. You need to get people to operate outside of their "silos" and foster a sense of common purpose. Forcing change from the top by commanding people to think or act in new ways almost always fails. A leader must set a good example and create the right atmosphere to motivate the right behavior. Executive team members need to learn how to adapt their behavior both in and outside of meetings. How do you do that?

  1. Give participants a decision briefing along with the agenda. Before every meeting, help people prepare by communicating the key issues that need to be discussed and resolved. If you expect the group to identify performance drivers or assess whether current initiatives are on the right track, let them know this ahead of the meeting by circulating a decision briefing that lists key issues that need to be resolved. That way, they will bring their best thinking into the meeting. Also, contemplate the behavior you want to stimulate, whether it's a willingness to reveal bad news, an appetite for brainstorming or a heightened sense of teamwork.
  2. Foster inquiry, not inquisition. At the meeting, keep your questions and comments objective. Give team members a role in solving problems. Especially in complex organizations where answers aren't always available, leaders should suppress the urge to criticize and instead adopt a neutral and inquisitive manner to analyze problems. Instead of asking, "Why is our production backlog out of control?" try pursuing a series of questions that engage the team: "I'm noting a trend in our production backlog, am I correct?" (This doesn't put anyone on the spot and acknowledges shared responsibility.) "Now what do we think is driving this trend?" (pulling the team into the discussion); and "What should we do about it?" (moving toward decision).
  3. Be clear that you expect everyone to participate actively. Facilitation is generally the key to a good discussion. At meetings, be sure to engage everyone in the discussion. Encourage active participation and call upon those who are inclined to listen.
  4. Celebrate success and share failure. Cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and shared credit for both successes and failures. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity. Compliment teams and individuals whenever they accomplish something or show improvement. Reinforce and reward managers who demonstrate such leadership behavior themselves.
  5. Communicate. Let people know through your actions and words. Be sure to communicate the decisions made at the meeting so everyone feels that their time was used productively. Open communication lines to people not present in the meetings who may be asked to implement the changes. Make it clear that their input is valued.

When you act like a leader - in true strategy-focused fashion - you'll discover that your colleagues are on board and positive new behaviors will quickly take root in the organization.  

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