It’s the scourge of most boardrooms. A virulent and disabling disease that paralyses real progress in organisations. The symptoms are all too familiar. The team gets together for its regular meeting. Hearts are already heavy from seeing the agenda – which is a terrifyingly long list of updates from departments and projects. Each presents the prospect of a long, rambling and often purposeless input from a member of the team – during which most of the rest of the team will switch off.
There’s also a clear heirarchy. Finance always comes first and takes longer than it should. Everyone then takes their turn until, if the team gets that far down the agenda, HR get a few minutes to try to get the attention and support of a, by now exhausted, team.
It’s a weary and discouraged team who leave the room. The meeting has been a long list of mostly problems and bad news. Some actions have been noted but may issues remain unaddressed. Inevitably, the agenda wasn’t completed. More frustratingly still, this meeting has (like many others before it) touched briefly on a few really key challenges for the organisation – but there wasn’t time to open them up and address them properly. Instead, some simple and inadequate sticking plasters have been applied. No-one present expects things to improve much before the next meeting.

How does the disease take hold?

Every update that most teams receive are important. The problem is that there are more important issues which get sidelined by teams’ habitual patterns of constructing agendas. There’s a felt need in each member to make sure that his or her department/project maintains its profile so that the support and resources it needs from the board is sustained. There’s also a mistrust of the progress on key projects – so project owners are required to update the team and defend the status of their piece of work.
But there’s another set of issues that aren’t owned by any one team member. This is the small set of underlying challenges which give rise to many of the presenting issues that the team has to wrestle with month in and month out. Every organisation has them. Most members of most teams can name them, but few teams are giving them sufficient collective time and focus to first truly understand them and then to find real solutions.
It is the job of every leadership team to address these underlying issues. Once they get to grips with them the performance of the organisation accelerate sharply – and the experience of being part of the team, including the monthly meetings, is also transformed.

So what are these underlying issues?

There’s one characteristic that every one of these issues shares. They are always cross functional in nature. Even the ones that are driven by one team member or function are critically dependent for success on contributions from other functions.

They are often to be found in the areas of process or people. The financials usually get enough time because of external scrutiny. Customer and commercial projects generally get attention because of the immediacy of their impact on the numbers. Issues relating to processes and people, however, which underpin the commercial and financial performance (or lack of it) are often neglected. These are always cross functional by nature and are the real problems which create much of the  daily firefighting.

Every team we have ever worked with has elevated multiple process and people initiatives to be critical priorities. Process issues are specific to each organisation but the people issues are remarkably consistent. The most common of these are strengthening the leadership group outside the top team, shifting the culture to fit the needs of the current challenges and dealing effectively with underperformers across the organisation. HR, who have usually spent years trying to get sufficient attention on and support for (often the very same) people issues often particularly benefit from the realisation that process and people issues become some of the key areas of focus for the leadership team.

The role of the leadership team

It is the job of the Leadership Team to address these few, cross functional, underlying issues. These are the issues that can only be addressed by the Leadership Team. If they don’t deal with them, no-one will.

We call the discussions to agree these key issues ‘Priority Conversations’.  They are one of the Six Game Changing Conversations. They build on Ambition Conversations (which set the destination for the team and organisation) and provide the foundation for everything else the team does.

Making the most important things the most important things

The first step to shifting update-itis in your team is to get aligned on what these key issues are for your organisation. It’s not difficult and you can find tools for doing so in our book JUMP!

Whichever tool you choose, the basic method is the same:-

  • Ask each member of the team what they think are the things that the leadership team should be focussing its time and efforts on
  • Share these different views and consolidate them together into groups
  • Prioritise the groups until you have 5-7 things that are the most important and urgent for the team to address.

You won’t be surprised by the list that emerges. But you will be shocked when you compare this list with where you currently spend your time as a team.

You will need to make sure your work together is focussed on addressing these priorities. Most teams we work with quickly make dramatic changes to the structure and agendas for their time together.

Getting focussed on these critical priorities will do more than change the monthly meeting agenda. Once you are dealing with the underlying issues, the symptoms of them will begin to recede – freeing more time and resources for what really matters.

For those who own the people and process agendas, life will change dramatically. Instead of you trying to drive the team to get the support and resources you need, they will own and drive the issues with you. This will give you not only the resources you need, but also the personal leadership from each of your line colleagues required to make people changes happen – and stick.

Left brains get it right

An electronics company we were working with was full of highly intelligent engineers. Their skills at analysis and appetite for numbers meant huge board packs with incredible detail – and correspondingly soul destroying meetings.

Worse still, their results were frustratingly flat. In a market in which rapid growth was the norm, they were struggling for even modest sales uplifts. As part of the work we did together, they decided to engage the wider leadership group in their Priority Conversation.

60 senior managers gathered in a room. They sat in groups and debated what was holding the organisation back – and what was needed to create the growth they needed. When we looked at the outputs from each group there was a surprising consistency.

They came up with eight critical priorities. Three of these were People issues and two related to processes. The energy flowed and plans were created to give focus and resources to the new priorities. Some of those conversations were difficult. Sacred cows were slain, and some difficult decisions had to be made.

Three years on, the company now leads in its marketplace. A variety of internal projects have been delivered and they have made two acquisitions.  The board is a transformed team and that newly formed wider leadership group now meets regularly. They still love their detailed analysis but they now keep it focussed on a, regularly reviewed, list of key priorities.

Developing a high performing leadership team

Creating a team that functions well, exploits the amazing strengths each member brings and complements the inevitable weaknesses that every member also has can lead to dramatic improvements. It can transform an organisation’s results, culture and prospects, quickly and permanently.

It is perfectly possible to take a normal, uninspired, disparate collection of people and talents and set in motion a process that will help it evolve into a powerful, unified and productive Leadership Team.

You can do it, and it can happen quickly. A complete and sustainable transformation will take time, but the first positive signs of change will be visible, and making a real difference, within weeks. You just need to know how to go about it.

Making changes in your team

In my Book, JUMP!, I set out in detail how you can build the case, generate support for and develop your Leadership Team. Over the next few issues, I’ll expand on how HR professionals can apply these ideas to improve the effectiveness of their Leadership Teams and make truly transformational change to the people agenda in their organisation.

For now, you can get your free copy of JUMP! (hard copy or eBook) here.

I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email .

Read more…

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadershipwhich shows what it looks like in practice — based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson