In my career as a leader, and latterly as a consultant, I have sat in on a huge number of Leadership Team meetings. Some are better and others worse but, overall, the standard of them is surprisingly poor.

Over ambitious agendas, rambling updates, visibly disengaged participants and, most importantly, superficial discussion that don’t seem to be getting to the heart of the issue are the norm.  Given the calibre of the people in the room, how can this be? Why do we put up with such poor meetings – and how can we change them?

The evils of the ‘Update’

Leadership Teams are comprised of human beings and are just as susceptible to falling into bad habits. These habits are a big part of the reason why groups of talented and experienced people keep doing things that clearly aren’t working. They just aren’t getting the most out of the enormous resources of knowledge and experience in the room when the Leadership Team gets together.

The most pernicious of these habits is the ‘Update’. Whether it’s for a department or a project, someone will walk through a lengthy PowerPoint or Word document. Scarcely pausing for breath, they will talk to each page in the paper, explaining the details in even more depth. Most in the room are either disinterested or don’t understand the relevance and people tend to ‘tune out’.

Sooner or later, the presenter will hit on a subject which inflames the energy of at least one person in the room. It may be something important but it can also be an incidental issue. Either way, a debate ensues and a chunk of meeting time gets used in following it through. Eventually, the item runs out of time and the presenter feels relieved if they have got through without getting a hard time or having the work derailed in some way. Little, if any, progress has been made and a frustrated team moves on to the next ‘update’…

The consequences of this for organisational performance are profound. The meetings absorb a large amount of the time of the most valuable people in the business – and sap their energy and motivation. Even more importantly, the really important issues never get enough airtime. The ones that are discussed are addressed superficially – with important underlying issues not explored or addressed.

The antidote; three simple and practical disciplines

The teams we work with make major leaps forward by putting three critical basics in place. You probably know that all these things are ‘good practice’ but the key is into making them into rigorous disciplines.

1.   Purposeful papers

Problem: Too often papers are produced which are full of information (often rehashed versions of existing documents to save time) but have unclear objectives.

Solution: Every paper should have a covering sheet which clearly states what the key issues are and what is required from the Leadership Team discussion (usually one or more of; a decision/s, support or help).

2.   Assumed pre-reading

Problem: The presenter assumes (often correctly) that at least some of the team members haven’t read the paper so they need to go through it to get everyone up to speed.

Solution: A rule is established that papers are always circulated at least 48 hours before the meeting. All team members are required to both pre-read the papers and also to identify any questions or needs that they have from the Leadership Team discussion.

3.   Identifying the areas of focus

Problem: The team discussion spends the most time on the first issues or questions that come up. These are not always the most important ones – and those can be compromised or even not discussed at all if, as a result, time becomes squeezed at the end of the item.

Solution: Every item starts with the presenter asking each person around the table in turn what questions or needs they would like to address. The presenter then takes a moment to decide on a logical order to work through the list, ensuring that the most important issues are given the most time by being dealt with first. They then manage the discussion, ticking off each issue/question as it is dealt with.

Transformation in 24 hours

I was working with a team who, like many others in today’s economic climate, had some big challenges in front of them.

They had a number of divisions, each of which was facing different, but equally stubborn, issues. Despite having a strong group of leaders around the table, team meetings were ineffective.

The team had reached a point where most members resented coming to Leadership Team meetings at all. They saw it as a day a month when, at best, they would sit through a number of largely irrelevant updates that made no contribution to their challenges. At worst individuals would get ‘beaten up’ by the rest of the team for the performance in their area.

As usual, one of the first things we did was to introduce the three meeting disciplines above. At the next meeting, the addition of clear objectives made it much clearer what the discussion was aiming to address. Each team member added their questions to this at the start of the item and presenters (with a little trepidation) each followed the process.

The resulting change in the meeting was transformational. The first divisional head to present held a deep and wide ranging conversation about his division and the challenges they were facing. The team got below the usual superficial and critical discussion to genuinely explore the underlying issues. Not only did this generate some radical ideas and approaches, but he reported afterwards that he felt the whole team was working with him to try to find solutions – and that this felt completely different to previous meetings where, as he put it, it felt like others ‘stood on the side-lines throwing mud’.

This one conversation changed the trajectory of the division in question. Over the next few months, an entire product line was discontinued to free resources for the acceleration of an exciting new product that had been labouring through their development programme for years. The short term hit in performance was dwarfed by the orders generated for the new product inside a year and the division has gone on to post double digit sales growth for the next two years.

Making a change in your team

There’s no rocket science in this.  Most people reading this will either know it already – or quickly see that it’s ‘just common sense’. Very few teams, however, do it consistently well.

If you’re leading a team. Simply put this into practice. Today. If you’re not the leader then propose it at your next team meeting. The difference that these essential basics can make can be truly transformational.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which 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.