Refreshing Leadership Meetings in 2021Meetings have such a bad reputation, especially among busy executives. But if you do it right, they’ll accept your next invite with a smile.
Facilitate the hell out of your next executive session
Leave them wanting more. Is that even possible with a meeting? People want fewer meetings, right? Or maybe you’re doing it wrong.
2021 is the perfect opportunity for a reset. Next time you facilitate an executive meeting, make it a satisfying experience: effective, focused, respectful, and even fun.
- Do your research. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like the participants realizing you don’t know enough to run the meeting. Don’t make them stop and educate you. Make sure you’re rock-solid on the facts, figures, and history you need.
That starts with the Why. After you think you’re clear on the goals of the session, ask the participants. Send each one a personal invitation and ask them to answer one question:
“Why do you think we need this meeting?”
This will surface misunderstandings so you can resolve them before everyone shows up. It also gives each attendee some buy in – it’s a trick of psychology; you’re getting them on the record saying it’s important.
- Focus. We all know “Begin with the end in mind,” and that’s right. Start the session by confirming the goal. Here are a few more tips:
Limit attendees. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven Rogelberg says the ideal size is seven participants. AND that decision-making effectiveness decreases 10% with each additional attendee! Balance your need to have all the right decision-makers in the room with the value of your outcomes.
Limit devices. I once sat in an exec meeting next to a new team member who kept his laptop open. I was the only one who could see that he wasn’t taking notes; he was reading the news, checking stock performance, and watching hockey highlights on mute. (I swear.) He didn’t last long in the company. Either the meeting is important or it’s not. If it’s not, then cancel it. If it is, then silence phones and close the laptops. If someone gets a call and has to take it, stop the meeting for a break. This has the double-whammy of respecting the call-taker (because you can’t continue without her) and pressuring her to get off the phone fast.
Use a “parking lot.” When someone goes off topic, stop, reset, and document that point on a flipchart page, whiteboard, or notes window. Promise not to lose that thread and follow up after the meeting.
- Limit session time. “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.” ~ Edward Kennedy Ellington. Duke was right— time limits work. Rogelberg and others recommend scheduling hour-long meetings for 50 minutes. If you truly need more time, break it into 50-minute sessions with specific milestone goals for each. And chunking up your process lets you use another technique…
- Delay decisions. Why do we say “I want to sleep on it?” Because it works. Time for reflection and synthesis yields better ideas. We’ve all sent that follow-up email saying, “Hey, I just had another idea” or “We didn’t have time to cover this, but…”
So design that into your session. Up front, explain that you will make no firm decisions at the end of any one meeting. Everyone will go away, let their “back burner” brilliance work, and come back together to confirm. This works well if you have broken your process into multiple short sessions. Assign a milestone goal for Session One, then use the first ten minutes of Session Two to play back tentative decisions, bring in new info, and make a final call.
- One up, one down. This concept comes from the military, but I know it as a best practice in my kids’ Montessori preschool. Each class had two teachers managing 25 kids working independently or in small groups. Rather than the goat rodeo you might expect, the classroom worked beautifully. “One up, one down” meant that when one teacher was focused on teaching students (in a chair or on the floor) the other should be standing, with a view of the whole group.
In an exec session, there should be at least one person focused on documenting, fixing, or providing support; the other should have eyes on the room, to manage the discussion and progress.
- Document, document, document. Executives have zero time for your shenanigans. They don’t want to repeat themselves, argue about what was said last time, or struggle to understand what’s going on. So make sure you collect and replay all essential information.
Record faithfully. If it’s ok with participants, record the audio and/or video of your meeting. That’s the only fool-proof way to make sure you know what happened. If you can’t do that, take copious notes. And commit to being the historian, calling up meeting minutes, inputs, and outputs in real time when asked. Use these to produce executive summaries at milestones and at the end of the process.
Dampen the politics. Sometimes it matters who’s talking. Junior participants might not hold the floor as long, or might get a quick rebuttal. But when you record and play back what happened, you can give all good content equal weight, removing any hierarchical barriers to a good idea.
- All brains matter. People process and retain information differently, so provide as many channels as you can. We default to bullet points and flow charts, with a voice-over from the facilitator. But that’s not the only way. Consider these:
Silent reading. Give the group information to read as an input to your discussion. Some people think better when eyes aren’t on them and people aren’t speaking.
Listening. The growth of podcasts and video books has revealed a segment of people who love to learn with their ears, minus other distractions. Use audio content in the session or as pre-work.
Video. Moving pictures really work for some people, especially with retention. Video has it all: sound, images, and verbal content.
Graphic documentation. This is a powerful way to capture ideas and decisions. Use a graphic artist to illustrate content in real time; you’ll end up with a graphic that conveys more than a list of bullet points ever could. Graphic documentation is a great touchstone to use after the meeting—post your graphic in a space where people can revisit it and use it to communicate to a wider audience.
- Be tenacious. Even the best outputs can evaporate after you all leave the room. People ignore emails, crises emerge, and enthusiasm fades over time. Don’t let go. Set milestones for feedback, new meetings, and other next steps. Get commitment before you leave the room. If necessary, unblock the logjams with one-on-one conversations over time.
- Lighten up. Why so serious? We can accomplish real work and have fun at the same time. We recently asked an exec team to come up with their own theme songs. Each member chose their own song, then they composed a song to represent themselves as a team, real-time. We captured and produced their work of art after the session. It was a good time, but it wasn’t just a good time—it surfaced and confirmed their strengths and cohesion. Think about how to brighten up your session. Use stunning graphics, gamify your process, or use a new environment for the meeting. Fun doesn’t have to get in the way—bake it into the work.
Meetings have such a bad reputation, especially among busy executives. But if you do it right, they’ll accept your next invite with a smile.
How to Be a Facilitative Leader“Leadership is a choice, not a position.”
We are all familiar with the typical autocratic leadership style — the “my way or the highway” mentality. But it’s not the only way to lead.
Well-known business author, Stephen Covey said, “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” Covey is suggesting not only that leadership doesn’t have to come from the top down, but that we can all act as leaders, regardless of our role or title. I’d like to suggest that each of us can become a facilitative leader.
Four Tenets of Facilitative Leadership
Facilitative leadership is all about maximizing others’ contributions. There are four behavior characteristics of a facilitative leader.
- Actively listening and seeking to understand. This includes things like listening intently…asking questions…and paraphrasing what you heard.
- Providing clarity and purpose. Facilitative leaders identify the problem that needs to be solved. They ask and seek answers to “Why are we doing this? Where are we trying to go? Do you know what you’re trying to achieve? Does the team know the objective?”
- Connecting the dots. This means making sense of all the pieces of the project or work effort, and connecting all the players (project team, sponsors, business stakeholders, change agents, etc.). How does one area impact another? What can one member do to support another’s performance? What do different teams need to know about each other and their processes or goals? A facilitative leader stimulates creative thinking through brainstorming, communication, and other activities that connect the elements of a team or organization.
- Influencing collaboration. This involves getting all the players to work together to solve a problem — encouraging group participation. Facilitative leaders manage contrasting perspectives and opinions to minimize conflict among members of a group. For example, they design inclusive group processes that honor individuals’ different learning and participation styles, opening up the space for the more quiet individuals.
Can you be a facilitative leader—even though you’re not the boss and have a specific team and role—and still remain neutral and fair? Yes, you can.
- Asking clarifying questions doesn’t put you on one side of the fence or the other.
- Bringing all the key players into the meeting doesn’t make you biased.
- Ensuring that all meeting participants have an opportunity to share their thoughts, does not mean you’re leaning one way or another.
Neutrality does not mean inaction or passiveness. Neutral facilitative leadership can surface solutions that make the team stronger and help reach organizational goals.
Can you be a facilitative leader?
Many of you are already facilitators. If you’re a project manager, business analyst, change lead, or process improvement specialist, you are a facilitator of change and action. Practicing the four tenets of a facilitative leader can move you from being “merely” a facilitator to being a respected facilitative leader.
And it matters. Because facilitative leaders:
- Get everyone on the same page by applying an integrated lens.
- Draw from the strengths of all team members and impacted areas of the business.
- Gather divergent views and facts before deciding on a plan of action.
- Obtain greater commitment and buy-in from impacted stakeholders.
- Drive creativity, innovation, and brainstorming, resulting in better solutions.
Becoming a facilitative leader will make you more successful because the work you lead will be more successful. Give it a try!
Leadership Lessons: An IntroductionThis is the start of something beautiful.
Most leadership literature is, frankly, useless. It’s loaded with generalities like “Great leaders need to be decisive, strong communicators, cool in a crisis, build agile teams, hire wisely, work toward their values, define markets…” Who wouldn’t agree? When I asked my friends, colleagues and professional contacts, “Has the leadership literature helped you?” their answer was “No.”
Their experiences are grittier than anything the leadership literature addresses. For example:
- Those who managed VC-based companies discovered each was a horse in the stable, employed to solve a particular problem: the executive who can build a team, the one who can grow a market, get the IP protected, or raise capital. Once they achieved their outcomes, they were fired. Each was devastated. But soon they were hired to perform that trick again for another company in the portfolio. Effectively, this type of person became a career executive for that particular problem, for that investment group.
- Executives who acquired a company realized that while they were personally excellent in sales, finance or engineering, they had to learn what it meant to be “strategic.” One had to redefine how he spent his time, what to do, in order to be strategic; another found herself managing a partner who disagreed on how company money should be spent; a third dealt with the anxiety of being personally accountable for mountainous debt; another exec grappled with the sense that, now that he was committed, he couldn’t just quit.
- Leaders who operated within a traditional company had other challenges. One had to create a dynamic personal brand; another had to find a balance between leading and being authentically himself; one felt she had to sometimes choose between being liked with being respected; another had to figure out how to lead while the previous CEO was still with the company, on the board as a co-CEO.
Despite the wide variety of situations, we identified common threads during our conversations.
- The job is filled with worry and stunning levels of stress, even when it’s fun.
- You have to maintain energy and “mojo” and not just focus on problems.
- The nature of your business has its nuances, which affect how you lead.
- Managing time – and those who demand your time – is a critical skill.
The stories from these authentic and accomplished people are superior to anything I’ve gleaned in school, and it’s time to pay it forward. Mary Stewart & I are putting them together as book and, as the work takes shape, I’ll be sharing elements of our interviews in a blog. Stay tuned!