Thought Bubbles from Unproductive Senior Team Meetings

By: Steven M. Madenberg

There’s that old line, “You’re not paranoid, people really are talking about you behind your back.” If you’re leading a senior team, that’s certainly the case. Once you’re the boss, human nature being what it is, your behavior becomes subject to a heightened level of scrutiny and water cooler conversation. Few dimensions of leadership behavior spawn more arm chair (office chair?) analysis than the way a senior leader conducts meetings. So, yes, they are talking about how you lead in meetings, and yes, suck it up—it’s why you make the bigger bucks.

But by all means, develop your team-meeting leadership skills. Beyond minimizing the conditions for schadenfreude among your direct reports, moving toward mastery of leading meetings of top executives pays huge, lasting organizational dividends. Even accounting for the use of virtual-meeting technology, the ROI associated with a monthly or quarterly enterprise senior team meeting, for example, varies tremendously and can range from five-figure losses to massively positive gains. The higher the level of the senior team, the greater the opportunity cost of wasting their combined time. Said differently, the greater the benefit of bringing them all together and making some great decisions.

The skillset associated with leading productive senior team meetings is not something people are born with and, judging by the many flavors of ineffective that I’ve observed, not a requirement for promotion. Here’s what your meeting participants might be thinking:

  1. Make the call and let’s get on to other things, boss.
  2. I’d bet my 401K that we have the same exact conversation next month.
  3. I had no idea we were going to talk about this.
  4. And around the horn we go. I’ve got about 40 minutes until I need to say something.
  5. An actual agenda would be nice.
  6. Sit up, act interested, and stop checking your mobile devices.
  7. We are only telling you what you want to hear.
  8. Please tell me why those two are even in this meeting.
  9. No, no one read the supporting documents because we just got them this morning.
  10. I guess we’re moving on to the next topic, but no one knows where we landed on the last one.
  11. If you really do want our input, you’re going to have to stop talking.
  12. Go ahead, keep adding priorities, we can do it all (internal eye roll).
  13. Keep yelling, it’s a good look. (Or, You just scared the crap out of us, so you might as well stop talking because we’ve tuned you out.)
  14. This is your meeting. If you want them to stop arguing pointlessly, then say something.

The leadership capabilities associated with running productive senior meetings are, of course, dependent on contextual elements such as purpose, timing, and the extent to which the team is delivering on its goals. At the risk of overgeneralization, however, there are four foundational meeting behaviors that can prevent you from wasting your team’s time.

Be accountable for delivering meeting value. The meeting architecture among too many senior teams is some form of “around the horn,” where each person, in turn, shares what’s going on in their parts of the organization, or provides updates on initiatives they are leading. For this, participants often must take a day (or more) out of their week, month, or quarter, and travel to other locations, not to mention the opportunity costs of not thinking about their strategy, driving execution, or developing their own teams. While there is undeniable value in creating alignment and shared understanding, this can all be accomplished through emailed updates. When you bring expensive people together, it should be to generate additional value, over and above updates. That value can be on the tangible end of the spectrum, such as the value associated with making better decisions, or on the intangible end of the spectrum, such as the value associated with improving team chemistry and connectivity. The point is, as the leader, you are accountable for the thoughtful cost/benefit analysis required to ensure the meeting is designed to deliver real value.

Be unstructured on your own time. As my colleague Traci Berliner wrote about here, even when leading meetings designed to unleash creativity and innovation, a minimal level of structure is imperative. This means you need to develop an actual agenda and send it to participants in advance, so they can wrap their heads around the meeting topics. Also send in advance any material that participants should digest prior to showing up. As the leader, it’s your job to make it possible for participants to prepare and contribute to the best of their abilities.

Be hyper-intentional about what you want to land. And act accordingly. Senior team meetings are perhaps the most dense, rich opportunities for role-modeling the values and cultural attributes for which you stand, whether they’ve been made explicit or not. The more senior your leadership role, the more resonant everything is that you say and do, or don’t say or do. Having a clear sense of what you want your team to take away from the meeting is essential in order to know what you need to communicate in words and actions.

Be sure to complete each discussion.  Nothing drains value from team meetings like incomplete discussions.  Before moving from one agenda item to the next, make sure that there is some useful closure to the topic.  The best way to extract value from each discussion is to let the team know what you are hoping the dialog will provide: Are you looking for a decision to get made?  Are you looking for aligned understanding?  Are you looking for input and ideas?  Tell the team what you are hoping for, making it easy for them to follow your lead.

Bottom line is that meetings have a bottom line, the improvement of which is what you want your people talking about when you’re not there.

Determining which direction to take your company in is one thing; knowing how to get there is another. To learn how RHR can help your senior teams establish a clear direction and align behavior around it while enhancing your team’s ability to work together to achieve their organizational goals and create impact on the bottom line, contact Orla Leonard, Practice Leader, Senior Team Effectiveness.


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