by Gordon Blocker
I’m eager to share this article with you by my good friend and colleague, Gordon Blocker (Little Rock, AR). He offers up some serious food for thought related to running productive and effective meetings as a leader.
Meetings take up a significant amount of a leader’s time and are truly a leader’s “playing field,” in much the same way the stage is for an actor or the classroom is for a teacher. Companies who win have leadership teams that engage in meetings that are compelling and efficient, with healthy conflict as a large component.
I hope you’ll read through Gordon’s thoughts below and think about the classic pitfalls he outlines and how you might steer your own team away from them. Good meetings are a crucial component of transformation for the teams we work with; don’t let poorly structured meetings, or poor behavior in meetings, become an obstacle for you and your team.
The comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.” He was poking fun at the sport that can sometimes devolve from a skillful display of talent into a brawl. Sadly, this reminded me of my work with leaders and teams. I work with a lot of smart, talented people. They host scores of meetings every week. And despite their unquestioned individual intelligence and experience, those meetings can crumble just like a semi-pro hockey match when really smart people make foolish decisions and waste costly time.
Many of these leaders invite me into those meetings to help make them better. It is a huge act of vulnerability for them and their teams to let me in. Everything is on display. And it would be so easy to be an armchair quarterback. Yes, I am honest with them. And yes, the meetings can be a very poor display of healthy conflict, decision-making, efficiency, etc. Yes, many of them are boring and not interesting. But this leads me to a very important disclaimer: I likely would not do any better than any of the leaders I work with. But I try to help them perform and reach a potential perhaps higher than they could ever imagine.
One of the leaders I work with compared my honest meeting assessments to the drills that our military forces constantly execute. He said, “They don’t do it to practice. They do it to find out the problems, the gaps, the holes.” That’s the approach I hope to take. The goal is to help meetings become the most interesting, productive, and even enjoyable hours in a leader’s day. Many weary souls go from work to the bar for happy hour and order a drink called Death by Meeting (shout out to Pat Lencioni’s book). But Pat believes, as I do, that meetings can and should be a central part of a leader’s work.
After attending a significant number of meetings recently, the quote from Rodney Dangerfield came to mind. But my adapted quote would start like this, “I went to a leadership team meeting, and a ________ broke out.” Here are some ways I could complete that sentence:
I went to a leadership team meeting, and a tennis match broke out.
One way a potentially good meeting turns into an unproductive use of time is when two people have an extended back-and-forth dialogue in front of the team. It’s typically something that pertains to the interest or expertise of the two involved, and they feel it’s necessary to ‘hash it out’ at the moment. In some cases, ‘team’ meetings are simply a batch of 1:1 meetings as a leader and team member volley back and forth while the rest of the team watches. Tennis is fun to watch. And repeated volleys in tennis are exciting and show the grit, creativity, and perseverance of the players. But back-and-forth dialogue in a meeting just monopolizes the organization’s most expensive hours, marginalizes other team members, and breaks the rhythm of what could have been a great meeting.
I went to a leadership team meeting, and a talent show broke out.
This is the most common dynamic I see. Somehow in the conventional wisdom of mankind, our instincts tell us that we participate in meetings to showcase to everyone what we are doing. Too many executives show up prepared to ‘report out’ on their work and then ‘get back to work’ as soon as they can. I like to tell teams that meetings are not for FYI, TMI, or CYA. This all relates to a critical issue of organizational health called the Team One concept. If executives were honest, they’d admit that they prioritize and value the ‘team they lead’ and the area they work in more than the ‘team they are on’ and the overarching goals of the organization. In this case, their only real purpose is to attend the meeting as an advocate for their department or business unit. Sometimes people are a bit more gracious to offer some advice to a colleague across the table or they are willing to ‘sit in’ on the parts of meetings that don’t interest them, but that’s a far cry from the definition of a team: a group of people who take collective responsibility for a common goal.
I went to a leadership team meeting, and a bunch of other meetings broke out.
One of the hardest things to avoid is what Pat calls “Meeting Stew.” It’s a simple concept but a difficult task to keep each type of topic in a suitable place. Pat is not overly prescriptive and only offers 4 simple categories. But it’s amazing how often all 4 categories pop up in the same meeting … even at the same time.
“How are we going to get the new ERP system past the goal line?” someone might ask (which is a good example of a Tactical meeting topic).
Then someone chimes in, “Well, that’s hard to say since we don’t really know our 5-year vision and where it fits into that” (Offsite topic).
“Well, that is a question for our new VP of Strategy, and we’ve stalled on that because our recruiting system is going through an overhaul (Strategic topic). Hey Bill, are you listening? What are you doing over there?” Bill is staring at his laptop.
“Oh … sorry I got distracted because the catering bids came in for our all-staff meeting next month, and they need approval by 5 pm” (Check-in meeting topic).
The CFO chimes in, “All bids are supposed to go through our new purchasing department. Did you get that email?”
I think you get the point. From our perspective, there are four types of meetings with four clear purposes. If you mash them into one meeting or conversation, then it turns into a tasteless stew. If you keep all these in their correct place, they all get their due attention.
1. Check-ins – administrative and informational
2. Tactical – weekly adjustments on 5-10 issues to push for execution against existing priorities
3. Strategic – isolating and solving 1-2 big problems, barriers, roadblocks
4. Offsites – quarterly building up team, creating clarity, setting direction, vision, etc.
I went to a leadership team meeting, and a hockey game broke out.
I confess I love sports metaphors. As a former athlete, I can see so many relevant comparisons. Admittedly I never played hockey, but even a causal consumption of a hockey game on television yields insights about the game’s unique characteristics. Each one of these is a hallmark of a great Tactical Meeting.
– Fast pace and movement. Hockey is fast. One of the leaders I work with tells his team, “Go fast, but don’t hurry.” That’s it. Great meetings don’t have a frantic pace. But the pace is a swift one. Lightning round? 5 minutes. Clarity review? 5 minutes. Scoreboard review? 5 minutes. Confirm real-time agenda? 5 minutes. There’s still plenty of time to debate the topics. But, in 20 minutes we’ve gotten a lot done. Many teams will lose this rhythm when someone holds on to the puck too long (rarely happens on a good hockey team).
– Even distribution. There are 6 players on the ice at any given time. That’s a nice number for a team. (Pat says 3-12 so that’s right down the middle.) And great hockey teams – heck, most hockey teams – move the puck around to each player fairly evenly. Great teams do the same. They ask questions and get people involved. It would be ironic to have one hockey player standing near the side of the rink and drinking a soda while the game is going on. Unfortunately that’s something I see too frequently in meetings as people are marginalized or opt out of conversations, or the meeting altogether.
– Quick transitions. One leader I work with uses a single word to help create good transitions in meetings. “Next!” That’s it. Once the topic or question has had its due attention, and the good ol’ 80/20 rule has set in, he says in a loud, clear voice, “Next!” It’s rare that anyone says, “Hey Mike…we need more time on that…just 3 minutes and we’ll have it down.” Instead, I often hear the opposite as team members breathe a sigh of relief that a discussion has ended rather than dragging on as the team violently agrees with each other or competes for the last word.
– Three periods. Hockey games have a first period, a middle period, and a final period. Now you might think I’m stretching the metaphor here, but that is a powerful comparison to great meetings. The first period is about context (Lightning Round, Clarity Review). The next period is about healthy conflict as the team debates the issues and topics that need immediate resolution (Tactical agenda) and populates the list of topics that require separate meetings (Strategic Adhoc list). And there should be conflict. No conflict means the team already agrees (move on) or it’s not a critical issue (move on). The last period is about cascading as we articulate the decisions and messages that need to flow out of the meeting into the rest of the organization for the rest of the week.
– A clear goal. Hockey has a clear objective: put the puck entirely across the goal line. While it sometimes happens via a beautiful combination of passes and moves that will later be on SportsCenter, sometimes it is messy as multiple players crowd the net and swipe at it. But a goal is a goal. A decision is a decision. Pat likes to say, “A decision is better than no decision.” And we assess teams for how proficient they are at making decisions without perfect information. After a messy goal in hockey, you don’t see players saying, “Hey, can we do that over? That was neither our best form nor the play we were trying to run.” No, they just accept the goal and move on to the next play. In a good tactical meeting teams can hit on 10 topics. In a great one, I’ve seen even 15 quick tactical problems get addressed and solved. And if you are wondering if your meetings are good, just look at the list of decisions you made in them over a calendar quarter. Decisions and cascading messages are the product of meetings. What do your meetings produce? If you skate on the ice for an hour, look great, but never score…you are not playing hockey well…you are just at the rink showcasing your skills, not winning a hockey game. Goals are the outcome of a hockey game. Answers, solutions, and decisions are the outcomes of meetings.
So, there it is … hockey’s relationship with executive meetings. Imagine the commentator giving the play-by-play. “Curiosity kicks the puck over to Ideas. Ideas back passes it to Discernment. Discernment flips a between-the-legs pass to Devil’s Advocate. Devil’s Advocate smacks a long pass down the wall to Common Sense. Common Sense crosses it in front of the goal to Clarity who smashes the puck into the back of the net! Goal!!”
Thanks for indulging this commentary of mine on meetings. In keeping with my disclaimer at the beginning I’ll just say two things. (1) Exceptional meetings that fit these hockey-metaphor criteria are the exception rather than the norm, but (2) everything laid about above is within every leader and team’s grasp. Here’s to the next meeting you go to when a hockey meeting breaks out. I can’t wait to be there and cheer you on!