The Surprisingly Simple Fix for Ineffective Leadership Teams

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

It’s no secret that many leadership teams don’t function as well as they could or should. Leadership teams are the people in your organization who collectively hold the responsibility for just about everything that impacts growth, operations, employee engagement, and productivity. They’re often looked up to and have say and sway regarding how things get done. They often are the more senior or tenured employees and have earned their positions through past successes and ongoing performance in their areas of expertise.

Individually, they might shine. So, why can’t they get along and get stuff done when they’re together?

I see leadership teams up close and personal, facilitating dozens of offsite meetings each year. While the agendas are always customized to the unique, stated problems facing the group, there are invariably underlying issues with trust, respect, communications, and lines of authority. There are difficult relationships and politics. Many maintain a thorough accounting of past wrongs done to them and opportunities missed because of others’ ineptitude. Almost everyone is keeping score.

With interpersonal challenges like these, you’d think the fix would be big and expensive and might even require letting some people go. However, in my experience, leadership team function can be dramatically improved by addressing one simple but important thing—the recurring leadership team meeting.

Leadership team meetings typically are boring, tedious, and ineffective. What’s remarkable is that most organizations hold them every single week.

The leadership team meeting is the standing meeting in which the senior staff get together. The intent is to share what’s going on around the organization and to solve the problems common among them.

The conversation breaks down almost immediately because the session is unstructured and team members are free to dominate or tune out without much consequence. Any expectations to prepare in advance or actively participate are pretty minuscule. Most leadership teams go through the motions each week. Little is discussed, and often people disband feeling like it was yet another wasted hour of precious time. They’re all anxious to get back to their “real work.”

If you’re the one at the head of the table, this Groundhog Day-type experience can be incredibly frustrating. You probably handpicked most of these people and like each individual very much. You wonder why they can’t work more effectively together and get conflicting, biased messages about how to fix it. In side conversations, team members might advocate for reorganizations or budget realignment. They might enumerate their colleague’s failings and the slights they’ve endured.

What’s surprising is that as overwhelming as the leadership team problems might feel, the starting point for resolution is simple. Make the leadership team meeting work for you, instead of against you.

To start, announce that you’ll be changing up the meeting. This move will get people’s attention. They’re used to boring, bland, and ineffective, so they’ll be keen to hear what you have in mind.

Next, toss out your scantily clad, generic agenda and vow to never go ‘round the horn again as a way to fill the time.

Pull out your annual work plan or goals. Identify three or four specific ongoing initiatives that matter to everyone or most everyone. These will be the basis of the discussion going forward.

Remove any requirement to create briefing slides or a weekly status report. High-fives will ensue.

Lastly, set (then rigorously and fairly enforce) these new ground rules.

  • Any business between two divisions should be handled before or after but not during the meetings on everyone else’s time.
  • Only topics with shared strategic, operational, or employee impacts should be discussed. There should be plenty of these to keep the group busy all year. If not, refresh the strategic plan or do an employee satisfaction survey STAT.
  • Keep the discussion for discussion’s sake to the minimum needed to understand the issue. Write down action items. Each action item should have a person responsible and due date identified. Rotate responsibility for creating the list. Nothing fancy is needed and do this in place of minutes.
  • Tell the group that the meeting is their chance to speak up on the topic under discussion. If they don’t say anything, they don’t get to second-guess the agreed-upon direction after the fact. It’s done. Get on board and move on.
  • Any information leaks about personnel decisions or gossip about each other is grounds for removal from the leadership team.
  • Any pre-reads should be just that—read in advance. If anyone turns up unprepared, they will be invited to leave the room and finish the reading. The discussion, however, will not wait.

Just passing time together in a meeting isn’t enough to create an effective leadership team. Just because the group was gathered and talking doesn’t mean that communication has been effective or issues have been resolved.

Creating a more functional leadership team doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, complex task. Restructuring this precious and valuable time together by focusing on important cross-organization initiatives and setting expectations for participation is key to a more productive meeting, and in turn, a more cohesive team.

The post originally appeared in GovExec.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Want Better Virtual Meetings? Use this Printable Checklist

Minimal Gestural Art by Lauren Adams

Minimal Gestural Art by Lauren Adams

Many of us spend our days on one call after another. It's almost the default to how works get done. Meet during the day then squeeze "actual" work in before and after hours.

Some of these meetings are fine, some are terrible-- few are actually good and member. I read a stat recently on post-meeting recall.  It's something abysmal. Few of us can remember even 20 minutes after a meeting what the main points where and any key decisions made. Actually, maybe I heard the stat in a meeting and now I can't remember.  Anyway... Keith Ferrazzi shared this helpful piece on How to Run a Great Virtual Meeting on Harvard Business Review.

WHY I LOVE IT

It's practical and takes the tried and true advice shared in most articles a step further. He makes an unmissable point about doing anything you can to stop multitasking. This is so important and so difficult to enforce-- even on ourselves. The temptations are too great. I participated in an all-day meeting last week where everyone was in the room but one person who called in from Arizona. There are about 1 million things I'd personally rather do but she was game. She actually sat on her couch all day-- away from her computer-- so that she would force herself to listen and participate. It seemed to work pretty well because she was chiming at appropriate points during the day.

HOW YOU MIGHT USE IT

I took some of his points and added a few of my own to create this little printable reminder that you can keep near your desk phone. So, print this.

free printable checklist for better meetings

Then, without telling anyone, just start using these techniques in advance of your next meeting. There are a couple of things that (to me) make the difference between a good and totally awful virtual meeting experience. If you do nothing else, I'd recommend banning the "around the horn" brief-outs.  It's an invitation for people to disengage.  Prereads and an agenda focused on gathering feedback and brainstorming is the other way to go. The other thing is to reserve a little bit of time at the end for people (while they're still technically together on the call) to break the multitasking rule and ask them to take one step towards the actions agreed-upon during the meeting. I find that there is this energy spike that happens right near the end that should be seized to propel the group forward. Even 10 minutes after, the action seems harder and is more likely to be put off or go undone.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Improve Your Performance Measures With Logic Models

Mid Century Modern by Honey Cup

Mid Century Modern by Honey Cup

After an insightful conversation with performance measures guru, Gary Better, I’m sold on logic models as a method to reorienting your measures from crappy, boring, and onerous to awesome—if such a change appeals to you. Of course, as any good guru will do, Gary would tell you that logic models are part of a more holistic approach to setting up a performance management program. Indeed. However, the logic model is a simple, straightforward way figure out what makes sense to add given your program’s maturity and available data.

Once your inventory all of your measures and bucket them according to your program's objectives, you’re ready to tackle the logic model.

Why use logic models? For me, the number one reason is that they get you (and by extension your management team) focused on what is strategically important (outcomes) rather than simply what is easily measured (data, process, and output). Every program and organization needs a blend of each of these four categories.  

The problem is that we tend to load up on measures at the front end of this process at the expense of looking closely at the actual outcomes we’re achieving.  Though we all do it, it’s totally lame and there is a better way.

Here’s one version of a performance measure logic model that works for all types of programs.  

Performance Measurement Logic Model

The idea is that you’d walk through each step backwards (outcome, output, process, then data) in the simple flow chart and ask yourself, your management team—and maybe if you’re feeling crazy—a customer or two to following questions…

  1. What outcomes are we trying to achieve?  List a couple and by when, if possible. An example of an outcome might be something like, “A safer and healthier work place.”

  2. What program output are ongoing or completed? An example could be “Number of safety issues addressed through completed projects.”

  3. What processes are being tested?  A process example is, “Health and safety inspections completed with work orders generated in the system.”

  4. What supporting data is needed? To close out this example, the data might include number of buildings with asbestos or estimated remediation cost.

Note:  It helps to have your desired outcomes handy.  These should be in your strategic plan—though they might be a little vague.  That’s ok.  Spend (a little) time tweaking, if needed.

While not simple necessarily, this is a straightforward approach to rebooting your measures approach and getting everyone focused on the desired outcomes-- a big win for our programs.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Strategic Plan Template

Very Sleepy by Lisa Barbero

Very Sleepy by Lisa Barbero

A client asked me this morning to review and comment on his organization’s strategic plan template.  A template?  What? The thoughts racing through my mind went something like... "You can’t template a strategic plan. I mean, sure, there are a handful of broad headers that you could type up but to what end? Creating a template would exacerbate one of the biggest problems with our typical approaches to strategic planning and not something I could get behind.  The focus seems more on the end document that the process of discovery, creative thinking, and cross-discipline input. Grrrr."

He elaborated that he was looking for some thought-provoking questions to include in an annotated outline.  Sigh.  Ok, now, that makes a lot more sense.  Based on his request, I jotted down some basic strategic planning guidelines and the kind of questions you should be asking of your team.

Before doing “save as” and creating your spanking new strategic plan file, set some time parameters.  As arbitrary as they might seem, establishing short but reasonable boundaries around the effort is tremendously helpful.  Without sideboards, strategic planning can and will go on forever, quickly lose momentum, cause the team to question your leadership and the organization's direction, and result in a reassignment to organizing the supply closet.  Definitely not a strategic career move.  So, I’d suggest that you set a deadline of about a week-- 2 max.  No joke.  You really do not need more time. Simple and clear beats perfect and polished every time.

Ok, here you go...

Problem Statemen

  • What are you “strategically” trying to solve?  Don’t get too hung up on the language and meaning of strategic.  I’d say that a plan is strategic if it’s taken into account multiple viewpoints and approaches and selected the best possible path given the information available at the time.  A project plan would describe the step-by-step once this approach is finalized.

Current State and Desired End State

  • Briefly describe where the organization stands today in the face of this problem.
  • In an ideal world, where would you be and by when?  Personally, I recommend that you keep the goals modest and the timelines relatively near-term.  Multi-year strategic plans have very limited practical value.

Stakeholders and Customers

  • Besides you, who cares about this outcome?  These are your stakeholders who should be asked for input.
  • Who are you trying to please, support, engage, or help?  These are your customers (even if you’re not “selling” anything.) Spend most of the time you have talking about this group then take another pass through your decisions and tweak from the customer’s point of view.

Opportunities and Limitations

  • What events can you reasonable anticipate in the set timeframe that you want to take advantage of or avoid.  Keep it short and snappy.

So what’s the path?

  • Given all the thoughts above, provide some sense of the range of options considered.  Which path best takes advantage of all of the resources at your disposal? This is your strategic path.  Write this down—on paper if that’s easiest.

Evaluation Points

  • What logical evaluation points along the path exist?  Mark these roughly on your calendar and commit to a quick (less than 1 meeting) evaluation of how you’re doing.

Have fun with it.  To me, one of the most commonly missed opportunities with strategic planning is that we all take it too seriously and limit input to only the coolest kids in the office.  Lame.  Instead, even the most modest effort to make it interesting, take some guesses, accept some risk, and integrate as many viewpoints as possible will make this different from the last time.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

8 Tips to Writing a Strategic Plan That Works

Succulent Pod Wall Sculpture Tile by Dilly Pad

Succulent Pod Wall Sculpture Tile by Dilly Pad

Strategic plans both ground us and free us to move forward. Developing a plan creates a common understanding of where we're going so that we can tell others and invite them to join in. Plans provide a ready answer to the daily question that pops ups, "This is cool. Should we do it?" Without plans, we wander.

Plans are often very good things, but writing plans down can be a tremendously onerous and frustrating process for organizations. Why? Because we worry about whether we're doing the right thing, what other people will think, whether it will work, or if we have what it takes. We often don't know how to articulate and incorporate the input received from our teams in a way that makes them feel included and inspire ownership. It's also hard to know when to start planning or when to stop.

Traditional approaches to strategic planning are process-laden and lengthy. The typical process for strategic planning has, in fact, earned a bad rap for precisely these reasons. Such plans require a tremendous amount of time and, in the end, no one is really sure what they got out of the process. What's worse is when those plans we agonized over sit in a network folder and are rarely referenced.

The alternative is an ultralight approach to discovering and documenting a strategic objective and pulling out the key actions needed to achieve that goal. An objective many teams strive for is to develop an actionable plan that allows them to move together toward a common goal. Here are 8 ways to inspire action with your strategic plan:

  1. Include as many people and as many diverse perspectives as can reasonably be accommodated in the physical space.
  2. Tell the group developing the plan that they own the process, the plan, and the outcome. Planning and completing strategic activities is everyone's job.
  3. Avoid writing or refining mission and vision statements. It's a waste of time.
  4. Ask participants to articulate their own purpose in doing this work and what excites them about the future of the business.
  5. Conduct an exercise to list and generally agree on what you (the organization) do, as well as what you don't do.
  6. Stop writing when you hit 3. Fewer words have more power--if for no other reason than the likelihood of someone actually reading them going up.
  7. Know that good enough is actually pretty good. Make this point as often as needed. The Atlantic's article entitled "The Power of 'Good Enough'" hit home for me.
  8. End on a high note. Generating a feeling of community, collaboration, and being a team builds momentum and creates and eagerness to reconnect.

The difference in this ultralight approach to strategic planning is in its ability to inspire. Its duration is deliberately short, and efforts to wordsmith and smooth over the language to the point of meaninglessness are eliminated. All participants are involved, and the team leaves clear, motivated, and energized around a common objective.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.