Of all the meetings top executives go to in a year, none is more important than the strategy off-site, where the most essential conversations for the future of the business occur. Yet it is the rare management team that can say its strategy off-site truly changed the way the business is run. At best, participants do some vague direction setting and work on team-building skills; at worst, they write off the retreat as a waste of time and resources. It needn’t be like that.
For the past few decades a variety of specialists – coaches, psychologists, consultants – have been spending time with Senior Management Teams (SMT) in strategy meetings in order to get them to behave differently. Whether it’s “fierce conversations” or “crucial conversations” or “building trust” or “straight talk” or any of the other buzzwords that surround team-building sessions, they focus on improving how SMT members interact with each other.
Team members may feel better after one of these strategy meetings and understand each other more. But in terms of the SMT becoming more effective in their role of leading an organization these exercises are largely beside the point, because more often than not the issues that need to be addressed are about power and process, not psyches.
My new book, “Who’s In the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them”, offers one of the first close looks at how decision making actually occurs within Senior Management Teams. Based on my thirty years of facilitating strategy meetings with the leadership teams of some of the world’s largest corporations, and on in-depth interviews with 15 CEOs and members of their teams, “Who’s In the Room?” dispels the myth of team-building as the focal point of building Senior Management Team effectiveness.
Consider the case of a division of a global industrial products company. Executives from the division had devised a strategy to corner a competitor and realize a sustainable share gain in a highly competitive market. The strategy was creative, ambitious, and relatively challenging to execute, but well worth the effort if it succeeded.
The SMT, consisting of the Division President and his staff of five, unanimously approved the strategy. Everyone agreed it was a brilliant plan and left the meeting in full accord that the team that had proposed it should implement the business case immediately. Speed was of the essence – this was a top priority initiative.
Within weeks, the Division President was getting calls from the group responsible for deploying the strategy. Resources they had been counting on were tied up on other projects. Plant capacity they needed had been absorbed by other product groups. Regional marketing funds built into their business plan had been redeployed elsewhere.
The President was deeply disappointed in his SMT. He was spending hours on the phone keeping a project on track that each of them, sitting at the leadership table, had fully committed to weeks before at a strategy meeting. Among the five of them, every resource of the organization had been represented. All five had agreed to the project. Yet it was the President who was burning up the phone lines to shake loose resources to get the project back on track. He felt something was clearly wrong – something deep and vital – with his team.
It so happened that the SMT was scheduled to have another strategy offsite within weeks of my meeting with the President. He asked if he should bring in someone to work on teamwork. Or accountability. Or keeping to commitments. All of which are the province of psychologists and team-builders.
If he had turned half his upcoming offsite to team building activities, he might have felt better and the team would probably have learned a few things. But in the long run, would the problem he had just faced have reoccurred? Without question. Because the root cause – what was making his phone ring off the hook – had nothing to do with teamwork, accountability, or commitments. Its roots didn’t actually lie with his team at all.
It was a breakdown of management process – the failure to surface and resolve critical resource dependencies when the plan was first considered – but to him it looked like poor leadership behaviors on the part of his team members.
Team-building usually does no harm. After the psychological consultant has gone, the members of the team may get along better; they may be more empathetic or more open. And for personally difficult members of the team, a leadership consultant may be just the thing. But no matter how much collegiality has been achieved, the same old problems will begin to resurface unless leaders confront the root causes of their team leadership issues. And, more often than not, those root causes lie in failures of structure and process, not in feelings.