Why meetings are a waste of time (and how to fix it)

Six steps to transform leadership meetings from talking shops to opportunities for change. 

waste of time

Management and board meetings are a fact of life. A recent study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School found leaders spend a third of their team in meetings. They can either be valuable milestones to build the team, share information and make decisions. Or, as one of my client’s once put it: “A life-sucking waste of my time!” The stakes are high. The clock is ticking on those chunky salaries if meetings are not adding value. Here are six steps to get it right:

  1. Explicitly Value Working Together: In some cases the perceived worth of exploring issues and making key decisions as a management team has plummeted. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No preparation is done. People turn up late, if at all. Often, the meeting gets cancelled at the last moment. When it finally gets started its unfocussed and lacking in energy and inspiration. The power for breaking this vicious circle sits with the leader. He or she needs to clearly signal the Rules of Engagement have changed.
  2. Agree Rules of Engagement: Ask: “How do we need to behave in order to make this meeting the best use of our time?” Agree some clear, non-negotiable rules. When I’ve encouraged clients to do this in the past it’s resulted in common sense principles such as: turn up on time, be open and honest with each other, seek to understand before responding, speak to the point, show respect, encourage full participation and accept no distractions (those nagging phone calls and emails!). When people break these rules, speak up. Self policing works.
  3. Set Clear Objectives: Is this a “Decisions-and-Actions” meeting, where the objective is to converge on a way forward? Or, a “Dreaming-Together” session where free-wheeling creativity aims to produce new thinking? Both are valid. But they’ll have a different process, style and feel. Establish the type of gathering you need. Create a clear agenda. Identify the best possible outcome. Get started.
  4. Guarantee Engagement. The whole point of a management team is one person can’t do it all! Increase participation and engagement by assigning roles to discussion leaders, having multiple presenters, and asking open-ended (rather than yes-or-no) questions.
  5. Show Leadership: Many of the innovative, people-focussed businesses I work with have an informal, non-hierarchical culture. That’s great! Listening to all sides of the argument and empowering people is important. But let’s be clear: someone needs to fairly and firmly guide a meeting. If consensus can’t be reached it’s not an excuse to duck tough decisions. People don’t expect democracy in a business – and there’s nothing more frustrating for a team than a leader who won’t lead.
  6. Follow Up: At the end of the meeting agree a list of who is responsible for each next action – and when it’s due. Hold people accountable the next time you get together. Meetings get a reputation as pointless talking shops if they don’t result in progress outside the room.

Copyright © 2013 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Don’t Be A Crash Test Dummy – Please Ensure Your Culture and Strategy Are Fastened Securely

In brief: Four insights into organisational culture followed by three leadership tips to ensure you reach your destination – rather than repeatedly crashing your business dreams. 

A common response to the global downturn is: “we need a new strategy”! But there’s a problem.

New strategy = new structures and processes.

New structures and processes = new behaviours.

How people behave on a day-to-day basis is where strategy collides with culture. The new strategy gains impetus from engaged staff – or is bought to the sort of shuddering halt normally experienced by a crash test dummy.

Four Insights into Organisational Culture

1. What’s culture?

Culture is the water in the fish tank. It’s everywhere you look. And, if you’ve worked in a business long enough, virtually invisible . It’s “the way things get done around here”: values, language, symbols, stories, beliefs and habits – everything from the organisation chart to the bonus system, accepted behaviour in meetings to parking spot allocations. Like fish tank water, it needs regular attention to stay fresh – and to avoid the growth of green slime!

2. Why’s it important?

Culture is important because it’s the way people learn how to behave. Crucially, it’s stronger than any new, whizz-bang strategy.

3. Is there a “right” or “wrong” culture?

What is your business trying to achieve? The culture at a creative agency like Saatchi & Saatchi is different from the culture required to deliver Sainsbury’s success in retailing. Both vary from the “lone-wolves-together” culture at a newspaper or on a trading floor. The best test is: “Does this culture help us to achieve our objectives?” Culture is not right or wrong, but appropriate or inappropriate.

4. What’s the role of leadership?  

Cultures can go rotten without clear leadership. Relationship-focussed cultures become highly politicised. Task-focussed, performance cultures become harsh, uncaring – and even amoral. Great examples: the Barclays LIBOR-rigging scandal, the role of banks in the global financial crash – and don’t forget Enron. Leaders keep the water clean.

Three Tips for Leading Culture 

Here’s what you can focus on increase your effectiveness.

1. Take time to fully understand your culture

Cultures differ on the focus they put upon maintaining relationships versus achieving goals. Understanding where your culture is on this spectrum requires close observation of the physical environment, the way people spend their time and how they communicate. (PS, you can also use analysis tools to try to quantify what can be viewed as “fluffy stuff best left to HR”).

2. If you simply want to manage the culture – learn to swim with the current

Aligning your style to the prevailing culture is a powerful way to stack the deck in your favour. This might be about taking the time to get to know people within a relationship-based culture. Or, it might be about developing clear goals in a focussed, high-performance culture.

3. If you want to lead change in the culture be prepared for a tricky job – that starts with you

Good management swims with the prevailing cultural currents. But a leader’s job is to constantly evaluate what might need to change to make things better. Put another way: “Do we need to change the water?”

Changing a culture is possible. But it effects the beliefs and behaviours of everyone so it takes time, energy and focus. If you want to change a culture, lead from the front. Don’t simply mandate new behaviours, demonstrate them. Every day.

Summary

Whether you are changing a culture – or just ensuring it works – Oscar Wilde was right: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It’s true for organisations, as with people. There isn’t one “good” culture we should all aspire too.

But on thing’s for sure. Whatever your unique situation, culture needs to wrap around strategy like a well-designed seatbelt.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Self Awareness: the first step in your leadership journey

What is Self Awareness?

Self awareness is the ability to observe yourself as you go about your day-to-day life. It’s the invaluable knack of dispassionately monitoring your own mental, emotional and physical states as you interact with the world around you.

It has transformative potential for everyone – especially those who need to lead others. It’s so important because by examining your thoughts, as they happen, you can influence how you perceive the world. This makes self awareness the first step, not only in your leadership journey, but also in creating your own reality – rather than allowing life to create it for you.

Developing self awareness is vitally-important for anyone who wants to manage their own life. And by managing and leading yourself more consciously, you’re able to more effectively inspire others.

The Dance Floor of Life

Most people spend their lives firmly on the dance floor of life. Modern jobs and domesticity, like a packed, heaving dance floor, are absorbing places to be. You’re encouraged to move in time to music that’s often cued up by other people and external events. The alarm clock goes off in the morning like a starting gun propelling you into frenetic activity. Sometimes you’re dancing alone, wrapped up in a particular issue. At other times, you’re fully engaged (sometimes too engaged!) with those around you.  Either way, there’s little time or opportunity to observe how well you are dancing, or living.

When you have a “good day” it feels exciting, positive, even uplifting. But too often “bad days” provoke anxiety and stress, as well as strong emotions you struggle to master (or even fully understand). Self awareness helps you to more fully relish the good days, and to eliminate the angst of the bad days. It’s the ability to step off the dance floor; to walk to the balcony overlooking the throng, to observe your life.

To use self awareness effectively you need to be aware of the distorting lense of your own mental models. These mental models – the beliefs and prejudices you’ve adopted, learned and created throughout your life – are themselves unexamined. So, if you fail to take them into account you cannot understand how they are helping, or hindering, you.

Self awareness is not just thinking about life; it’s thinking about how we think about life!

Mentally getting off the dance floor is the only way to truly understand what’s going on in your life – and to do something about it. It can happen in two ways. The first more traditional route is to reflect on your life issues in the few quiet times you can find: train journeys, the shower or while at the gym.

The more powerful pathway off the dance floor is far less understood. It’s a type of minute-to-minute self awareness. This requires the ability to do two things at the same time; to be on the dance floor living life to the full; and to be simultaneously observing life from the balcony. This is what I call Simultaneous Self Awareness – and its implications for your life are truly astounding.

Observation changes things

The power and importance of Simultaneous Self Awareness is derived from a simple truth. By observing the running commentary that takes place in our heads about the people and events around us we can take control of our existence, or at the very least influence it.

In other words, if I can observe a thought pattern, belief or mental model I have the power to alter it. If I am not aware of it, I can’t.

For example, if you have been asked to give a big presentation at work you’ll no doubt immediately start to think about it. For some people the thoughts will be empowering. Sarah might think: “This will be exciting and a bit nerve wracking but I’m sure it will go really well – there’s so much I have to say! My boss must think a lot of me to give me this big opportunity.”

For others in the same situation the mental chatter and emotional state will be very different, and very negative. Dave might think: “This is my worst nightmare. I’m bound to screw this up; how embarrassing will that be? My boss clearly wants me to trip up and make a fool of myself.”

The astounding thing about working with people to help them reach peak performance is the “reality” of the situation is not always connected to the negative or positive thoughts. The boss could be the same for both Sarah and Dave; the potential presenting skills identical. The only difference is the self-generated mental models: the beliefs of how the presentation request came about from the boss, and the imagination of how the presentation will go in the future. You can guess for yourself who will deliver a good presentation, and who will not!

The important point is self awareness is a powerful friend to both Sarah and Dave. For Sarah, it offers a way to acknowledge and build on her enthusiasm to deliver a truly outstanding performance. For Dave, it offers a chance to re-examine his disempowering thoughts – work out why he feels that way – and to try to change his mind set to one that’s more likely to achieve a good result.

Self Awareness over time

Self awareness has been referenced as a powerful approach since the dawn of human civilisation. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote around the 6th century BC:  “He who understands others is learned, He who understands himself is wise.” A few centuries later Buddha wrote: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world.” And, in the First Century AD the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Self awareness continues to be the cornerstone of modern leadership thinking – all 360º feedback exercises, executive coaching and leadership development programmes have self awareness as a key objective because it’s crucial for developing an authentic and effective leadership style.

Simultaneous Self Awareness can be used every minute of every day to allow you to observe and change your limiting beliefs and linked emotions. It allows you to be aware of the effect your own thoughts are having on you, as well as the imbedded beliefs behind many of the unacknowledged decisions you take every day.

By simply observing your thoughts and emotions you have more power over their direction. As you practice it daily you realise your “reality” is something you create for yourself every day. And if you are creating our own reality – how you perceive the world – self awareness offers a powerful route to change the world, and yourself, for the better.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

The ’4C’s of High Potential Leadership Development

In Brief: The vast majority of companies don’t feel confident about the number and quality of management successors in their organisation. High potential leadership development programmes are a key weapon to help businesses win the war for talent. Without a rigorous well-designed focus on the next generation of leaders any organisation is heading for trouble. This article outlines the “4Cs” for the successful delivery of High Potential Leadership Development Programmes:

1. Clarify Goals
2.  Collaborate on Development & Delivery
3.  Choose Carefully
4. Communicate Honestly

The War for Talent Rages On

Even in these tough economic times winning the war for talent continues to be a crucial objective for businesses. Recent Harvard Business School research shows fewer than 30% of European companies felt confident about the quantity of talented, qualified management successors in their organisation. Creating and filling a management talent pipeline has become a business critical issue for forward-thinking leaders.

In fact, there is a good argument that the ability to attract and develop leaders becomes even more important when the economy is in turmoil; businesses have fewer chances to “get it right”, and to take profitable opportunities. Beating the competition requires good leadership at board level – and the level below. Even more true when times are tough.

What’s more, finding and retaining good leaders will get even tougher for western-based international players in the coming decades. This is because most have to focus, in part at least, on emerging markets for growth such as India and China. Here the supply of experienced managers is even more limited than it is in the west. So, what can companies do to put them ahead of their rivals?

High Potential Leadership Programmes

More and more companies are recognising the value of high potential leadership development programmes as a powerful weapon in the war for talent. But it can be tricky to get right. And even trickier to ensure there is a genuine long-term return on investment. If the design and delivery of these programmes is mishandled there can be serious damage to staff morale – quite apart from being a huge waste of time and resources.

This article is a collection of insights and best practice in attracting, incentivising and transforming high potential management into true leaders. It’s based on experience. I spend a lot of my time working with creative businesses to design and develop leadership programmes to transform great mid-level execs into influential board-level leaders.

The 4Cs which follow are guiding principles to help you to design interventions in this area that have a far greater chance of transforming both your high potential people – and your organisation.

Experience plus Research = Best Practice

Over the last few years I’ve worked with advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and BBDO; content creators such as Shine Group – as well as other global concerns such as the recruitment giant Randstad, and the well-respected World Economic Forum. Before this I ran the Centre for Creative Business at London Business School which delivered leadership development to executives in the UK’s creative industries.

I’ve blended my first-hand insights and experience with rigorous research. Harvard Business School joined forces with the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder to conduct a large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis* of how companies manage their rising stars. They also interviewed executives from 70 companies which had all taken the decision to run high potential leadership programmes. The research essentially asked: “what worked for you; what didn’t work for you?” The “4Cs” for Successful High Potential Leadership Development is my summary of both.

Why invest in leadership development?

The business rationale for investing in leadership development is strong and growing. Firstly, top talent gravitate towards companies that have strong development opportunities. Secondly, a well-managed talent pipeline increases the odds the company can continue to appoint great leaders in important positions – which increase its chances of success.

Fortune’s Most Admired Companies – the likes of Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, IBM and Mars – have known this for decades. They consistently spend more time and energy on developing leaders than average companies do – and they have better share price returns to show for it.**

Alan Lafley, former P&G CEO, said: “Nothing I do will have a more enduring impact on P&G’s long term success than helping to develop other leaders. I think the most important thing we do is that we are a continuous selection machine”

1: Clarify Goals

Let’s be clear: there is no generic leadership programme that works for all companies. Like any good investment, leadership development needs to align with organisational purpose, strategy, values and culture. A transformational leadership programme perfectly aims the right content, at the right people, to address the right questions. In practical terms this involves clarifying two sets of leadership development programme goals:

1. What’s the programme trying to deliver for the organisation?

2. What’s the programme trying to deliver for participants?

The answer to the first question needs to be linked to strategic objectives and culture change; the output of the answer to the second question should always involved leadership attitudes and behaviours.

For example, if you are working in a creative content company that has grown fast through acquisitions in a market-place that values creativity and innovation, you might need a programme that encourages highly-collaborative leadership – and which has cross-disciplinary organisational development projects as a key output to help knit the emerging  organisation together.

On the other hand, if you are working in a restaurant chain, which needs to grow through a well-established franchise model; the leadership behaviours and outcomes required will probably be more focussed around operational and productivity improvements.

In summary, a key point to clarify is how much of the leadership programme goals are around changing the organisation – and how much about changing participant behaviour. Clearly, these two goals are inextricably interlinked; but for the sake of clarity it’s vital to produce separate and mutually-supporting goals for each.

2: Collaborate on Development & Delivery

Like any intervention to try to change an organisation thorough groundwork makes a successful outcome much more likely. It ensures a leadership development programme will better deliver in the areas most needed by both participants and the company. It sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s surprising how easy it is for poorly-focussed programmes to get blown off course by pursuing content and objectives not directly linked to actual need. Even worse, when a leadership programme is not tied to agreed goals it can degenerate into the worst kind of corporate political football.

Collaborating on development and delivery means gathering input from as wide as possible – both inside and outside the organisation. Well-targeted programme content can then be co-designed and delivered by the senior organisational sponsors and whichever external learning and development experts are involved.

Senior-Level Engagement

The best way to deliver a transformative leadership programme is to ensure it has the buy-in and sponsorship from the most senior people in the organisation. There’s an old saying that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing director”. The same is true for developing high potential leaders. Talent management strategy is a not an area that should involve only the HR Director.

Of course, it can be tricky to get the CEO involved. But it’s vital. This high-level sponsorship ensures the programme is not perceived by applicants as a frivolous “sheep dip exercise”. I’m sure you’ve come across the sort of fluffy, arm-waving away days which often give management “training” a bad name.

The perception of non-applicants and personnel at all levels across the company also changes. Having a CEO or similar senior figure onboard signals “this is important”. It immediately encourages other senior people to give freely of their time. This guarantees participants are exposed to the key people, in charge of the important issues, which are engaging the executive board.

Finally, senior-level involvement “raises the stakes”. This emphasis transforms what could be mere information and skills training into transformative experiences that can change behaviours permanently. Because of the massive difference senior involvement drives on all the programmes I direct, I push for one or more of the sessions to be run by the CEO – and ideally other sessions are run by other senior players from finance, operations, marketing and sales.

A learning organisation – not classroom training

A leadership programme has failed if it’s only about what happens “in the classroom”. Training is passive and centred in “someone else”; learning and self-development is active and based on what “I” can do.

Transformational interventions need to be about instilling a passion for self development and learning beyond the set-piece group sessions which usually form the core of a programme.

A holistic, multi-strand approach works best: group sessions supported by on-the-job development, mentoring, coaching as well as real-life projects and job rotations. Clearly, reinforcing group work with one-to-one support requires a larger investment in planning and coordination. It’s worth the additional effort and expense because the organisation is then not offering mere training, but designing a transformational experience which will play a crucial role in creating a genuinely learning culture.

3: Choose Carefully

Who chooses?

High Potential Programmes are a significant investment in time and money, so it makes a lot of sense to ensure the right people are sitting in the room on the first day. Having now tried both open application processes (perceived as “more democratic” in internal communications terms), and manager-nominated approaches (perceived as “more accurate and targeted”) I’ve come to the conclusion neither works very well on their own!

Research backs me up. Across the board the data shows that people often overestimate their own potential, or feel they are ready earlier than they really are for leadership, so applicants can’t be relied upon to put themselves forward at the right time. And untrained managers are often subject to serious prejudices and blind spots. Again, research clearly illustrates as a group managers are poor at reliably spotting potential leadership talent in their direct reports.

Because of this I recommend a combination approach which has a better chance of getting the right people as programme participants. Start with a tight, well-explained brief on who can apply in the first place. Then manage the process carefully to involve input from senior management, line management as well as output from annual appraisals, written applications, references and interviews. Anything less than a thorough multi-stage approach risks wasting time and money on the wrong people.

Understand Potential

Another necessary step is to create a shared definition for “potential” around the basic idea that it’s “the ability to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope”. Participants need to be chosen with an understanding that potential is measured (and developed) on a number of different levels.

In my programmes I use the metaphor of an iceberg with visible behaviours above the water, and deeper layers, like identity, motivation and purpose, below the surface. The following diagram illustrates a model of executive potential (that combines my experience with the Harvard/Egon Zehnder Research) to demonstrate the importance of selecting, and then delivering programmes, to address the “easier to change” and “harder to change” aspects of people.

Inside-Out Programmes

Programmes which seek to engage participants at the core “Purpose” and motives level (“Inside-Out” Programmes) are incalculably more powerful than those which seek to work “Outside In” – i.e. focussing on skills and knowledge and hoping for the best on the more powerful Identity, Assets and Purpose.

4: Communicate Honestly

Senior executive sponsorship of a leadership programme naturally leads to a high profile within the organisation. This is to be celebrated, not avoided. A study of 225 companies in 10 industries found that while 78% of the organisations did not inform high potential people they were labelled thus; 90% of the employees knew anyway!

My approach, as it is in all my organisational development work, is to deliver the greatest degree of transparency possible (“transparency” being the corporate expression for what we call “honesty” in the rest of our lives!). Of course, an honest approach is not without risks. To mitigate this risk there needs to be careful management of expectation for those chosen for high potential programmes – as well as for those that are not.

Copyright © 2011 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

*How to Hang on to your High Potentials, Harvard Business Review, October 2011

** Hay Group, Develop Your Leaders, 2011