By Robert Sher
I came across this article recently in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Where’s the Boss? Trapped in a Meeting” that made it sound like CEOs weren’t productive and spent large amounts of time in meetings, at lunches and traveling, with as little as six hours per week working solo.
But why are hours spent working solo an indicator of being productive? Meeting time versus working solo time has little to do with productivity. The issue is not the sheer amount of meeting time, it is whether that meeting time (or any time) is impactful in increasing the enterprise value of the firm. Every minute a CEO or key executive spends is a minute gone by. Each minute must be invested wisely.
Mid-Market CEOs More Vulnerable
Earlier-stage entrepreneurs and small-business owners need every minute to get tasks done. Their executive team is small or non-existent, so they are not typically buried in meetings. Large businesses, on the other hand, have many highly trained executives all (hopefully) adding value to their organizations. Thus the wasted minutes of CEOs and key executives can be offset by the contributions of all the other leaders.
But middle market companies have leadership teams that are small compared to Fortune 500 companies. In a survey I conducted on middle market companies (slide 17), 95% of the CEOs and 96% of those that report to the CEO agreed that CEOs have unique leadership skills and other capabilities often not found in the teams that report to them. Executive leadership is needed in middle market companies, and that leadership is often delivered in powerful meetings. Every minute of executives’ time really counts.
Old Solutions Not Enough
Reduction of the time spent (or wasted) in meetings is not a new idea. You will likely still have wasteful meetings, just fewer of them. Setting a clear agenda going into your meeting is another piece of common advice. But agendas are often poorly constructed, discarded or not delivered early enough to be useful. Too many teams come together over and over again, on the same issues. They fail to reach a decision, or come to a decision without anyone assigned to be accountable, so the issue must be raised again.
Delegating work upward from a collaborative team approach to executives (“let the execs figure it out”) isn’t good either. This means executives invest precious time in doing the work, whereas if the work were done by the team, executives would only have to assess their progress and make the final judgment—a much quicker task.
Make Meetings Produce Work
Meetings must be the places where the decisions are made that require the full team’s input. Those decisions should be recorded and carried out after the meeting. So we’re maximizing executives’ minutes—and everyone’s minutes—when our meetings are the place where we do work, where we actually accomplish things.
The “work” of leadership teams includes thinking, debating, brainstorming, planning, strategizing and ultimately, making a final decision on a matter. Well-run meetings should be synonymous with “getting work done,” and not synonymous with “wasting time.” Information-only meetings should be rare and fast. Meetings should be one way of doing work, while working solo is another way of doing work. Wasting time when alone (gaming, daydreaming, Facebooking) is as bad as wasting it in a meeting.
For larger middle market executives, I maintain that they should spend nearly all their time in meetings if that means that they are making big decisions and handing big chunks of work to a large team of capable executives.
The key to making meetings incredibly productive is having powerful executives require all meeting participants to follow these rules:
- Every participant must prepare before the meeting. If everyone has received and read the handouts, there is no need to read them together at the start of the meeting. Your most disciplined execs will do this, so please don’t punish them by making them sit through the same material again because an undisciplined executive didn’t—even if it’s you, the CEO.
- There must be a strong facilitator to keep the meeting on track, force decisions and assign accountability for results. Un-facilitated meetings are disastrous. It can be an insider who facilitates, as long as they retain control of the meeting.
- Someone has to walk into the meeting with a point of view and a proposal for action. Groups are terribly inefficient at gaining momentum toward a specific solution. Better to point them in a rational direction and have them object and go in a different direction, then to have them figure out the appropriate direction as a team.
- The only participants in a meeting with key executives should be those who have analyzed the situation with the same level of diligence that the executives have, and who can give a concise but accurate overview of the situation to the executives. Lower level team members can meet with their bosses before the meeting to pass great ideas and solutions upward.
- Meetings in which executives sense that participants aren’t prepared must be shut down. Reprimand the slackers and warn them not to repeat the behavior. I’ve seen many an executive who can’t or won’t walk into a meeting with a proposal. Often they’re afraid that they’ll be wrong, and don’t want that responsibility. They need to be replaced. These are not executives, and middle market companies need real executives who have the courage to lead and make/recommend decisions.
Sometimes executives are big meeting culprits themselves, lacking the discipline to prepare for their own meetings. They often prefer meetings in which they are informed by their teams. This doesn’t harm the executive’s productivity, but it does harm everyone else’s. While much of this is just a matter of self-discipline, one approach is to have the executive’s assistant collect all the reports/data a few hours before the meeting, and then reserve 30 minutes before the meeting for the executive to study up.
If you’re an executive who needs to stay tuned in to some of the middle management activities, you may find yourself in meetings you don’t run which burn up time. These meetings can be addictive, but building dashboards or monthly drop-level 1:1’s to get an update may be more efficient.
Make meetings productive and decision making machines. Companies should have top grade and meet with them often to drive productivity higher and higher, and to raise enterprise value with each minute executives spends in those meetings.
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Robert Sher is founding principal of CEO to CEO, an advisory firm specializing in helping midsized companies accelerate performance. He was chief executive of Bentley Publishing Group from 1984 to 2006 and steered the firm to become a leading player in its industry (decorative art publishing).
Robert speaks frequently, and has published extensively on the successful leadership traits and skills of leaders of midsized companies. He is a regular columnist on Forbes.com, has numerous posts on Harvard Business Review online, Entrepreneur.com and CFO.com. He authored two books, the first book, The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Company through Acquisitions (1toPonder, 2007) and his newest book, Mighty Midsized Companies; How Leaders Overcome 7 Silent Growth Killers, (Boston: Bibliomotion, Sep. 2014). He also publishes his own newsletter, The CEO Insomnia Factor.
Robert received a B.S. degree in business administration from Hayward State University in 1986 (during which he ran a small business), and an MBA degree from St. Mary’s College in 1988, where he was the recipient of the Jack Saloma Award for student citizenship. From 1995 to 2000, he taught MBA and executive MBA courses at St. Mary’s on growing entrepreneurial businesses. For more information, visit the website, http://www.ceotoceo.biz/, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-829-8190.
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