Year-end reflection: Where is your team? Where are you?

At a recent end-of-the-year gathering, a friend and CEO of an insurance company asked me: “Ekki, you have been working with executive teams all over the world, what are in your opinion the main shortcomings of these teams?”  

I frequently see three main shortcomings, or let’s call them opportunities, that can be grouped along the It-We-I framework: leadership teams lack purpose, meetings are not effective, leaders lack self awareness.

It’s the purpose, stupid!

Many executive teams are focused on financial targets, quite often with a short time bias. While ‘delivering the numbers’, ‘overachieve budget’, ‘become the number 1′, or at least ‘be within the top three’, ‘sustainable growth’, ‘create shareholder value’ are all valid objectives; they do not really motivate people. It might have somehow worked in the past; however, it works less and less today. In a comprehensive survey tool that I frequently use, a high percentage of corporate leaders come out with low-rates of ‘self actualizing’ behaviors,  which suggests that they play a role merely focusing on achievement, rather than pursuing a meaningful purpose.

High performing teams address the why-question: why are we doing what we are doing?  What is this team uniquely positioned to achieve? Executive teams work on their purpose, and the most powerful purpose definitions make a clear statement of why a client would use your products or services.  

A pharmaceutical company promises to ‘care and cure’, an insurance company offers ‘peace of mind’ because shit happens, a locking systems provider ‘protects what is precious to you'; at sum people ‘we help executives take their heart to work’. A purpose goes beyond the next quarter’s results, it relates to your clients, and even your seven year-old-kid understands a good purpose statement. It frees up energy and engages people within your company. In his remarkable book Unboss, Lars Kolind points out that a good purpose can engage people outside the payroll as well since they find it so compelling to contribute. He shows as an example how Apple users promote the products without self-interest.

A clear purpose definition can also guide you through conflicts and trade-offs. It allows you the late evening ‘mirror check': did we support our purpose in today’s decisions? Did we solve our conflicts honoring our client promise? A purpose is unconditional, it is in your hands to cultivate it every day, and as opposed to financial targets it only depends on you and your team.

There is a downside risk around purpose: spreading a new and fancy purpose but acting against its spirit will only create cynicism. Therefore, if you don’t really believe in it, don’t push it. Purpose requires coherence.

This meeting is a waste of time!

Executives in matrix-organizations spend more and more time in meetings; meetings have become bigger and longer. How familiar does the following format sound to you? Fifteen people sitting in a u-shaped setup looking at PowerPoint slides presented by one colleague, all the other fourteen are at best listening and contributing, at worst they are doing something else (emails, blackberry, side conversations). The usual suspects, typically with a strong judgmental mindset, dominate the meetings; several colleagues do not participate at all.

More often than not, the real conversations happen in the hallway or even in the restrooms. Many executive meetings have morphed towards pure updates, i.e. information sharing since problem solving is not possible within this format. Moreover, many executives complain that they are neither talking about clients nor competitors, and most of the agenda items are inward looking. The usual boardroom setting with those big tables, distant chairs and video conferencing facilities further contribute to a formal, transactional, rather stiff and uninspiring modus operandi.

When was the last time you thought: ‘I am really looking forward to meeting my colleagues; this meeting will be productive and I will have the chance to learn other people’s perspective and jointly work on the key challenges of our team’. In the end, isn’t the ultimate reason of a meeting that a group of intelligent people with complementing perspectives come together to work on questions that no one would be able to achieve on his or her own? How many of your meetings satisfy such basic requirement?

Here are some easy tips to make your meetings more effective:

  • If you don’t have a compelling reason to meet, don’t meet!
  • If you have a compelling reason to meet, check out who should be there and think of the meeting dynamic, e.g. problem solving can’t be done with more than seven or eight people. 
  • Challenge the need for those regular monthly (or even weekly) update meetings.
  • Begin with a check-in of the participants to allow everyone to share how they come to this meeting, listen to expectations and clarify the objective.
  • Get rid of the tables; create instead a flexible format that allows variation and small group work.
  • Nominate a meeting facilitator to watch for timing but also for a constructive interaction.
  • Don’t get mad, get curious: operate with a learner’s mind set, ask questions, listen instead of spitting out your pre-cooked judgments in the first moment of silence.
  • Walk & talk: go for an after lunch walk, discuss a specific theme in pairs and switch after ten minutes; you will be surprised about how inspiring the one to one conversations with five or six colleagues can be while you get some fresh air.
  • Speed-dating format: use this high-energy, highly interactive format for either feedback or a quick discussion of a relevant theme.
  • Break up the formal seating order and duration of the same setting by introducing above mentioned small group work formats.
  • End the meeting with a check out: how are you? What are you taking out of the meeting? How did we do as a team? 
  • Meeting effectiveness is probably the single biggest lever in today’s corporate world. You can start experimenting tomorrow; none of the above-mentioned tips are rocket science. In fact they are all common sense, nonetheless, they are not common practice. Clients appreciate when I push them to apply them, but there is no reason not to do it when teams work on their own. It requires stepping out a little bit of the comfort zone, yet, it can make a huge difference.

Who are you? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Most if not all of the executives I meet are very achievement oriented, high performers. They focus on the tasks, the It-dimension. And yet, there is only a small fraction of these executives who would be considered ‘inspiring leaders’. Why is this? I do not have the perfect answer; though I can submit a couple of hypothesis:

  • They pursue achievements; which is different to pursuing a purpose.
  • They perform in a specific role and do so with the supposed persona that is not necessarily aligned with their true and authentic self.
  • As Muriel James put it: ‘are you a performing loser or an authentic winner’? I particularly like the double sense of ‘performing’ here, it suggests both achieving and acting.
  • Self-awareness of top executives is not as developed as one could think; in debriefing sessions of 360 degree assessment I frequently meet top executives whose perception of themselves varies substantially from the perception of the others, be it from peers, direct reports or their boss.
  • Many top executives struggle to understand how their leadership style (at times strikingly judgmental, oppositional, perfectionist in its task orientation) is producing passive defensive behaviors around them; ironically they contribute to reinforce the behavior styles they themselves criticize.
  • Have you heard top executives say: I want people to speak-up, bring new ideas, and challenge me, and yet their judgmental style, body language and hierarchy position threatens their colleagues?
  • Finally, many executives struggle to articulate their purpose in life. They don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question: why are you doing what you are doing?

The good news is that an increasing number of executive is engaging in team and personal journeys, exploring more productive ways to work together, aligning personal and company purpose in the pursuit of high performance. It might be the Zeitgeist, the age, or the period after the crisis; in any event, it is never too late to increase your self-awareness and relate with your colleagues in a more meaningful way.

This fall an interesting book came to the market that addresses the question ‘winning from within’. The author is Erica Ariel Fox, a Harvard professor and expert on negotiation. She makes a strong point that a fundamental pre-condition for success (be it purpose or performance) is that you ‘negotiate’ your inner forces to create an aligned authentic You. As many of us know, this is an enduring journey, however, it is worth every step.

Wishing you a peaceful end of the year and a purposeful 2014.