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  • Ronica & Christine

Raising the Bench in Big Meetings: Off to a great start–before the meeting begins

In our last post, Quarterly Steering: Off to a Rough Start, we analyzed a hypothetical quarterly steering meeting that was off to a rough start. Let’s now examine how we might set that meeting up for a better start AND simultaneously improve leadership skills before the meeting even begins.

A “big” meeting = more chances to learn and practice

In this blog series, we’re focusing on a “big” meeting–quarterly steering is the current example, but annual planning or a strategic off-site would work as well. What we mean by “big”:

  • a meeting that includes more people, 20 or more attendees

  • perhaps from a broad cross-section of the organization

  • that focuses on bigger, more strategic themes, or a thorny problem

  • and that is scheduled for one whole day or longer

Meetings with these characteristics provide more time, space and attention for skills-building. Attendees already expect to bring more of themselves to a meeting with a large investment that promises to include decisions that will have a significant impact on people and on the business.

We can learn more, practice immediately, and perhaps even see the impact on improved leadership AND an improved collaborative decision meeting right away.

(For ideas on how to add skills-building to “everyday” meetings, see our upcoming blog series on that topic.)

Let’s start with preparation

We can help our leaders improve before the meeting ever starts. The way the facilitation team and sponsor prepare for quarterly steering, and the way we ask participants to prepare, can model better practices, habits, and mindsets.

Raise the bench

Change starts with the invite list.

We have noticed that many companies keep the invite list for big decision meetings small–usually out of habit (only the executive team made big decisions when we started this company) or because of the mistaken belief that a larger group cannot effectively make big decisions together. To these companies, the benefit of inclusivity does not seem to outweigh the cost of a slower meeting and the fear of potentially worse decisions.

Let’s look at both sides of that equation.

The benefits of including next-level leaders from throughout the company might be greater than you think:

  • By bringing in the people who are closer to the work, we have the information we need at our fingertips.

  • By expanding participation, we expand the number of perspectives, often in rather nuanced ways. Including more diverse perspectives has been shown to lead to better decisions.

  • We raise the bench when we invite next-level leaders to practice the skills needed for collaborative decision meetings–expressing views, hearing other viewpoints, considering the whole system, thinking strategically. We deeply improve the systems understanding of people at next levels, improving the day-to-day decisions they make along with it.

We worked at one rapidly growing company that consistently included about the top 20% of the company in annual planning and quarterly steering, throughout its 10-year history. In the earliest years that meant just the executive team. By the time of the company’s IPO, that meant ~100 people.

Yes, 100-person decision meetings are more expensive than 10-person meetings. Let’s look at those costs.

  • More opportunity cost, as people are out-of-pocket. Although, as our Rough Start post showed, many of those people are focused on the work of the meeting anyway.

  • A longer meeting, as it takes more time to reach decision with so many people. That time, though, is where we gain the benefits of raising the bench, of better decisions informed by more perspectives, of ensuring next-level leaders support the decisions they will help implement. And, that cost can be mitigated by expert facilitation. (Future posts will talk about designing the meeting to ensure voices are heard and good decisions are made.)

  • More people to feed, and a bigger room. Yes, the direct costs are unavoidable. Although they bring another benefit: When people eat and socialize together, bridges get built that make all work smoother.

Prepare to make better decisions

Better decision-making through better preparation is a skill that can be modeled and practiced. Skilled leaders prepare for big decision meetings. They gather the information they need, and also seek information from others. They make time to absorb that information, and they tend to prefer knowing what some of the key questions will be, so they can think in advance.

The facilitation team can help all the participants practice good preparation by requiring attendees to help build and then preview a pre-read. We often ask people to prepare a What You Need To Know deck, which asks for the same specific, concise information from all participating groups. The deck needs to be ready before the meeting, so people have a chance to review it in advance, but not too long beforehand, lest it become out-of-date or forgotten. Make sure it’s finished and available to review at least one day, and preferably a couple of days, before the meeting.

You can also give people thinking time by sending the meeting’s purpose and agenda in advance. It helps to be clear about what decisions the group will make, and what decision-making authority they will have.

While we leave space for new information to enter and new options to be created, we want everyone to have context to percolate on ahead of time.

Assign explicit skills-training pre-work

You can choose whether to treat the preparation skills-building as explicit or implicit. People don’t need to know what they are learning to learn it.

We do, however, recommend being quite explicit in assigning pre-work designed to encourage learning and practicing a new skill or an improved behavior in the meeting.

Sometimes we want to help our leaders grow. For example, we’ve worked with teams of leaders who had a habit of using “office culture” or “politics” to justify work being stuck or change being impossible, as well as leaders with a habit of blaming other groups for poor performance. To help them shift, we had them learn about staying in a creative state and practicing above-the-line behavior, by watching Christopher Avery’s The Responsibility Process video. (There are other good choices, too.) Early in the meeting we spent just a few minutes bringing the video back to the front of people’s minds through an icebreaker.

Sometimes we want to build our leaders’ knowledge. For example, perhaps there is a new technology that perhaps could make a real difference, and we need everyone to know more about it in order to discuss possibilities meaningfully and reach decision effectively. So, we assign a pre-read or pre-watch about the new technology.

Reading and thinking deeply about the contents of the What You Need To Know deck is already a lot of pre-work, so try to keep the additional explicit pre-work short.

Promote attention to results

As Patrick Lencioni has written, high-performing leadership teams pay attention to results. Even before this big meeting starts, the sponsor and facilitation team can ground the meeting in results that the team owns together.

Start with how the meeting purpose is written. We tend to use a format based on three critical pieces of context:

TO [achieve a decision or output]

BY [through a set of activities, discussions, and interim decisions–which are essentially the agenda]

SO THAT [we achieve this larger result or outcome]

This format helps everyone understand what they own together and how it will affect our goals and results.

You can further reinforce attention to results through the design of the pre-read. Ask people to provide for their group and understand for other groups:

  • data that indicates current results

  • information that shows how current work contributes to shared results

  • the happiness of people in the company (a prerequisite for achieving results)

Prepared to prepare

As a meeting sponsor and facilitation team, your preparation–and the way you ask others to prepare–will help you have a better meeting while also raising the bench. You’ll help your extended leadership team practice skills that make them better leaders and also better collaborative decision-makers.

In the next posts, we’ll talk about how to design the meeting to further build leaders’ skills (while also getting to great decisions that stick).


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