Electric excitement charged the air as passengers, as excited as schoolchildren embarking on a field trip, boarded Air New Zealand flight TE901: they were going to see Antarctica!
Air New Zealand had started operating these 11-hour non-stop scenic flights over Antarctica only two years before, and they had been a great success. Flights departed from Auckland in the morning and were back the same day. As it reached the shores of Antarctica, planes would go down to 2,000 ft (610 m) over McMurdo Sound to offer stunning views of mount Erebus over the endless ice at the edge of the world. A memorable experience!
But on November 28, 1979, things would go very wrong.
As the plane descended following its routine pattern, the crew realized – too late – that it was off course: they were not above the sound, they were right ahead of mount Erebus – on which the plane crashed, becoming New Zealand’s worst peacetime disaster.
There were multiple reasons for the crash, including poor visibility. After take-off, the flight slightly veered off its routine flight path. A course correction would have been imperceptible – but this went unnoticed and no corrective action was taken. By the time the plane reached Antarctica 2,800 miles (4,500 km) later the deviation was about 20 miles (37 km).
Execution hiccups, the silent killer of your growth strategy
Although the consequences are generally less dramatic, many leadership teams experience the same inability to identify early on that their strategic initiatives are off-track and to take corrective actions, which ultimately slows down their growth.
In many cases, they find out by accident, through informal conversations, that a key initiative has been lacking some important input for several weeks and is running behind.
The thing is: most plans never run as planned; hiccups happen all the time – just like a plane frequently makes minor adjustments to its flight path to adapt to its constantly moving environment. Trying to avoid execution hiccups at all costs is pointless; the key is to identify and address them early on. Execution hiccups are like lice on your child’s head: relatively easy to address if you act promptly but a nightmare if you don’t notice the issue right away.
As a CEO, you need a tool to:
- Promptly find out as soon as a key initiative is off-track.
- Have your team take corrective actions – preferably without you babysitting them.
Thankfully there is such a tool: your weekly leadership team meeting. It is often misused though.
What do you have to do to make your weekly leadership team meeting such a powerful tool to keep your team on track, and why isn’t it working for so many companies right now? This is the topic of this article.
What is wrong with most weekly leadership team meetings?
The weekly leadership team meeting is probably one of the most hated and at the same time one of the most valuable recurring meetings – if done right.
People hate meetings when they feel that they don’t contribute to the success of the organization. According to this Harvard Business Review article, only 12% of executives surveyed “believed that their top management meetings consistently produced decisions on important strategic or organizational issues.” Inefficient meetings lead to poor quality decisions, which lead to slower business growth.
Three factors make weekly leadership team meetings inefficient:
- Unclear meeting goals, whereby this meeting becomes what Patrick Lencioni in “Death by Meeting” calls a “meeting stew: imagine a cook taking all the ingredients out of the pantry and the refrigerator and throwing them into one big pot, and then wondering why his concoction doesn’t taste very good. Leaders do the same thing when they put all their issues into one big discussion, usually called a “staff meeting”.”
- Undisciplined agenda:
- Combining operational and strategy topics, which makes it very tempting for participants to wander off-track.
- Blending “For Your Information” and “Need To Decide” topics.
- Often dictated by the crisis of the moment – similar to a pilot focusing too much of their attention on issues with the in-flight entertainment system rather than keeping their eyes on things that really matter.
- Lack of decisiveness:
- In many cases, team members leave the meeting disagreeing about what has been agreed to in the meeting, or unsure about what the actual decision was.
Decisions don’t stick, because team members are not fully committed to them. Some will quietly veto the decision by not communicating it internally, while others think that the team didn’t go far enough and will push their team accordingly.
Focus your weekly leadership meetings on hiccup detection and correction
Great CEOs deliver reliable results, and the weekly meeting plays a key role in reliability, as they enable you and your leadership team to identify which priorities are going off-track and to take corrective actions before it is too late.
If done properly, your management meetings can become a source of real competitive advantage. Here is how:
Clarify the goal of your weekly meeting. Your weekly meeting is only one of several recurring meetings that you should have, each with a specific goal (you can read more about it here). This approach sounds contra-intuitive but ultimately will create much more time for your team:
- Quarterly meetings to discuss strategy and set quarterly priorities.
- Monthly meetings to solve systematic issues related to quarterly priorities.
- Weekly meetings to hold people accountable and course-correct on quarterly priorities.
- Daily huddles to synchronize at the beginning of each day.
Shift your weekly meeting agenda toward accountability and course correction with 5 topics:
- Status of financial and operational KPIs (20 minutes):
- If we are off-track: which corrective actions will be taken?
- Are we on track to achieve our monthly goals?
- Status of each of your quarterly strategic priorities (10-20 minutes). The person accountable for a priority should briefly share:
- What has happened over the last 7 days.
- What is going to happen in the next 7 days.
- If we are behind schedule: which corrective actions will be taken.
- Status on “problematic” next steps from prior weekly meetings (don’t spend time here on action items that have been performed on time) (5-10 minutes).
- Collective intelligence: as a team discuss and solve the 2 or 3 most impactful roadblocks identified in the first part of this meeting that prevent your team from accomplishing their quarterly priorities (35 – 50 minutes).
- Wrap-up: Review the new decisions and action items defined in this meeting – make sure that all participants have the same understanding.
Define what your weekly meeting is not. Your weekly meeting is not a place to share lengthy presentations, it is a place to discuss and make decisions. An email (or a separate ad-hoc meeting) is a much better way of communicating information to your team.
Avoid distractions. This meeting is about executing on your quarterly priorities, not about changing your plan to chase new strategic opportunities. Table strategy conversations and discuss them in your next monthly / quarterly strategy meeting.
End on time. Keep your weekly meeting to 60 to (maximum) 90 minutes. People stop coming to meetings that repeatedly end late.
Leverage social pressure. Let people present the status of their own quarterly priorities: this will naturally increase their accountability (nobody likes to confess in front of their peers that they haven’t done much on their priorities several weeks in a row).
Actively facilitate the meeting. Keep the agenda moving and table off-topic conversations. This will make your meetings more engaging for everybody.
Shifting your weekly leadership team meetings towards hiccup detection and correction will contribute to a stronger culture of accountability and will help you keep your quarterly priorities on track, which will enable you to achieve more of your strategic goals – so that you can grow faster and with less pain.
I work with growth-minded CEOs who are frustrated by the way their business is growing. Often they spend their days fighting fires – typically a sign that their company has outgrown their management approach – and their leadership team meetings don’t allow them to create the culture of accountability that is required to accelerate their growth. In short, they feel stuck. I know the feeling: I have been in their shoes when I was running a business that we turned around from sales decline to double-digit business growth.
As a business coach my passion is to help leadership teams define their actionable business growth strategy, create a culture of accountability and effective strategy execution, and become better leaders – so they can grow faster and with less pain.
If you too want to grow faster and with less pain, contact me now: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.