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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #16 - You Can't Lead from 30,000 Feet

By Josh Weeks - July 2013


You Can't Lead from 30,000 Feet

In making leadership teams more cohesive and organizations healthier, one of the most powerful yet simple things we do as Table Group consultants is help teams improve their meetings. After all, meetings are the playing field of business. To build a strong team and to make great decisions, teams, like athletes, must practice consistently—they must have regular meetings that are focused and compelling.

Somewhat surprisingly, we find that for many of our clients the first step is simply to have regular meetings. We have to address that before we even touch on concepts like context and conflict as found in Pat's book, Death by Meeting. The reasons for not having consistent meetings are many. We often hear things like "we're just too busy" or "we're fighting too many fires." Frequently, as the conversation continues, the team will realize one of the major obstacles to consistent meetings is simply business travel.

Consider the scenario of an eight-person leadership team that wants to do weekly meetings on a set day. If each team member travels just one day at random every week, on average, the team will only have every member present in eight meetings all year. How can critical decisions be made without key members present? Worse, teams often cancel meetings if the CEO or leader of the team is traveling. Over time, meetings become irregular catch-up sessions and focus more on administrative issues and information-sharing than making important decisions. Cohesion is often poor on these teams, and the employees they lead lack clear direction.

One of my clients has experienced these problems that stem from not holding regular team meetings. When I first began working with them, they didn't hold executive team meetings at all, and instead they had an ineffective, weekly "all-hands" informational meeting that included the next layer of management. The executives would attend that meeting if they weren't traveling, which was rare. Therefore, the organization was essentially leaderless, resulting in confused and frustrated employees, as well as unmade decisions throughout the organization.

While your team may be doing better than my client was, this issue probably affects your team, and by extension, your organization. It's a widespread problem that I've seen in both small start-ups and large multinationals. The question is what can you do about it?

As a leader, your job is to first make sure your priorities reflect the importance of the team. An honest assessment may show that you are all too willing to ditch your team's Monday morning meeting for any reason that seems more exciting to you—a last-minute request to meet with the board, a flight to Zurich to see a client or a vendor treating you to a day of golf at Pebble Beach. OK, so in all likelihood the day at Pebble Beach might be more exciting. But, you must be willing to stick to your commitments and work for the longer-term payoff of a strong team as evidenced by productive meetings and greater clarity.

Second, the team needs to create a clear policy that puts meetings as a priority. My client had to institute a "no-fly day" on Mondays to make sure everyone on the leadership team stayed in town. If that's not a realistic solution, your team should come up with a rule of thumb—perhaps a "90 percent rule," meaning that you will say no to 90 percent of the requests that would take you away from the office on meeting days. Of course, beyond the initial conversation around prioritizing meeting attendance, team members need to become comfortable holding each other accountable and questioning if it really was necessary for Bob to miss this week's meeting.

This simple assessment, discussion with your team and ongoing accountability will pay large dividends over time. Your team will be stronger because of the cohesion developed through meetings together. Your decisions will be better and based on full participation during meetings and complete debates around the most important topics. Your employees will be happier and more productive because your team members will share consistent and clear messages about direction and priorities. What could be more important? After all, your most certified job is to manage and lead, and you can't do that 30,000 feet in the air.