Seven Tips for Top-Level Meetings

Margaret Mead, the celebrated anthropologist, always appreciated the power of a few dedicated people to make real change happen. She was right. After facilitating many high-level executive meetings over the years, it's clear to me that when you bring a few key people together and do the right things, great stuff can happen. On the other hand, do the wrong things—which seems to be more the norm today—and the meetings turn out to be a great waste of valuable time. Here's the inside scoop on how to make sure executive meetings really get great results.

First, a few facts from a recent article by Michael Mankins in the Harvard Business Review (September 2004). One: Senior executives spend less than three days each month working together as a team. Two: During that time, they devote less than three hours to strategic issues. What they do do—by everyone's reckoning—is spend way too much time discussing issues that have little or no impact on the company.

Here are seven things you can, and must, do, if you want your managers to work well together during their meetings:

1. Discuss strategy issues, not operational performance. It's too easy to get bogged down among the trees and miss the forest altogether.

2. Focus more on decisions than on discussions. This requires that participants read a lot of background material before the meeting so they can debate and decide during the meeting.

3. Measure the real value of every item on the agenda. Deal with high-value issues first—those that potentially can impact the business significantly. Let the other items sink on the agenda.

4. Get issues off the agenda quickly. You do this by having a clear set of procedures as to who should decide, how, and by when. "Move along" is the mental attitude you want.

5. Lay out real choices. According to Mankins, only 14 percent of executives are consistently given alternative strategies to choose between. When choices aren't clear, things are mushy and it's harder to decide.

6. Set up decision-making processes. Meeting participants need to understand that there are real standards they need to follow when deciding issues. For example, facts must be used, not opinions; at least three alternatives should be considered, and so forth.

7. Make decisions stick. German philosopher-poet Goethe reminds us that implementing ideas is the hardest thing in life. To get around this, make sure all the participants agree on what has been agreed on and what performance should be expected, again by whom and when. Needless to say, follow-up is critical.

No one can create time. All we can do is use it better. Put these seven tactics into place and your executive strategy meetings will get the real results you deserve.

Dr. Tom McDonald, a Ph.D. in psychology, speaks on "People Skills" needed for "Business Results." Reach him in San Diego at (858) 523-0883 or, or visit