By Sabina Nawaz // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
Mauricio is president of the European operation for a Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, and his firm has had its trials lately. The company recently took a hit on the stock market. One of its major suppliers is under an ethics investigation resulting in significant delays. And a very visible acquisition under Mauricio’s leadership is struggling.
Some of these issues demanded immediate attention, but they all could have been avoided or addressed before becoming crises if Mauricio, his peers, and their teams had started discussing them a year ago — when they were at a strategic level, rather than an operational one.
Mauricio knew that he must carve out time for strategic conversations with his leadership team, but during a one-on-one coaching session he told me he was puzzled. When he had suggested to his leadership team that they have these conversations, people had nodded their heads and said they’d raise strategic agenda items. Yet their meetings continued to focus on the day-to-day numbers, operational processes, and immediate crises.
Unfortunately, this scenario is common for many leadership teams — when facing immediate concerns, it’s difficult to remain strategic. Senior executives need to balance the long- and short-term demands of their businesses, and meetings need to mirror this balance. But they rarely do when executives don’t realize the pitfalls of meetings that conflate strategy and operations.
One of the most common pitfalls that leads executives to ignore key topics of conversation is the hesitation to discuss topics outside their area of expertise. When individuals join a senior leadership team, they are often exposed to topics they’re unfamiliar with. For example, Mauricio started as an engineer in his manufacturing firm, moved up the ranks, and 10 years later was promoted to president of European operations. In his decade with the company, he had gained expertise in the engineering side of the company, but he wasn’t as confident of his grasp of financial data or some of the broader aspects of the business. He was hesitant to speak up on these matters in strategic meetings, and kept to what he was most comfortable with — operational matters.
Leaders also like to solve problems and check them off, and short-term items provide us with visible ways to mark progress. We feel as if we’ve accomplished something. Even though executives are supposed to delegate solvable problems to their direct reports, walking away from a concrete, short-term issue is as hard as driving past an accident without rubbernecking. Encountering such a topic is one of the most common causes of postponing the strategic agenda.
Finally, executives sometimes treat a strategic discussion the way they would a short-term issue. Instead of using a meeting just to brainstorm and expand on ideas, for example, they may grab the first idea that seems viable and solve for it, therefore missing critical data and the opportunity to view the problem from multiple angles first. On the one occasion that Mauricio’s chief of staff raised a strategic topic, the team asked rapid-fire, data-gathering questions locking onto a path forward within 20 minutes. Three months later they realized they had missed a key piece of information by not taking more time to expand their perspective: the rising volume of customer complaints about their new product line.
Fortunately, there are ways you can avoid these traps as you plan your own strategic meeting. Consider the following tips:
Design a learning environment. People will be much less likely to derail a strategic conversation if they feel more confident in their own ability to participate. When Mauricio realized he had to have more strategic conversations with his leadership team, he started with a series of learning sessions. These sessions preceded the strategic meetings and served to educate his team and get everyone on the same page first. Mauricio invited people from other departments and even outside the company as guest speakers — customers, experts in particular domains, and proactive thinkers — so his leadership team could learn together and expand their perspectives. This leveled the playing field, gave everyone permission to ask questions in the spirit of learning, and created common frameworks and words through a shared experience.
Detach operational meetings from strategic ones. When you blend short-term and long-term agenda items into one meeting, the short term will almost always win. You’ll convince yourself (and sometimes you may even be right) that the short-term problem must be dealt with right away. Schedule separate meetings for operational and strategic topics. As in Mauricio’s case, sometimes focusing on the long term can fix a problem before it even occurs, or help you better solve short-term issues.
Explore strategic issues from multiple angles. Issues that need to be addressed over the long term benefit from exploration before solution. Before jumping in to solve strategic issues, explore them from multiple angles. When executive teams do this, they are often surprised by how differently each person on the team has interpreted the challenge they face. These strategic topics benefit from divergence before convergence.
For example, when a multinational high-tech company wanted to discuss where it should open its next software development center, the executive team quickly realized that this wasn’t a 30-minute agenda item, even though the CEO had thought that most people were on the same page. Instead, they took three meetings to better understand the data, discuss various points of view, and project the downstream effect of each.
Deliberately look for approaches to generate the right dialogue that are different from short-term problem solving. This might involve using different brainstorming techniques where no initial idea is a bad idea; channeling other constituents’ thoughts, such as your worst critics and competitors; or creating a process for dialogue that involves a slower, more deliberate, and evenly participative methodology.
Declare your intention and go. Finally, if you’re serious about shifting the conversation from the mundane to the strategic, declare your intention explicitly at the start of your meeting, and hold people to it. As the most senior leader, it’s your job to kickstart the discussion and keep it on track.
Day-to-day issues eat strategy for breakfast. Fortify your intentions to operate strategically by understanding the common temptations that will veer you off course and by applying the appropriate antidote.
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