While great products and services can appear as if by magic, a flash of inspiration in their creators’ minds, amazing companies don’t just happen. They need cultivating. They need direction. They need a, well, let’s say it: they need a strategy.
The word “strategy” has been so overused in recent years that it’s become something of a corporate buzzword. In the process, the term has lost much of its power and meaning. That doesn’t make it any less critical. After all, if you get the strategy correct, business isn’t all that complicated. “You pick a direction and implement like heck,” said Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE.
While plenty of your employees will likely adopt “strategic” in their job title or resume, the reality is that the day-to-day of most employees in most companies is a turbulent sea of operations, solving problem after problem. According to one study published in Harvard Business Review, 95 percent of employees at midsize and large firms are not aware of or don’t understand their company’s strategy. They’re too busy putting out fires to ask why. That applies just as much to senior managers, which is precisely why the company’s brightest minds need to make room in their agendas regularly to discuss corporate strategy and corporate strategy alone.
There are no set rules around how often companies need to hold corporate strategy meetings. The frequency will differ according to the size of the company, the industry and a multitude of other factors. Annual board meetings is the very least you should commit to. Some companies will opt for quarterly meetings, while others prefer monthly corporate strategy meetings. No matter how often they happen, these meetings must be highly productive and etch out a clear direction for the organization, its employees and other stakeholders.
Corporate strategy meetings that fail to achieve this typically fall foul of one, or several, of a handful of flaws that can derail the whole process.
Misunderstanding the purpose of a strategic meeting
As we’ve already seen, “strategy” is used so widely, and often incorrectly, that it’s become a confusing term. Any meeting with a pinch of planning in it is now considered to be a strategy meeting. So let’s start by stating what a corporate strategy meeting should not include:
- A strategy meeting is not merely an evaluation of performance against financial targets. A corporate strategy results in actions that result in business results – not the other way around.
- In fact, a corporate strategy meeting should not be about the budget at all. Budgets list the details relating to the total amount of planned expenditures and revenues, whereas a strategy is a basis for defining and prioritizing the necessary investments.
- Growth is not a strategy. Full stop.
- A corporate strategy isn’t a company-wide to-do list. A strategy will result in a series of synchronized plans and actions, but the strategy itself focuses on the bigger picture and doesn’t get bogged down in operations.
- Finally, a corporate strategy isn’t an annual off-site or a monthly meeting. It’s a living, breathing, adaptive process.
So, what should a corporate strategy meeting include?
- How the organization allocates its resources
- The organizational design of the company
- Management of the organization’s portfolio
- Any necessary strategic trade-offs
As Ted Jackson of ClearPoint Strategy explains: “Operations meetings measure, “Are we doing things right?” while strategy meetings measure, “Are we doing the right things?”
Lack of buy-in for the meeting
Once bitten twice shy, and many a senior exec has seen too many precious hours wasted away in a directionless and unproductive strategy meeting, which explains why they may not be jumping up and down with joy to hear that another one is on the horizon. For the meeting organizer, turning that apathy into ardor is essential for ensuring the corporate strategy meeting is a success.
- The first and arguably most important task is to decide who should be in the room or on the call. This is less straightforward than it may seem. While many companies stick to the tried-and-true approach of inviting just the board members, others will expand that out and ask anyone who reports into the senior staff member – usually the CEO. It’s becoming increasingly popular amongst younger, more dynamic organizations to invite a cross-section of all employees, including new starters and almost-retirees, to represent the workforce truly. Even if you opt for the more traditional approach, make sure you have some newer employees in there and that not all attendees are long-serving execs who are likely to vote in favor of doing what they’ve always done.
- On the flip side, you need to make sure there aren’t too many attendees. In Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance, the authors Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers surmise that seven is the optimal size of a decision-making group and that effectiveness is reduced by 10 percent for every additional attendee. If your group is likely to be more than 15 people, consider ways to split them into sub-groups to work on different elements of the strategy.
- Once you’ve decided who’s going to attend, you have the unenviable role of finding a time when the busiest people in your organization are all available at the same time. Top tip: use an automated scheduling tool and have attendees do the hard work for you.
- Finally, when the agenda goes out, ask all participants to bring a willingness to engage and learn from new processes, an open mind and a thick skin. Strategy requires absolute honesty.
Insufficient prior planning
From intern to CEO, we’ve all rushed to a meeting that’s pinged up on our laptop screen, totally unaware of the subject or reason for the meeting and with less than zero preparation done. That’s often acceptable. Being flexible and able to think on your feet in a vital soft skill for surviving the modern workplace.
However, corporate strategy meetings are not average meetings. Winging it here is not an option for either the person organizing or coordinating the meeting or the attendees. The bigger and more complex the company, the more critical and more complex the strategy meeting is likely to be, requiring more and more resources to facilitate these essential meetings.
Agenda: Simply having an agenda isn’t anywhere near enough. A good agenda must set out what will be covered in the meeting, what questions will be asked and how much time will be allocated to each topic. By doing this, it tells participants what is required from them before and during the meeting and allows them to prepare for the salient subjects.
Current Strategy: If it’s not already evident in the agenda, highlight again that all attendees must review and be very familiar with the current strategy and what was discussed in the previous corporate strategy meeting if there was one.
Employees’ Opinions: If a cross-section of employees isn’t represented at your strategy meeting, collect the wider workforce’s thoughts and views via an employee survey to be presented at the meeting.
The most substantial chunk of pre-work is the strategic planning research that should act as the backbone of the corporate strategy meeting. In larger organizations, entire departments will be dedicated to producing just these types of reports. However, smaller organizations should not overlook this critical research. High-level strategic planning should include:
- The company’s current situation and standing amongst customers, employees, suppliers, competitors and investors.
- A closer look at the organization’s unique advantages and inherent disadvantages or weaknesses.
- Analysis of new technologies, socioeconomic and cultural developments that could create threats or opportunities for the company.
- An assessment of how the needs of customers are changing, and an exploration of how the company could invest, divest or strengthen to serve those needs better.
- A dedicated strategy team will likely deliver all this as part of logical analysis and even provide recommendations on decisions to be taken. Even in smaller organizations, analysis and employee surveys can be done simply and affordably, providing greater background for key strategic decisions.
Thinking the job is done when the meeting ends
Meeting finished. Hard work done. Time to grab a drink and celebrate? Unfortunately, this is where the hard work begins. For a considerable number of companies who feel their corporate strategy meetings aren’t delivering, it’s not the meetings themselves that aren’t working. The minute everyone leaves the meeting room or heads home from their two-day corporate strategy off-site, they wave goodbye to the big picture and become immediately immersed again in those operational burning platforms.
According to one report, leaders spend fewer than three hours per month reviewing, communicating or working on strategy, while 90 percent of leaders confess to failing to execute. All the hard work done during the meeting evaporates into the ether the moment the meeting is adjourned. But that doesn’t have to be the case:
- Make it standard practice to conclude corporate strategy meetings with a detailed execution process, including measurements, targets and milestones.
- Ask attendees what they, personally, have learned during the session and how they will alter the way they act.
- Build in a feedback loop, so all participants can help improve the strategy process.
- Encourage leaders to reserve a few hours per week to deal with or think about strategic issues alone.
Most importantly, ensure the relevant elements of your corporate strategy, or changes to corporate strategy, are communicated to the rest of the organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing the minutes for all employees to see – although that is a route some companies have chosen to foster a culture of total transparency. Via internal comms channels, town halls and one-on-ones, senior managers can pass the relevant information into the workforce. After all, once you share the new strategy openly, the onus is on everyone, not just the senior leaders, to deliver.
If you’d like to learn why thousands of businesses are using Doodle to automate and speed up the scheduling process for corporate strategy meetings, request a demo.