A global petrochemical company struggling to create a coherent strategy after a merger with a very different kind of firm. A small advertising and design house trying to manage itself during a time of rapid growth. A public agency facing a series of budget cuts that threaten core services and deeply held values. An established bank losing market share to new boutique players coming into its market and cherry-picking high-margin products. As diverse as the challenges facing these organizations seemed, when my colleagues and I looked closely, we recognized that they shared two closely linked underlying causes: chronic communication problems within the executive team and a lack of shared accountability.
When communication is stifled and turf protection the order of the day, an organization's senior leadership team is less than the sum of its parts and cannot grapple with strategic and operational challenges most effectively. Expertise and energy go untapped: less than frank communication sometimes means that team members do not know the full extent of one another's issue; and a lack of shared accountability leads some to think, "Hey, that's his problem and he's got to fix it."
In contrast, two qualities characterize high-functioning leadership teams: (1) hard conversations happen—difficult issues move quickly from people's heads to the conference table; (2) accountability is shared—individuals on the top team feel a responsibility to the organization as a whole, not just for their piece of the action.
To take senior teams to a new level of leadership, we have put together a model of top team communication that we call The Morning Meeting (TMM). It's a deceptively simple name for an intricately ritualized event that has delivered significant payoffs to the organizations that have put it into practice: Backbiting and turf protection are dramatically reduced. Tough problems are addressed while they are still manageable. Issues cannot be covered over, and people can no longer hide. Ownership increases.
What TMM looks like
The genesis for the TMM model was an organization we worked with where the top team met every morning, every day, at the same time. Because this meeting was where the big decisions got made, admittance was a highly valued privilege. Executives who were on the road called in, unless time-zone differences made such virtual attendance impossible.
Here's how TMM in its purest form works: Every day, at the same time, the top team—numbering between six and fifteen people, both staff and line—assembles around a conference table, either in person or virtually. Also at the table are one or two others who either are responsible for an important current initiative or are valued for their area of expertise. There's no preset agenda. While the CEO sits at the head of the table, if there is such a spot, he does not run the meeting, and everyone sits in the same place each day.
|Issues cannot be covered over, and people can no longer hide.|
Around the conference table on folding chairs, in a sort of gallery, are a handful of deputies and executive assistants to the principals at the table. Sometimes the CEO will have an issue or two to begin the meeting. More often, the CEO defers to the person seated to his left, the No. 2 person—the chief of staff, deputy CEO, or COO—who starts things off and runs the meeting. When No. 2's issues are fully discussed, the person seated to the left raises any issues of concern, and so on, clockwise around the table, full circle to the CEO. Once everyone at the table has had an opportunity to speak, everyone in the gallery leaves and the top team gets a chance to go around the table again. In this second phase of the meeting, executives discuss highly sensitive issues, such as legal and personnel matters, that demand a higher level of confidentiality. Depending on the size of the group and the complexity and number of issues, the entire meeting can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as two hours.
The ground rules:
Making it work in your organization
When we try to introduce some variant of TMM into an organization, there is often resistance: "We can't do that here." "We're too busy." "How can so many senior people keep their schedules so flexible every day?"
Our experience, however, is that the resistance is often a mask for anxiety about leaving a familiar if dysfunctional mode of operating. (Being "too busy" is a way of feeling valuable.) Members of the top team have grown comfortable with the autonomy they have, with their one-on-one relationship with the CEO and with other team members, and with not having the responsibility of worrying about the organization as a whole. Having those conversations around the coffee machine sometimes feels safer than having them in a formal meeting.
That said, the TMM model is a flexible one. Not all executive teams will need to institute it daily to see benefits; one firm we worked with has had considerable success with a weekly meeting. During a crisis or during organization-wide change initiatives, we advise holding the meeting daily. When things are running smoothly, meeting less frequently can deliver positive results.
Of course, complexity and challenge do not exist solely within the upper reaches of an organization. Division and unit heads can adapt the model to foster better decision making and execution within their teams.
On the surface, TMM is about communication, but imbedded within it are norms and values that are critical for organizations that must deal with difficult issues and adapt nimbly to new situations: an openness to considering multiple perspectives, a willingness to share responsibility for finding creative solutions, and the discipline to move consistently from strategy to execution.