Executive meetings

My task on this blog has evolved to bringing you the nuts and bolts of actually running a tech company. Call it “stories from the field”. Sometimes I think what I write is just ludicrous (probably is) but in all the work I do with so many CEOs, I find the simple things of actually running a company are what they are looking for.

There are so many business advice books out there that talk about radical solutions for this new technology world, but there aren’t any simple places to get advice on actually getting the show on the road. Tony Hsieh can play around with Holacracy to his own destruction, but in the end, someone’s gotta make payroll, if you get my gist.

So this is your “nuts and bolts” blog. Welcome to it.

With that being said, I’ll now get to the incredibly pedestrian subject, just for CEOs: Running internal meetings.

Yup: You got it. This is probably one of the most pedestrian posts you’ll ever find on management. But probably one of your more useful ones.

First off, I’m not going to delve into the cute ideas of having all of your meetings standing up, or fun things like that. Experiment all you like. Like I said, this is going to be very pedestrian.

The role of a leader
As I’ve said before, I describe a leader as someone who establishes and communicates clear goals, gets the right people in place, gets everyone working toward these goals and focuses on what’s important.

And that takes meetings.

A couple of pointers on how to run your exec meetings.

Weekly senior staff
This is the staple of most business: the weekly senior staff meeting. However, it’s generally done incorrectly.

Usually, what happens is:

  • The CEO does all the talking (often lecturing) while others sit, mute.

    or

  • The meeting turns into a long, extended, boring, endless “consensus building” or “discussion” session.

Both of these scenarios suck as senior staff meetings go. And when they both happen together at the same time, ugh. I’ve been there all too many times.

So, here’s how to run it:

  • Keep it short. An hour at the most.
  • Understand that the purpose is to get the team together, review the business, make decisions on the state of the business and move on. The primary goal is coordination of existing plans and goals.
  • Always do it Monday morning. Never on a Friday. (J. Paul Getty learned this years ago. He would hold his senior staff meetings on a Friday and by Monday, everyone would forget what they were supposed to do.) 
  • Only key executives should attend, perhaps five or six executives. Don’t turn it into a love fest with all the middle management team as well.
  • The CEO starts off the meeting with a brief statement, to get things going. Perhaps a quick summary of the business.  However, it’s not the CEO’s meeting: it’s a coordination meeting to get the team working together.
  • Each executive presents their KPIs for their department and discusses the state of their area. (Don’t have KPIs in place? You can’t manage what you can’t measure…)
  • Don’t spend all of your time preparing stuff for the meeting. That’s the job of each executive. And let them speak for themselves.
  • Decisions are made based on the data presented. Follow-up meetings and actions items are decided upon.
  • The meeting ends.

And that’s your basic senior staff meeting.

Employee staff meetings
This is largely a cultural issue, but I am often discover CEOs that don’t hold regular all-staff meetings with the employees. Perhaps they just send email missives out to all staff. But there’s nothing better than getting the team together on a regular basis to review what’s happening with the business.

Employees hate — hate — not knowing what’s going on. And hell, they’re doing all the work, why shouldn’t they know? Worse, if you don’t tell them what’s going on, they’ll make stuff up about what’s happening. That’s the definition of a rumor mill. Nature abhors a vacuum…

When the meetings are held is a question of your size. Smaller companies do well with weekly meetings. When you get above 50 employees, go to monthly. When you get to above 500 employees, think about quarterly.  If you’re public, time it after the quarterly numbers are out. And so on.

Generally, the format I’ve found successful is:

  • The purpose is to get staff briefed on the state of the business.
  • The CEO presents. Not other staff, unless it’s for some special update on a specific area.
  • The meeting is short –  perhaps 30–45 minutes or so.
  • Don’t be an bore and lecture the employees (or worse, rail at them). This is not about you — you’re just giving them an update! That’s it.
  • The meeting is recorded for replay to remote offices (or live streamed).
  • Put everyone in a big room and bring cookies. Or lunch. Or whatever fits your culture. It should be fun.

Generally, I prepare slides in advance that show:

  • HR. Start with new staff hires. Have them stand up, or just show a picture of the new staff member. If you’re too large for that, just highlight the key new hires (director and above, for example). Play it by ear. 
  • Depending on your size, it’s a really nice idea to announce employee anniversary dates (one year, two year, etc.).
  • Then, any other HR updates, such as new health insurance plan, etc.
  • Then do a quick set of slides on each major department (Sales, Marketing, Technical Support, Dev/QA, Finance/Ops). You don’t make the slides. The managers of each of those departments make the slides in advance and send them to you to put together. The slides give a brief status report and, if they like, any key employee shout-outs.

    Employees are generally starved for data. So give each department the opportunity to give that data. For marketing, show the ads being run, or a picture of the new website being designed. For Sales, show where the numbers are and the top sales reps. For Tech Support, highlight the KPIs and acknowledge any employees (tech support rep of the month, etc.)

  • Assuming I’m holding a monthly meeting:  each quarter, I’d suggest getting each department’s top three “big picture” goals. Example: Dev’s goal is to a) release product x, b) get defects below x and c) do a service release on product z.

    Then three months later, do a recap as to how they did on their goals. Obviously, you time it based on your size. You can do annual goals, as well.

  • I then do a big picture presentation as to how the company is doing against its key goals. At the start of the year, I’ll tell the company what the goals are (revenue, EBITDA, market share, whatever). And then I’ll tell them how we’re doing against the goal.

    Don’t hide key information. Just tell the truth, but tell it intelligently. The employees are not slaves, or “the great unwashed”, but your team members, and deserve respect. There are obvious confidentiality issues, but CEOs who are paranoid of letting employees know what’s going on are invariably arrogant and insecure (my direct experience). The opposite, CEOs who believe in things like “servant leadership” (where they propitiate to employees), should also be treated with a fair degree of scorn. The CEO is the captain of the ship.  Keep that analogy in mind. What do good captains do? 

    Never, ever, ever rail at the employees or a specific employee.That is what true assholes do. If the numbers are bad, tell the employees but don’t scare them. Don’t harp on them to “get working harder”. Keep it cool and professional. If it’s bad news, tell them what’s being done to fix the problem. I’ve run big all-staff meetings during good times and bad. Just project confidence and tell them the truth. The all-staff meeting is not an opportunity for you to vent your personal frustrations with the company.

    I do believe in an open style of management. I do believe that employees should know what’s going on in the company. It’s worked for me, and I would recommend it.

  • When in doubt and you don’t know what to do, just follow the old trick:  Tell them “where we were, where we are, where we’re going.” 
  • You can leave time for employees to ask questions but be very careful of not letting this meeting move into a bitch session, or some kind of communistic “everyone gets a vote”. This is how to destroy a good company meeting. Politely and respectfully take bigger points off-line for further discussion.

The fastest way to destroy morale is to run a bad all-staff meeting. But not having all-staff meetings is actually worse.

Now, in between, your time is filled with meetings, all in the an effort to forward your goals. How you run those meetings is your business. I will say, however, that team-building comes from actually doing things together.  

Meetings are not bad. Badly run meetings are bad.

Other major tools in the CEO’s management toolkit are quarterly senior management meetings (QBRs — Quarterly Business Reviews), as well as annual planning meetings, annual budget planning and running a good sales kick-off. This fits into a broader context, and I will write about those types of meetings in the future. I also recommend implementing team-based budgeting.

But this is enough for now!

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