Agile Leadership: Old Meetings vs New Meetings

[In a quick interview with Steve Ballmer, the NYTimes shed some light on corporate culture and problems with innovation and meetings. Here are a couple of things he said that triggered further ideas for me.]

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer

SB: “I race too much. My brain races too much, so even if I’ve listened to everything somebody said, unless you show that you’ve digested it, people don’t think they are being well heard. Sometimes you really don’t hear because you’re racing. It’s just the way my brain works. My brain is just chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. And so, if you really want to get the best out of people, you have to really hear them and they have to feel like they’ve been really heard.”

Comment: I suffer from this malady some times myself. Type A mode is ‘gitturdun gitturdun gitturdun’ I want to cut to the chase and understand what is being asked of me. And sometimes the “listening” is as important as the action item. I can say with confidence that in family discussions with kids and spouse, that the “listening” is the MOST IMPORTANT part.

SB on the old way of doing meetings: “You come with something we haven’t seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call “the long and winding road.” You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion”

Comment: Yep, I think this is what people expect from a “meeting.” And corporate culture expects two types of presentations.

Presentation Type 1: FYI – we are telling you this and getting you up to speed – we are NOT asking for feedback or input.

Presentation Type 2: Working Session – the presentation is to outline the situation and solicit input. Action items may or may not be assigned during these meetings.

SB on the new style of meeting at MS: “I decided that’s not what I want to do anymore. I don’t think it’s productive. I don’t think it’s efficient. I get impatient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: “I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.” That lets us go, whether they’ve organized it that way or not, to the recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus.”

Comment: Agility sets in when the meeting is a follow up on the presentation. Two things have to happen in this scenario:

1. The presentation has to be good enough for the executive to read it without the presenter standing by. The case must be stated clearly and supported with facts and data.

2. The agenda for the meeting must be expressed before the meeting is accepted. Without an agenda the “focus” of the meeting can be lost. If I get an agenda well ahead of time, I have time to read the materials and bring any supportive documents I would like to add to the discussion.

Now you can see how presentation TYPE 1, is less supported by this model. Because the winding presentation and “discovery” process will happen BEFORE the meeting takes place.

The great part about this is 100% of the “meeting” then is about interaction and collaboration. Again, those may not be the objective of the FYI presentation. But if you just want to present to me, just send me the deck. I’ll let you know if I have any questions. Otherwise, I’ll stay out of the way and you can proceed.

It often seems like that is the goal of the Type 1: FYI meeting. Here’s what we’re doing, we just wanted to let you know, please don’t interject or slow us down.

Now I believe there is a huge difference between nay-sayers or as Bob Pearson used to call them “anti-bodies” and healthy discussion. But in the corporate world, perhaps your role is not ON the immediate team, and you are being given a courtesy “update” on the progress and direction of the project.

There is a slight catch-22 that causes Type-1 presentations to be less effective. Inside the corporate team, especially if you are being given a presentation by a different group, the tendency is to go with the flow and not be an anti-body. So you listen and you say nothing. The problem is, in some cases, your silence is taken as approval and acceptance.

I remember a team call with one of my managers who said, “You were on the call, why didn’t you speak up?”

So you speak up and risk being an anti-body or worse a loose cannon. Or you comply and send an email to the presenter or team after the presentation. Or, the most common path, because it does not directly affect your work you hold your tongue.

In the “hold your tongue” scenario, the only problem is, you have to hold your tongue outside the meeting as well. So many corporate silo wars come from the “unsaid objections” that are voiced outside proper channels. The buzz or back channel can and will hurt you if you speak dissension.

So you are stuck. And often the best course of action is to observe. If you are not asked for participation, if you are not invited to the Type-2 presentations, then your role has been defined by the presenting team as one of FYI. It might not make you happy, but if you’re not involved, trying to get involved can be a dangerous move.

Here are a few more nuggets distilled from Steve Ballmer’s interview.

SB on job candidates: “I try to figure out sort of a combination of I.Q. and passion. I just ask somebody to tell me what they’ve done that they are really proud of and tell me about it. And if it’s something you are proud of, you should be able to answer any question I can come up with, at least at a level that would satisfy my interest. I ought to be able to see your passion. It might be quiet passion; it might be bubbly passion. But I should be able to sense that you are one of those people who just sort of throws themselves into things.”

Comment: In speaking to a friend this morning about a “side project that is taking up part of his valuable Sunday morning” I asked him, “Is this a passion project or a payola project?”

He said, “Well, it started as the latter and has sort of moved into the passion thing.”

My response sort of shed light on my perspective. “Passion is one of those things you can’t fake or manufacture. You either have it or you don’t.”

SB on skills and qualifications he’s interested in: “But compared to 10 years ago, technology is more complex, products and services span people’s lives in new ways, and our business is much more global. So it’s more important that people can think outside the confines of their individual expertise and their product group and connect the dots between technologies, customer needs and markets in new ways.”

SB on challenging aspects of his job: “Finding the right balance between optimism and realism. I’m an optimist by nature, and I start from the belief that you can always succeed if you have the right amount of focus combined with the right amount of hard work. So I can get frustrated when progress runs up against issues that should have been anticipated or that simply couldn’t have been foreseen. A realist knows that a certain amount of that is inevitable, but the optimist in me always struggles when progress doesn’t match my expectations.”

SB on global business challenges: “At the same time, the need to be more efficient drives us all toward sharper focus on what is important and what can truly move the needle in terms of meeting customer needs and taking market share. Of course, we need to be innovative, but we also need to be efficient.

SB gives his choice advice: “My dad worked for Ford for 30 years. When I was a kid, he’d say: “If you’re going to do a job, do a job. If you’re not going to do a job, don’t do a job.” What he meant was, if you really want to accomplish anything, you have to be committed, motivated, tenacious and smart about what you do.”

SB on leadership: “I’ve come to believe that to be a great leader, you have to combine thought leadership, business leadership and great people management. I think most people tend to focus more on one of those three. I used to think it was all about thought leadership. Some people think it’s all about your ability to manage people. But the truth is, great leaders have to have a mix of those things.”

Comment: So combining thought leadership AND action is the key. But back to the top of the discussion, sometimes you also need to LISTEN. Get out of the rush rush part and listen. Then you can understand the type of presentation you have been invited to and from there you get to define and refine your response.

Corner Office column from the New York Times on Steve Ballmer.

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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