Bob Frisch is the managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group in Boston, and the author of Who’s In the Room?
EL: What business problem were you setting out to solve with your book?
Frisch: From working with senior teams, what I found is that big decisions aren’t actually made by the team sitting together in meetings. Decisions are typically made by the boss consulting with a small group of people —the two, three or four people who are the core decision-making team of any organization.
It’s what I call the “kitchen cabinet.” And everyone knows that when the boss makes big decisions, he turns to this close group.
EL: So, what’s wrong with that?
Frisch: That gap between what’s on the org chart and the reality of how decisions are made builds barriers and distrust among seniorteam members.
EL: How does that distrust manifest?
Frisch: Your job, when you bring your business case to a meeting, is to get it wired before the meeting. But attendees sit there anyway for 30 minutes of a presentation, watching the PowerPoint, before the boss turns to the team to ask if everyone approves the idea. The real decision has already been made, though; at this point it’s just rubber-stamping.
So the distrust might emerge during those meetings. You might start to wonder, “What’s the senior team even doing here?”
EL: It sounds like a lot of wasted meeting time. What’s a better way to do decision-making as a team?
Frisch: You might review a business case briefly, then as the leader, say, “If anyone has red flags, raise them now. Assuming we’re all lined up on this plan, what needs to happen to make it a success?” Ask each business unit specific questions, like “What are the HR dependencies that will make this plan succeed? Do you have the right metrics, do you have resources set aside, etc.?”
By focusing on the do-ability of a plan instead of the ritualistic approval process, you create a more productive meeting.
EL: And how do you dispel the distrust?
Frisch: A best practice is to abandon a monolithic model where the senior team is the be-all, end-all of decisions. Instead, you need a portfolio of teams, so you can put the right team against the right problem to make the right decisions.
What needs to happen is this: The top leader needs to acknowledge the reality that there are three or four people who help drive decisions, then build a process and structure around it.
Some people may appear to be disempowered. But the truth is, they weren’t really at the table anyway.
EL: Do you recommend a better process and structure?
Frisch: Yes. Let’s take the example of an acquisition.
A leader might say to the entire senior team, “I don’t want 15 people involved in every meeting about this acquisition, but I do want the acquisition team meeting with you early. I want all your concerns on the table, and anything you think needs to be looked at. You’re not going to be on the decision-making team, but the core team will look into any issues you raise.”
To do that, you have to have an honest conversation acknowledging that the alternative is rubber-stamping decisions at the end of a meeting, because decisions are being made outside the formal structure. And that’s a hard conversation to have.