Client Strategy 2016: The Secret of Brilliant Leadership Workshops

Client Strategy 2016: The Secret of Brilliant Leadership Workshops

Most senior leadership workshops (also known as off-sites, strategy workshops, leadership conferences) fail to deliver much value. Here John Dore outlines seven critical factors that we believe can transform a frustrating leadership experience into a powerful and engaging one

The Secret of Brilliant Team Workshops

Senior leaders often dread the annual \\\'offsite\\\' or leadership workshop. The meeting may be given a different name each year, but the experience is the same old ground covered, with the same topics in the same gloomy room as before. If managed well, these workshops can be pivotal for the business, providing clarity on strategy, conviction amongst the senior team and a real platform for the CEO to create momentum. Too often though the workshop fails to achieve very much and many participants resent the predictable format and time wasted. While a laudable objective of bringing the senior team together might be to ”build greater collaboration and break down silos”, the actual experience too often serves to highlight a heightened sense of being apart.

Over the years we have developed some principles to guide how leadership workshops should be organised, led and delivered. We have wrestled in detail with the particular issues of team dynamics, psychology, environment, setting, format, room layout, content design, etc., to create workshops that actually energise participants. There are numerous large and small factors that we believe are important before, during and after the meeting but, for brevity here, we would highlight the seven key factors that are critical; the first of which should be addressed before you even consider setting a date.

1. Decide why you need to meet

Before you get into determining what needs to be on the agenda, who should attend and where you will hold the workshop, consider carefully: why should you meet at all? A half-hour spent discussing (in a structured way) with the CEO why he wants to get the senior team together may well be a more valuable conversation than the subsequent 48 hours spent in a country-house hotel embroiled in a circular debate which frustrates both participants and the same CEO. In our experience, the key question of why meet? is seldom clearly resolved before the organising team is already deep into the detail of inviting speakers, chasing presentations and confirming dietary requirements. The answer to why meet? can often refocus the agenda on a very small number of critical reasons for meeting, rather than a long-list of competing business objectives, targets and internal issues. A real clarity of focus, summarised, agreed and maintained throughout the subsequent planning of the workshop can be invaluable.

2. Bring the outside in

Often the agendas for leadership workshops are too inward looking, re-reporting on the numbers, project updates, the perennial cost-challenges and thorny resourcing issues. While these may be worthy topics to discuss in other forums, we have found that there is more participant engagement generated by looking outside the organisation; seeking to better understand the customers, competitors, future trends and market dynamics that will shape what the business will face in the future. We worked with one major financial services firm who brought (with no warning) a large group of real customers to join part of their offsite, to meet the senior executives and talk openly about their real-life experience of the firm and hopes for the future. It was a brave move by the lead executive who coordinated the workshop, but the insights gained were compelling and the learning more profound than a consultant’s powerpoint deck could ever be. Other ways of bringing the outside in are perhaps less literal, but we have seen real value in sourcing unusual external speakers that the audience is un-familiar with or from firms and sectors, markets and diverse perspectives that might challenge and surprise. Guest contributors, if used at all, should serve to open minds, not induce yawns.

3. Use independent facilitation

If the workshop brings together disparate colleagues from around the business (sometimes from around the planet) how do you ensure that all perspectives are properly heard? If the plan is simply “broadcast news” and have a convivial dinner, then job done. But we have found that this narrow format often creates deep frustration. Sometimes a team needs another way of thinking through the issues and a conduit to bring the group together. Often the route to collaborative decision making is through employing professional facilitation that can transform the impact and productivity of the workshop. There are a number of other advantages to this; not least that the CEO and business heads are able to participate fully in discussions, not feel obliged to steer and manage the workshop itself as well as the ‘housekeeping’ that might entail. A skilled facilitator can ask the questions in the room that no one else may feel comfortable to raise and ensure wide participation in the group, providing some ‘air-traffic control’ for the more vocal contributors.

4. Don’t shrink from bold harsh realities

The workshop should be an opportunity for leaders to talk through issues openly and candidly, not politically or circumspectly. Such openness does not come naturally amongst a senior and politically charged cohort but, exceptionally, when it does, the results have been impressive. Our learning here is born out of hard-won experience. We have been involved in organising off-sites and workshops that have (unfortunately) coincided with a catastrophic market crash, the shock resignation of a key leader, a hostile corporate action, a major media scandal and news of recent fatalities in the workplace. These experiences brought into very sharp focus the merit, if any, of having the leadership team holed-up together when the “real-world” issues in the markets or local communities were being so acutely felt. But we also found that these were pivotal moments of demonstrable leadership for the key figures in those firms addressing the issues with clear and personal ownership.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones Goffee in their book Why Should Anyone Work Here? advocate leaders to practice “radical honesty” in the stewardship of their firms. For them the importance of “high levels of trust” within complex matrix organisations is paramount and key to this is “open and honest information sharing.” It should not take the circumstance of a sudden crisis to generate radical honesty amongst leadership teams, but where we have seen it happen (in real-time) the effect has been powerful in steering a more unified response.

5. Leave time to reflect

Building in any time for reflection amidst a myriad of competing demands on a busy schedule is a major challenge. In our experience it almost never happens. It just doesn’t. Unless it is carved out in some half-hearted “well-being” session at 7.00 am, reflection doesn’t get programmed on leadership workshops. We worked with a large senior team in the Spring of 2015. The venue for the meeting formed part of a 24-acre estate with spectacular vistas, lakes and roaming deer. But the workshop agenda was programmed so intensely that the opportunity to explore, to stroll, or to ‘shoot the breeze’, was restricted to drinks on the terrace on the last night of the workshop. An opportunity missed?

Research has shown that reflection is key to embedding learning and understanding in leaders. This is not about just going for an idle walk around the block between presentations. Reflection time can be properly facilitated in small groups. Even time scheduled for a walk would be valuable in itself and would send an important signal to leaders about how their reflection time was regarded as value-creating.

6. Remember both hemispheres

Not every offsite needs an exploration of MBTI preferences, or some other such tool, but as a base minimum you should remember that all members of your audience come equipped with a left and right side to their brain. If we bombard the group with data, some will be invigorated, some instantly bored. Ask the team to “paint the future on canvass” and those with a more rational vent may be equally bemused (though may not say as much out-loud). In our experience, most workshops spend the majority of the time focused on numbers, forecasts, charts, analytical input and an over-emphasis on looking backwards for a guide to future performance. Our view is that workshops are more effective for all participants when this rational approach is appropriately balanced with creative exercises for brainstorming and prioritisation, as well as entertaining ways of exploring teamwork and collaboration. These should be managed professionally - no one should be physically stressed or compelled to cry [we have seen it happen!] When facilitated effectively, even the most data-conscious introspective types will still respond positively to the challenge of thinking about the future in a different way.

7. Beware of the danger of ‘half-life’ action planning
You will recognise the scene. The flip-charts are full to bursting with scribbles, arrows, post-its and creative invention. The CEO has thanked the participants and wished them a safe journey home. The workshop is over for another year. Immediately, anything of value that has been agreed during the workshop is in mortal danger of decaying within days. We believe that it is vitally important to carefully capture decisions and outputs from discussions and provide these succinctly within hours [not days] of the completion of the workshop. It should be produced in a format that can be easily shared - not simply forwarded by email without a sense of co-authorship or ownership - and shared through personal face to face briefings by leaders with their teams.

Planning your next leadership workshop
Bringing leadership teams together to navigate future business issues can be productive and energising. It can also be time-consuming, risky and unproductive if not carefully thought through and facilitated with expertise. Before planning your next workshop reconsider the default format of these events in the past and how have they been perceived? Did the previous workshop design and facilitation style leave space for contributions and alternative perspectives, or just press on with a pre-determined agenda? Were newer team members brought warmly into the fold, without the trial of having to politically earn their spurs? A discussion with past participants, particularly those relatively new to the organisation, may shed much light.
The best leadership workshops we have been involved in have addressed a few key objectives, but have also at their heart enabled the CEO to impart something of their own values into their team, simply by making the workshop a little more like themselves at their best: honest, dynamic and engaging. When the tone is set like this from the top, then the wider adoption of good practice into regular team-meetings, department updates and town-halls can be a beneficial outcome for all employees.

John Dore is a Principal consultant with Gulland Padfield. He is the former Head of Marketing and Communications of a global private bank. He works with senior management teams in Financial Services institutions and Professional firms to design and roll out Marketing, Brand and Business Development strategy and has a particular interest in the facilitation of events for leaders and client audiences.

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