In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Michael Mankins, a managing partner at management consulting firm Marakon Associates, New York, NY, discusses the “sad reality” that few senior management teams use their meeting time effectively. In a survey of 187 companies worldwide, he found that senior executives spend fewer than three days a month as a team, and less than three hours a month on strategic issues. It's not surprising, therefore, that strategy discussions are often hurried, predictable, unfocused, and unproductive.

Our experience in facilitating scores of senior management sessions bears this out. And, as Mankins notes, “the price of misused executive time is high,” especially as it pertains to off-site strategy sessions and retreats. Your company's investment includes much more than the usual conference expenses — it's the time your staff and executives spend at the meeting and, as importantly, whether they interact productively.

As you plan your next leadership meeting, consider these four practical ways to maximize value and impact:

  • Priorities Drive Agenda

    Make sure that the agenda reflects the organization's priorities.

  • Pre-Work Energizes Discussion

    Assign readings or have attendees complete a questionnaire before the meeting.

  • Focus on Decision-Making

    Reserve most of the meeting time for decision-making, not information sharing.

  • Follow-Up Clear to All

    Never leave a meeting without clarifying and documenting the next steps.

Priorities Drive Agenda

Developing the agenda cannot be delegated. Involve the meeting “sponsor” or main stakeholders — the CEO, board chairman, or other executive — early to determine the meeting's desired outcomes and who should participate. Based on the sponsor's input, assemble a list of key topics from staff, senior managers, or key constituencies.

The order of agenda items is critical. If topics are not carefully prioritized, a discussion of company strategies can easily get sidetracked. (This also argues for the use of a neutral, third-party meeting facilitator.) Another frequent pitfall is attempting to address too many topics in a one- or two-day meeting. There is nothing worse than running out of time on a topic of critical importance! One consequence of poor time management and unclear meeting expectations is that only 12 percent of the respondents in the HBR survey believed that their top management sessions resulted in truly strategic decisions. According to Mankins, they were often critical of off-site brainstorming sessions, which were “typically amorphous events that produce few tangible outputs.”

The solution is deceptively simple: Place the issues with the highest impact on company performance at the top of the agenda. Use whatever method your meeting sponsor is comfortable with to determine impact or importance: group consensus, informal feedback, or quantitative measures of value.

Pre-Work Energizes Discussion

Assign pre-session readings or tasks designed to get team members thinking on key issues or to provide perspective on discussion topics. This engages team members early and gives them a knowledge base and the confidence to open up and express opinions at the start of the session.

Completing a questionnaire or survey prior to a meeting gives participants a sense of involvement in the planning. A questionnaire can elicit ideas or issues for discussion or ask participants to assess or prioritize topics to be addressed.

The facilitator tabulates the results of the responses and presents the results to participants. This technique can help to jump-start discussion and interaction at the opening of a session, when attendees are sometimes reticent to participate.

Pre-work pays real dividends in making planning sessions educational and dynamic for all involved.

Focus on Decision-Making

Nothing can sap the energy of a group more than a seemingly endless series of presentations. Yet we structure meetings this way all the time: first, a series of presentations, often accompanied by dense PowerPoint slides, and then, if we get to it, some interactive discussion.

An example from the Harvard Business Review article: At a product strategy meeting at a financial services company, the meeting sponsor had invited four guest speakers, allotting 45 minutes for each presentation. The balance of the day was to be devoted to decision-making by the company's executives. It didn't happen that way … it never does. The speakers were passionate about their topics and simply could not contain their ‘air time.’ To make matters worse, they were peppered with questions until 45 minutes morphed into 90. By the time the presentations were over, 30 minutes were left for discussion. By that time the participants were past caring — they simply wanted to bolt.

What's the take-away? Strategy meetings should not be used for information sharing. That should be done ahead of time. Another example from the Harvard Business Review article: At Cadbury Schweppes, information, as well as an indication of how the information should be used, is distributed to participants at least five days prior to a meeting.

Every organization will have its own approach to decision-making, but an action-oriented agenda and meeting framework provide the right setting for making good decisions quickly and effectively. By focusing on decision-making rather than information sharing, your leadership group can make productive use of its time together.

Follow-Up Clear to All

How often have you left a meeting wondering what was really decided? Leadership meetings tend to generate a lot of positive energy and excitement, but this momentum dissipates quickly when none of the participants can agree on what was agreed upon!

Make sure that your agenda allows enough time to review the decisions that were made during the meeting. This includes assigning accountability for follow-up and target dates to report on the progress that has been made.

A very basic method for clarifying decisions and accountabilities is by recording them on a flip chart so that all participants can agree on what they mean. Recording the gist of a decision in just a few words helps to ensure understanding, build consensus, and create a sense of shared ownership in the outcomes.

To help make decisions stick after their meetings, one company maintains an “action grid” for its monthly strategy discussions with the leaders of its sales force. Once strategic options are reviewed, they are translated into tactical action steps, and a specific person is assigned to follow up. By doing so, actions can be monitored on a continual basis, avoiding the need to rehash issues during precious meeting time and demonstrating to all participants the progress that is being made.

Facilitators Carl Zangerl, left, managing partner, ZHC Partners, and Dick Harris, director of conference programming, MetLife, are based in Boston. Contact Zangerl by e-mail at