As Chief Executive, do you think your Executive team generally works FINE, but sometimes there’s a little too much “managing of the truth” during meetings? 

Do you feel that some of your Directors seem more concerned with not saying anything likely to bug you than with saying what they THINK?

If so, here’s an idea from Pete Ashby to help you leave this behind – and really boost your team's performance in the process.

The Idea

Say to the team that you want to set aside an hour at the beginning of your next meeting so that you can all assess how well you work together and how you might improve your performance as a team.

Say that all teams develop habits, and every now and again you need to ask which ones are getting in the way and should now be left behind.

Stress that you want them to come to the meeting ready to be honest with each other about how they think the team is performing and what more you should all be doing to raise your game.

Stress that you expect everyone to undertake that afterwards there will be no casual small talk outside the meeting about who said what.

Two key groundrules

Before the meeting please set aside a few minutes on your own to make sure that you go into this with a mindset that is all about building the team's confidence and helping them to leave behind any negatives that are stopping you from achieving what you want. 

How you introduce the discussion will have a huge influence on the mindset of your team.  I have tried all sorts of different groundrules for making this sort of session go as well as possible, and recommend these two above all others:

1.  Assuming the best of each other

It will make a real difference to what you can achieve if you ask every member of the team to make a conscious decision to assume the best of each other.  You will find that this groundrule makes possible a degree of openness among the team that you haven't experienced before.

On the back of it, you have a natural opportunity to say that in recent months there have been times when people have held back a fair bit and not said what was really in their mind.

From now on, you want everyone to get a bit riskier and aim for a higher degree of candour with each other. 

2.  No self-justification

Secondly, you ask that when you come on to discuss what isn’t working so well among the team, no one starts to justify anything that they did in the past. As far as you’re concerned, any previous under-performance that hasn’t been fully resolved by now should be dealt with as under-performance by the whole team.

This is why you hope that if and when people comment on where the team has fallen short, everyone will make a point of using the 2 letter word "We".

It isn’t him or her or you who got something wrong, it’s us as a team.

In my experience, these two groundrules are absolutely crucial.  They will enable you to go a lot further than you expect in drawing out some unhelpful attitudes and then leaving them behind, all within the space of an hour!

Using groups of 2 or 3 to generate ideas

Make clear that in a minute you want to split the team into small groups of two or three (i.e. two 2s and one 3 if there are 7 of you, four 2s if there are 8, and so on).  You want each group to find a corner of the room where they can have a private conversation, remaining standing, and help each other to sharpen up their personal answers to two questions:

1. Thinking about how we work together as a team, can you identify one or two habits of ours that have helped us to become that much more effective as a leadership team?

2. Can you put your finger on one or two habits that don’t really work for us now - and it’s time to leave behind?”

Stress that you don’t want them to come back to the main group with ideas that are fully formed.  The aim of the time in small groups is to get ideas flowing, with people feeling free to bring some back that are still just half-baked.  Then there's lots that others can do to help cook them up further.

This is why I suggest that you give them 7 or 8 minutes in these small groups, so that there is just enough time for them to help each other sharpen up their thoughts to share with the whole team.

 Bringing back personal ideas

You’re now ready to go round the table, splitting the Exec team into twos and threes.  It’s worth reminding them of the two questions and then as you allocate people to groups remind them also that you are after their personal ideas and judgements, and not jointly agreed positions.

You then go and join your own group and after 7 minutes give everyone a one-minute warning.  Then when you’re back as one group you have just over 45 minutes for this discussion, before you revert to your traditional agenda for the meeting.

It’s important to tell yourself that for the next 45 minutes you need to be fully engaged with leading this discussion, driving it rather more than you might be used to driving traditional team discussions.

For example, it's really important that you thank everyone for their input.  For some people, saying what they really think is a huge deal and it is so important that you engage in some way with what they have just said, probing and gently challenging them to draw them out further. 

So often people's main offer comes not in what they first volunteer, but in what they say in response to a friendly challenge.  We all need to dig for the real "gems". 

 Starting Off On The Positives

Once the team are seated again, I suggest that you start by asking people to say which aspects of you working together as a team work best from their point of view.  

Remember, you’re now establishing a habit for this discussion. If you want to draw them out more when they come on to say things that they find a little difficult to say in front of the whole team, you need to establish the habit of drawing them out now, when they’re saying positive things that are pretty easy to say!  

 Key strengths, then changing gear

You need to draw this part of the discussion together in less than 15 minutes.  As you do so, it would be good to sharpen up two or maybe three key strengths that you all regard as pretty distinctive about the team.

You then change gear somewhat as you open up the major conversation that you want to have with them: “Okay, guys, where aren't we so good?”

This is the moment when you should experience the benefit of having managed the discussion so far in the way that you have done.

By this time, the team should feel fairly relaxed and open,  and ready to move on to discussing some of the "difficult stuff".  You can cover a lot of ground in half an hour, so long as everyone starts off in the right frame of mind.

Learning the Lessons

As you encourage people to tell you what hasn’t worked so well, it’s important to remind them that you hope they will use the “we” word. 

If someone begins to go defensive (“That’s not fair, I really must object …”) you need to be quick in reminding them of your groundrule that no-one should try to justify anything that has happened in the past.  As far as you’re concerned, any criticism is directed at the whole team and not any one or two individuals.

Every now and again it will be important to remind the team that the whole discussion is based on two principles: assuming the best of each other and taking collective responsibility for anything that has gone wrong in the past.  So long as the team accept this in good faith, you will achieve higher levels of plain speaking than you have ever achieved before.

 Keeping on top of the discussion

Whilst great breakthroughs can be made, you will only achieve them if you are careful to keep on top of this discussion at all times.

If someone gets on too much of a negative roll, as people can do when they feel they’ve been given permission to let themselves off a fairly tight leash, you will need to be quick in pointing them in a more constructive direction:

“We’ve agreed that we’re only looking back into the past to help us prepare better for the future. What I’m keen to hear from you is not what you think about who should have done what when, but what lessons you think we should have all taken away from that experience.”

 Letting go of "baggage"

If this discussion goes well, you will almost certainly need to call time on it after half an hour.   This is a good thing because it will make the team aware of how much “baggage” they have all got used to carrying with them.

It also gives you the opportunity to say how much you value the honesty and integrity that people have shown, and the way some Directors have received difficult comments without letting themselves respond defensively.

You’re hoping that when things go wrong in the future, as they are bound to do, you will all be able to discuss this openly so that lessons can be learnt and everyone can move on

 Please lose the table!

One final thought.  Most Exec teams are used to meeting round a conference table of some sort. We know that some people like to spend a lot of the meeting looking down at their papers - and their iPad/iPhone alongside them.

You might not immediately like this idea, but believe me it will give you an even better discussion if you lose the table before you start this session.

For more than ten years I have made a point of always moving the table before starting a session with an Exec team. On those occasions when the CEO wasn’t sure beforehand they always made a point of saying afterwards what a good idea it had been to get rid of it.

From the moment people walked into the room, the absence of the table gave the signal that this time, things were going to be different.

 Boosting performance

If you're thinking to yourself, "Do I really need all of this, managing the discussion in such a hands-on way, and not even having a table to lean on....." there's one word that should clinch the deal.  Performance.

Self-assessment by your team, in a spirit of honesty and generosity, will help you to achieve new peaks in performance that will elude you with any other approach.

Try this out, and you'll know there's no going back to those old ways of difficult issues being half-declared and half dealt with.

You're not creating the perfect team in one fell swoop.  But you should find that you've shifted a few unhelpful behaviours and opened up lots of space for lots more good things to flow during the coming weeks and months.

With this approach, you really are unleashing more of your team's energies and ambitions.

Make a success of this hour and so much more becomes possible!  

Many thanks for reading this page – and please let us know how it goes for you, if you try out some of these ideas with your top team!

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