Question: Looking for a way to have more strategic executive meetings

As a startup business which had several near-death experiences, we have now seen growth, several new team members and new rounds of investment... while still retaining the original founding team.

A legacy of our early days- our executive meetings have a feeling of constant crisis. I like the sense of urgency it creates, but think it prevents us from having more innovative and strategic discussion

We are all very hands-on, but we need to take time to block out all the operational noise, be more strategic.

Appreciate your advice.

8 Expert Insights

First, great that you see the issue, it's not always that easy to step out long enough to see it.

I'd say you're in a classic challenge of being hooked by the adrenaline start up energy and beginning to notice that it will take more than just putting out fires to generate sustainability.

Your question calls for several paths:

1. Leadership needs to shift from being hands on to being eyes forward.  It looks like a time management issue but it's not. It's an issue of not developing one's direct reports enough to be self sufficient. This trains them to come to the management team for the solution instead of self generating their own. The hook is that the team members want to be the 'answer men' but it's more powerful for them to be the developers of leadership in their own team and become the 'question men' who ask what needs to be asked and isn't being asked because everyone else is afraid or caught in the circularity of their own thinking. This allows the leader the time to see what needs to be seen and take the chances of innovation and ideation that are called for.

2. Executive team will need to shift from the adrenaline fix of crisis to a different kind of juice that may challenge the members because it will feel like changing from Red Bull to peppermint tea. There's often an over-identification with being able to overcome any crisis that creates a self perpetuating series of crises, albeit unconsciously because each member's self perceived value lives in overcoming obstacles.

3. What may be missing is a comprehensive vision that calls the whole team forward. Usually a company does this on the level of mechanics only i.e. "our company is doing X million dollars worth of business'   What's often missed and even more critical is what's the experience both on the ride toward success but after it's attained. What's the daily experience people want to be having? i.e. exhilarated, fulfilled, peaceful, engaged without stress?

I'm guessing your executive meetings don't have an agenda and instead, cover whatever topics feel most urgent, otherwise you'd have carved out strategic time.  Set the agenda in advance.  (Including strategic issues)

From your brief description of your situation, I surmise that your revitalized leadership team is “stuck” or at least inhibited, in its strategic thinking.  When reorganizing, most leaders focus on strategy before aligning the organizational ecosystem that supports their culture.  

I've seen this movie before.  May I re-frame your question?  The question I really hear you asking is “How do we shift our Executive Team's culture from one of “crisis and panic” to one of “analysis and reflection”  where creative thinking easily surfaces?   (Note: I define culture as “the employee’s most successful way of thinking, feeling and behaving.”)

Changing an existing culture– changing the way people think, feel and behave – may appear to be straight forward.  However, it is not easily done!  It doesn't happen by executive decree.  (“We must be creative and innovative.”)

Your desired cultural alignment requires a safe environmental ecosystem where it is possible for all of your executives to be honest, open, trusting and vulnerable!  Within that environmental ecosystem, it is then possible to replace old habits with new ones.

The most effective process I've found for creating the cultural alignment that will support innovative strategic thinking is described is in the book: “Immunity To Change” by Kegan & Lahey.  It includes a case study very similar to your situation.


Without having more information it is difficult to provide you with advice that would be most useful to you.  However, a first step might be to identify and agree upon the roles each level of the organization should undertake.  At the executive level, if you don't focus on strategy and the future, you will indeed return to the "near-death" phase.  That is the stark truth of the matter.  So, if you want to avoid that unpleasant experience:

- Look to your new team members - or hire someone - to focus on the operational issues.
- As you plan meeting agendas, set aside a finite time (no more than 10%) to talk about operational issues.  Commit to sticking to that time limit during each and every meeting.
- If your operational issue discussion exceeds the amount of time you have set aside, then this is an indication that you do need to develop your next level, delegate to your next level, and trust your next level.  
- If you are unable to do this, then maybe you need to replace the next level.

I suggest that you always keep this question in the back of your mind:  if you are doing your direct report's job - then who is doing yours?

Hopefully these thoughts will serve as an impetus to "shake up" the executive team and turn its focus to the future.

Good luck to you and your team.


You are absolutely right about the need for your executive team to be strategic. Who else is going to do it? We see organizational structure at three levels: Operating produces the product/delivers the service, Coordinating supports Operating and coordinates across boundaries, and Strategic monitors the external environment and anticipates future requirements. So delegating operational responsibility to the Operating and Coordinating levels (essentially the front line and middle management) is one way to help the Strategic level be strategic.

Meetings are wonderful opportunities that are typically squandered. The collective wisdom in the room can only be accessed by spending time in dialogue.  Therefore, one helpful adjustment is communicating updates and reports prior to the meeting, rather than having each meeting attendant read out his/her report during the meeting. The ability to spend your time discussing 'so what?' and 'what if?' is usually perceived as meeting time well spent.

It sounds as though you are asking your meetings to deal with dramatically different agendas.   Your executive meetings sound as though they are serving as operational review sessions (as they should) dealing with the day-to-day performance issues one always faces.  Weekly, if not daily meetings with this focus are important management tools.  It also ensures that your newcomers stay focused on the tasks that are demanded by the one key objective-profitable performance.

Strategy meetings require significant preparation, may achieve best results if facilitated by a third party and conducted outside of the usual operating environment.  It is an opportunity to consider futures rather than burdens of the present. Questions of strategy also often include other  participants not involved in current operations, e.g. your investors, lawyers, accountants.  It is not uncommon for early stage businesses to schedule monthly meetings to ensure that all available resources are kept abreast of the progress and plans for the business.  The task demands that result from  these meetings often flow into the executive sessions to ensure effective implementation.  

If it would help, we can talk at length about these differences and how to gain maximum benefit from both.   Good luck.

I can understand how you are feeling about where you are finding yourself. I had the privilege of running a start up business but had the advantage of previously running another business where I learned a lot what to do and what not to do.

It is important to focus on operational issues as they are today's issues that create revenue and income.

It is equally important to set appropriate strategic goals so you can continue creating revenue and income into the future. You realized yourself that you have to provide time to deal with strategic issues.

In my experience as a leader who led strategic planning sessions and later consultant who facilitated strategic planning sessions I know how those sessions need to be structured and what needs to be done prior to having such a session. Above all as you realize yourself you have to have time to devote to strategic planning. The other thing that is important to do is to develop action plans that are directly connected to the strategy. Without well thought out action plans nothing will happen.
I realize that my answer is short and does not contain all the information you might need, so if you wish please call me and we can talk more about it.

All businesses exist to provide customers with a competitive advantage. If you focus your meetings on this and on the asset you own and/or control that underpins your company's existence then all discussions can be about process and risk management.