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How Do You Feel About “Robust” Meetings?

by Mentors to Executives Worldwide
June 9th 2021
After 16 months of distanced recording, Kim and Fulyana meet across the table to discuss the value of “robust debate” in meetings. How do you keep the personal issues out of this type of d... More
Okay, welcome back, I'm Kim Baillie, she's Fulyana Orsborn and this is Inside Exec. And for the first time in 16 months we are across a table from one another rather than on zoom and I probably didn't realize how much of a difference that makes to our interaction. We've used zoom periodically and we used Skype periodically when we couldn't meet in person up until last year. And then of course we had to have a completely different arrangement for how we were going to run our recording sessions. What I noticed in the editing is that increasingly as the time went on, as lockdown went on, it was less and less an interaction and more like a conversation of one person would speak, stop wait, next person would speak. And some of that has to do with the fact that I'm in a regional area and the signal is not good. So some days there'd be quite a delay between what we were saying to one another and that affected our interaction.

And I think also to a certain extent, the way that the information was presented to you through those podcasts. So if you're listening to them the 2020 podcasts, bear that in mind that we were recording remotely and I felt increasingly we were distanced in terms of our interaction. So today it'll be all different. She'll interrupt me whatever I say, look here she is doing it already - so looking forward to that! So the first topic we're going to talk about today is about meetings and we're going to look, we have looked at meetings before, we're going to look at the meeting you go to where there is in inverted commas robust debate over topics and I will let Fulyana set the scene. It's kind of a case study, but a little bit more extended than that. I'm sharing an experience here where I was at a meeting, it was a senior leadership group with the CEO chairing. This group has been very much of the mindset that you always say what you think and you say it openly. Everybody accepts that and respects it. CEO is one of those people who very rarely tells you his view up front to allow the discussion uninhibited and without leading it. There was a topic on the agenda that actually we needed to make a decision on, so we had to debate the pros and cons, etcetera.

So, what had happened is the ceo in the meeting again, did not say anything, and he said over to you, we need to discuss this because, you know, now we're getting to decision time. Anyway, the meeting went on and they were very, very enthusiastic about it and everybody was very passionate about their point of view and they got more heated than normal. When you say it got more heated, it's not personal? No, no. Okay. It was more forceful in saying, I've told you before, kind of a tone more than anything, that is why we should have it, and that is why we shouldn't have it like that. It was focused on the issue definitely on this issue. So it went on for a while and you looked around, you thought, so when is someone gonna stop that or manage it? It seems like it's out of control. So you are uncomfortable in that situation? I wasn't, you know, to be honest, I don't think anyone in the room was uncomfortable.

I think everybody was thinking, this meeting is going to take three times as long and we're going to have to have another meeting. And I think that was the only thing other than the behavior and and the passion in the room. Okay, so the CEO stands up and he just pauses for a minute then says, I just need to tell you. So everybody stopped and looked at him and wondered what's coming next. And he said, I'm so, so impressed with this robust debate. We've been at it for some time. And then he sat down and he said, this is not the first meeting we discussed it, but thank you for all your passionate contribution. I just thought it might be time now for me to sum up a bit of what I heard. And again, I was there. So I thought, oh, he's going to tell us the topics, you know, and the actual content. He didn't. Again, he just went, I think I can break it up into four, I can break up the room into four groups. A group for the topic, a group against,

, a group is for with modification and the last group is neither for or against. And he didn't make judgment, comment or anything with that. The people nodded. Then he said, well can you now put yourself in each group you feel best in, just mentally, you have to move or anything. And so people did. He then turned around and said so group one, remembering that group one is the for, he picked a person from that group at random and said, look, can you talk us through all the objections on why we shouldn't go ahead? And the person said, oh no, no, no, I'm in group one, we are for. And the CEO said, I know, so can you please go through the against arguments. And he did that with every group. When we all had a say and one person didn't have to answer for the whole group. So that was very, very clear, anybody could interact right through the discussion.

We still didn't know whether the ceo was for or against or sitting on a fence. And he made sure that we went right to the end with the group for those who were not for or against. They could see everybody's point of view. There was only two in that group and they're normally very, very strong contributors. So it's not like they couldn't see both sides and so they said, well, decision time. So it's either for or against and why. And so they did that and talked about finding more information, quantification to make it happen in the end. And so that's how it ended. But what I really liked about it, there was never once a judgment by anyone of anyone, particularly the CEO, it was never a push. There was never like, will you cut it out? Or some people say we like heavy debate, we like genuine debate when it comes, everybody gets either personal or uncomfortable or whatever and this didn't happen.

So it's very doable. You just have to trust each other. And I think you've got to have someone in control of the meeting who keeps it focused on the topic and who is the umpire or the referee and really watches the meeting, doesn't listen because in this instance they have their view and the final decision generally doesn't rest with them unless it's equal sides. So rather than have to hear every debate, if someone who is actually watching the interaction of the group, watching the reactions, watching to see who reacts to something and would like to say something and then gets pushed back into the corner by the other, more vocal debate that happens around it. So it's no different to any other meeting, where you encourage contribution. But I think in that situation where there is robust debate and you're managing the parameters of the discussion by keeping it focused on the topic that's on the agenda, then it's very difficult for you to also maintain an opinion because you've got to focus on the people and the interaction and that whole contribution.

And if it came down to it and you were at that meeting and you had watched everyone that contributed and there was some degree of unease about the decision, you're still the CEO, you're still in charge. You're still the one who can say, okay, well, I want to give myself 24 hours, I've heard everything you've said and I've heard all the interactions, you know, I want to give myself 24 hours to think about it. What concerns me about some of these situations is that people feel like a decision should be made on the day here, it's on the agenda, we've talked about it before, we're sitting down, we're going to give this amount of time to it. The feeling is the vote doesn't go your way. It doesn't go any way, is that we've wasted time, that there was nothing gained by this robust debate other than using up time. All the things we heard, we've heard before, there was nothing new put on the table, there's still no resolution, how are we going to move forward? And that again comes back to the person who's managing the meeting, but it is the responsibility of everyone that's at the meeting as well, because you're all looking at the issue at hand and how you see that affecting the broader organization.

So, it's about going to these meetings, being responsible about issues and putting the personal aside. My concern with all of that is that I have only ever seen it turn personal. That's sad. And I don't think, in some cases, it was meant to happen. But the people were at the end of their rational explanations or their rationale for the issue at hand and because they perhaps felt that they hadn't presented their information well enough or the decision wasn't going the way they wanted it to. And they didn't know if it comes back to a personal standing. So they didn't know where they stood after they had argued. So, they had argued against this proposal for all of this time, however long it's taken and now it's something that's going to be implemented, where do they stand? Will everyone remember that they were against it when it works? It is their judgment in question because they didn't realize that it was going to be good or if it doesn't work well, everyone thinks well now they're going to come and say, I told you so.

So, it's more about the internalization of the decision and that means taking out the personal. It means focusing on this is the issue at hand, this is how we have to resolve it for the organization. I am one, the organization is much broader and is more dynamic in that sense because it might always have to change. If we look back 16 months ago, we always thought that we would come to the recording area, we were recording and that was always followed by food of some description because that's who we are, that's our reward for what we provide for you. But suddenly that changed. Had we said right at the beginning of that, well, okay, so for the next six months will do the remote recording and we'll forego the meals, we couldn't have seen at that point that that was going to work and sometimes the recording the way we're doing it doesn't work either. We might be well and truly set on using zoom for instance. Yeah, but in some cases because of the signal strength, because of the amount of people using zoom, Skype would have been better.

But I don't like Skype and Fulyana has an apple phone and I have an android phone so we can't do facetime. We don't use it any way. I don't care. This is a robust debate. I think that the points are very good about the making it personal and I think that what I really liked about the group is that everybody had so much respect for the other person, when one person says, I really really believe we shouldn't go ahead, I want to listen to that person because of their track record where they're coming from etcetera. But what I really liked, which avoided all this internalization and worry, was this particular person as an example, he always played the devil's advocate, but what he ended up doing, we used to call him the make it happen, so after he did all of that and he very strongly said three very major reasons why it shouldn't happen, then he turned every energy into making it happen once we decided.

And so we all knew it's going to get the best chance and to your point, if it didn't work, I don't think anybody could blame themselves or the meeting or point fingers because we gave it everything. If it did work, I thought it was because of the people that realized those obstacles and worked so hard to push them out of the way. And so to me, if the team works genuinely as a team and not get involved in politics and showing off and competing, that works. So in that sense, the chair of the meeting was facilitating the discussion and I think that that is part of what I was talking about before, that facilitation role is the one that carries the most responsibility because you really do need to ensure that all of the views are being heard, but also that the discussion is moving forward. Yes, and that things that get talked about at the beginning of a two hour meeting, don't get forgotten at the end.

So was there some sort of recording? Yes, Always, always. And we always walked away with actions - who, when, who was responsible for which part of it and always initiated with the whole group afterwards. Different people took responsibility for different action items and recorded it and that, which is again a great thing. So that wasn't always ascribed there or the same person end up doing it? It was like you take lead on this one tomorrow. Somebody else is the lead for this, then that's probably something that we tend to assume is going to happen without actually being said when we're talking about these things. So if we've got a meeting that's like that, where it's the same people that come together all the time, share that responsibility around. Because it does mean that everyone is committed to a meeting. I know I've got to do the notes this time around. It means that you don't get a sense of imperfect recording of the decisions that were made or the discussion that happens.

And sometimes that means people shy away from taking notes of meetings because they've never done it before and they don't know how much they have to write down. This is an issue that I come across quite often these days, because we have so many various ways that we can record meetings. The concern when they turn a recorded version of the meeting into a written record is how much of the discussion? How much of the debate do I include in the written record of the meeting? And really you can only know by experience. Yeah. And so I would always suggest that at the beginning you just do dot points of so and so, these are the things that they said and you just keep it for a meeting like that. Have a column for every person and you just jot down the things that they brought to the meeting as discussion points, not everything they said, not necessarily answers to other things that people said. But for your own peace of mind, if you're new to doing that sort of written record is to have the columns put down what people said and then you can bring it into a more consolidated record.

For the most part, if people are relying on a written record of a meeting, they want it to be as comprehensive as it can be because everyone has a different view of what we've said at the meeting, everyone remembers a different thing about the meeting and so to have those minutes and to have them quickly after a meeting is vitally important for the record to be maintained. So that the next time you talk about those things, there's a clear record of what's happening now. This is very dear to my heart at the moment because I'm going through an issue with an organization where they had a meeting at the beginning of, what are we now in June? So they had a meeting at the beginning of April which I didn't attend. And minutes came out the day before the meeting in May. For someone who wasn't at the meeting, I have no idea what they talked about, what they decided on. So when the minutes came, I looked at them and I thought this makes no sense to me. And then they postponed the April meeting.

The May meeting rather. And the June meeting was supposed to be last week and it got postponed. So now I am three months away from having any knowledge of what was discussed. And so I'm at a point where I feel like I don't know if I can contribute to the next meeting because I have no idea what they've talked about already and I don't want to waste their time by going over things that they've already talked about, even though they have a history of doing that themselves. I don't want to be part of that. And the reason they have a history of doing that themselves is because these sorts of gaps happen for all sorts of reasons and people forget what was discussed. And so there's one person in the group who meticulously writes his own notes down and they're for him and he won't share that with anyone else because they're his notes and that's fine. But if no one else is taking the notes, I'm in a situation where I feel like when they call the next meeting, I'll say, unless I can have something more comprehensive than you sent for April I have nothing to contribute because I really don't.

So that's the other side of these sorts of meetings, is to ensure that they are recorded for those perhaps who were not there or for those who, well, it's important for capturing what was discussed and and agreed and things to be done. We've talked about this in other podcasts. It's about, if this issue came up and say they decided not to go ahead, in 12 months time somebody else suggests, why don't we try this? We've done it before. No, no, no. Not we've done it before. We've talked about it before, let's go back and see what they said last time and see what's changed. And so you've got a perfect progression of decision making and discussion that can happen. And then that could also highlight for your people within the organization who had a view at that point. You can go to them and say, look, we're thinking of doing it this way this time. Have you got anything to contribute? So you get the richness of that previous discussion brought into the decisions that you're making at this point in time. We've probably strayed a bit from the topic.

But anyway, that's what happens when we're here. It's relevant. But I'd also like to mention having agreed as an organization to behave in a certain way, encourage people. In this example it's to speak their mind and all of that. Isn't it wonderful when the leadership team not just say it, but they practice it and that will filter through the organization. That's the way we like to do things around here. Let's do it. Let's be consistent and respect what we agreed to do. And that's why you get that robust, genuine issue related contribution because they feel they're in a safe environment, they know that their view will be respected regardless of how it's expressed and that it will lead to a decision, the right decision or a decision being made under the right conditions for this organization. We've done it, we've managed the first one face to face without too much interaction or interruption I should say. I'll leave on a high note, while I can. I'm Kim Baillie,

she's Fulyana Orsborn. This is Inside Exec.

How Do You Feel About “Robust” Meetings?
How Do You Feel About “Robust” Meetings?
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