Dear Members:

If you read my article last month, you’ll remember now is the time of year I think about goals and objectives I would like to accomplish. As far as personal objectives, I’m frequently setting goals on a theme that will be familiar to many of you: how to get myself and the rest of my family to eat better and exercise more. From a business perspective, one of my current goals as CEO is how to improve my executive team meetings. Time is a valuable resource, and I have been strategizing effective meeting planning to get the most out of my executive team and manage our time together. In the process of researching and pondering this, I found an intriguing article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Mankins on the topic of time management.

Titled “Stop Wasting Valuable Time,” Mankins emphasizes that more companies need to recognize that executive management’s time is its top resource. This resonates with me because competition for everyone’s time is fierce; we all need to focus on what truly matters and get there faster. Mankin’s article lists seven helpful techniques so that companies can get control of their executive management agenda and ensure meeting time is spent as productively and efficiently as possible. The following is a summary of each of Mankin’s suggestions:

  • Deal with operations separately from strategy. Reviewing operating performance and making strategy decisions are two distinct activities. Each requires different types of discussion and mind-sets.
  • Focus on decisions, not on discussions. Mankins says some companies find that shifting the focus of their top management meetings from discussion to decision making has a wholly transformative effect.
  • Measure the real value of every item on the agenda. Mankins states that successful companies prioritize the problems and opportunities on top management’s agenda according to the “value at stake”—that is, according to the impact that resolving each issue will have on the company’s long-term intrinsic value.
  • Get issues off the agenda as quickly as possible. Once the right issues are on management’s agenda, says Mankins, it’s vital that the team have a clear way to resolve them. “Such a process must include an unambiguous timetable, detailing when and how team members will reach a decision on each issue and who must be involved in approving the final strategy.”
  • Put real choices on the table. The most important requirement for effective strategic decision making is to present viable options, states Mankins. “After all, management can’t make choices if it doesn’t have real alternatives. In our view, management needs to have at least three alternatives before any strategy should be discussed or approved. These must be real alternatives—not just minor variations on a single theme.”
  • Adopt common decision-making processes and standards. According to Mankins, “companies with superior decision-making capabilities use a common language, methodology, and set of standards for making decisions. This lets them address many issues at once—often outside the team meetings. Individual decisions may not be made any faster in this way, but the team will be able to reach many more decisions each year.”
  • Make decisions stick. Strategic decisions need to be translated into something tangible, otherwise they can fall victim to reinterpretation, or even worse (in Mankins’ view) the silent veto.

When I first read the article, I thought Mankin’s techniques were straightforward, but then I evaluated each one to determine how they would fit best with my team and our way of working together. I realized that a few of the techniques, such as separating operations discussions from strategy and focusing on decisions not on discussions, would be easy to implement and provide immediate value. However, other techniques will take time and discipline. For example, “putting real choices on the table” will require more strategy and thoughtfulness from the entire management team so that we know exactly what the alternatives are (and if they are better or worse options than the original plan).

My advice is to evaluate the seven techniques and then pick a few that could be most impactful to your management team both in the short term and in the long term. Don't try to change everything at once but do make the necessary changes to implement a few as soon as you can. Then monitor how the conversations change during future meetings and keep practicing, tweaking the techniques as needed so you can get the most important changes to stick. The ultimate goal would be to implement more and more techniques as your team learns and improves.

Creating new habits are hard but not impossible. Every journey begins with a single step, and that’s true not only in our personal lives but also in the business world, as well. In short, don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.


Melissa Ashley

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