Is Your Strategizing Akin to Penguin Mating?

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Do your team’s strategy sessions mimic the mating rituals of the Emperor penguin?

In his book Elevate, Rich Horwath parallels strategy meetings and penguin mating rituals. Horwath describes how once annually the penguin will waddle up to 75 miles for a few minutes of mating. Then the female immediately leaves.

In the same vein, many teams don’t talk strategy all year, but once a year, they go offsite and spend two days talking about strategy. Then, like the penguin, we waddle back to the office and resume “normal” life with the “real work. “ Sound like your team?

Strategy discussions need to happen more than annually. In fact, they need to be a part of your leadership team’s meeting routine. As Horwath points out, “Strategy should not be an event. Strategy should be an ongoing conversation.” Some of your strategy discussions will be short. Others long. But in either case, you need to have a systematic way of getting out of the weeds and discussing content that can guide and propel your future, strategically.

One way to make sure this occurs is to set your meetings agendas with this in mind. Our bi-weekly leadership team meeting includes two portions to the agenda: Strategic and Operational. Operational agenda items follow strategy agenda items. That means we often run out of time and we’re unable to finish the operational portion of the agenda. But in that case, we ensured we discussed the more vital strategy topics. And in some cases, operational stuff can be tabled for a future meeting or even done via email. Just this simple agenda plan pushes strategy conversations to preeminence.

But if you’re going to have strategy sessions often, they must be done well.

I’m fresh off an offsite senior leader retreat where strategy discussions were our primary goal. In order to do this, I taught and then we tried to practice the components that Horwath describes as critical for impactful strategy conversations.

Before we can talk about what good strategy conversations consist of, we first need a working definition. In this post, I’ll use Horwath’s. His definition for a good conversation is:

A systematic method of exchanging ideas, beliefs, and opinion on key strategic elements.

Horwath goes on to say the person leading the strategy conversation has to be able to “tap into the intellectual capital and insights” residing in the minds of those involved. (This is a learned skill.)

So now you have a working definition and you know the responsibility of the leader in the conversation, so here are the rules everyone else should play by (from Horwath) for healthy strategy conversations:

  1. Candor – the willingness to express honest ideas and opinions
  2. Suspension – the discipline of actively listening without judging
  3. Openness – the ability to thrive in a situation where the outcome is unknown

These are not easy to do. They’re counter to what happens in many meetings. But when these rules are absent, you quickly return to the weeds of work. You begin problem solving rather than the preferred art of problem avoidance.

At our retreat, I left these phrases and definitions in plain sight during our time. And more than once, we verbally reminded each other to follow these rules (sometimes in jest and usually followed by laughter or maybe some uncomfortable periods of silence).

Practical takeaways:

  • Plan your meetings with “strategic” items first on your agenda
  • Teach the components of good strategy and agree as a group to try them out

Without strategic discussions, you’ll find yourself perpetually busy with problem solving.

Happy strategizing.

 You can read more about Rich Horwath and his book in the provided links above.

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