Small- to mid-sized companies can leverage a set of leadership tools – delegation of authority, one-on-ones, executive meeting cadence, and collaboration etiquette – to improve organizational decision-making effectiveness and reduce inefficiencies.
Corporate environments often face significant inefficiencies starting with never-ending slew of meetings. A lack of strong decision-making structures usually makes matters worse. When do the most expensive resources, the senior executives, at a company actually get to do real work – like thinking, reading, and writing? Endless discussions without forward momentum can stifle strategic or operational progress.
A well-implemented leadership toolkit, which contains a set of constructs that allow the organization to manage itself seamlessly and efficiently, can be a game-changer. i.e. it simplifies day-to-day decision-making and rules of engagement. Conversely, a company that doesn’t deploy a strong leadership toolkit will likely face operational challenges as the company scales.
Internal operational inefficiencies are usually a symptom of lack of clear rules of engagement. The four tools below are intended to create a much needed decision-making and information management structure to drive increased organizational efficiency, which is critical for any resource constrained company.
1: Delegation Of Authority
Delegation of Authority is commonly used to describe pushing permissions to make decisions down the organizational hierarchy. An organization that doesn’t push empowerment down the ladder will not scale well.
The organization and the CEO will not be successful if all decisions have to go through the CEO. Other senior executives will also not be successful if all decisions have to be run by fellow executives or the CEO. Delegation of Authority creates organizational zones where different executives have the unilateral permission to make decisions based on functional or topical expertise and ownership.
Using the CEO as an example, there are several topics that could remain in and out of the CEO’s zone. These are choices specific to every organization and has to be made in the context of the team on the ground. Among many others, some examples of topics that a CEO could consider delegating to empower a fast-moving organization include:
- Personnel decisions around skill-based roles: Efficient organizations with a Comparative Advantage Culture should place more focus on skills interviews and depth of past experience. Company’s performance assessment approach should tackle personnel decisions on employees without the involvement of the CEO.
- Customer risk below top few: Revenue is absolutely important; but the CEO being significantly involved with customers beyond the top few implies lack of confidence in sales and account management senior executives.
- Management of strategic initiatives: A company will always have a handful of major initiatives running. Once those initiatives are agreed on and scoped as part of strategic planning and operationalization, CEO must delegate ownership of managing their execution and management and only get involved when escalations are necessary.
- Development of hypotheses and ideation for product roadmap: The CEO owns the strategic direction of the company and must ensure that the product is heading in the right direction. But development of hypotheses and product ideation should be baked into the strategic planning process, where the Strategic Planning Lead can manage the inputs that form the company’s strategy and plan and the CEO takes the role of the Executive Sponsor.
Such a proactive exercise of assigning accountability creates more leverage for senior executives to make decisions and focus on the most important topics.
The intend of this tool is not to exclude individuals, but to define the lowest threshold of critical voices necessary to make decisions and, thus, improve speed and efficiency. These groups are commonly called Huddle Groups. Every high risk or high occurrence topic should be delegated to a senior executive with a small huddle group to work through the problem. More importantly, the alignment between the topics, thresholds, and people should be predefined and not on a case-by-case basis (case-by-case mindset defeats the whole purpose).
2: One-On-Ones As A Decision Forum
At all levels in the organization, there should be at least a monthly formal vertical check-in between a direct report and superior. The purpose should not be to get into the details of every project and have backward looking status discussions. Such detailed discussions should be covered through normal course of executing strategic initiatives or operational processes.
Senior executives can develop a culture where these cadence-based, purposeful, and well-documented discussions are bottleneck relievers and opportunities for key risk escalations. This gives all employees predictability and a sense of control over their time. These discussions also become interim performance management check-ins to develop complete transparency between employees and supervisors. If managed well with other leadership tools, it will reduce ad hoc and unprepared decision discussions, allowing employees to take on significantly more work without reactively expending energy on redundant status discussions and reports.
3: Executive Meeting Cadence
Have you been part of teams or organizations where the senior executives and support cast spend significant amount of time preparing for one big meeting and then the next? If so, when will the most expensive resources get time to deal with critical in-house analyses, decision-making, and coaching less experienced resources? The answer cannot be less preparation.
The answer is to reduce time elapsed between such major meetings and develop organizational content incrementally and purposefully. Operational reporting, problem solving analyses, strategic initiative status reviews, and forward-looking strategic points of view should work up from individual teams to company-level to board-level in quick succession within a two- to three-week window and a predefined cadence (e.g. quarterly). Such a cadence quarantines all major meetings into a small window of time and avoids the need to significantly rework reporting, analyses, and other content throughout the year. This also allows all resources to use remaining time to focus on efforts that drive forward momentum. The visual below illustrates such a meeting and content calendar.
4. Collaboration Etiquette
This discussion is incomplete without covering the importance of setting guardrails around how individuals interact to make decisions. i.e. collaboration etiquette. There are stylistic differences between companies. But the ones that are sustainably successful demonstrate two behaviors: 1) employees consistently prepare for every discussion and substantiate every idea, and 2) employees demonstrate a swat team mentality. Ideally, top three or four senior executives in a small- to mid-sized company will define these expectations and set an example.
A: Preparation and substantiation
“Don’t tell me! Show me!” – this is a simple professional etiquette that most successful organizations embrace. Organizational cultures that do not set strong expectations on preparation for interactions and substantiation of ideas are throwing away vast amounts of organizational efficiency; not to mention, risking the same carelessness to permeate into interactions with the outside world, including customers, analysts, and the board.
The purpose is not to create bureaucracy; but to drive deeper thinking and analysis to ensure poor ideas do not consume time and resources, and lack of structure doesn’t cause paralysis around decisions. Acts of collaboration should involve thinking about the desired outcomes and inputs necessary to get there. It should also include evidenced articulation of the collaboration event. From a content perspective, some leaders prefer a prose format; others prefer slides – they both work. The vehicle is not as important as the quality and comprehensive nature of the ideas, how they relate to each other, and how well articulated they are.
B: Swat team mentality
In a similar vein to Delegation of Authority at senior levels, employees at all levels should be able to discuss critical problems and make decisions in small groups without including too many resources for every problem. However, the prerequisite here is that the organization has already embraced the point above in terms of preparation and substantiation. Otherwise, small groups making fast decisions is analogous to going rogue because they are not allowing the rest of the organization to stay aligned without in-person explanations and discussions, which often just expands the size of the initial “swat team”.
There are many other aspects to collaboration etiquette that an organization should explore. Examples include:
- Timeliness: Do discussions start and end on time without causing a domino effect on the whole organization?
- Expectations and accountability: What is the role of each player in a problem-solving exercise? Are passengers involved?
- Statute of limitations: How long are decisions made in the organization valid for? Obviously, it is hard to set rules around this. But it is suboptimal to revisit most decisions on an ongoing basis, which is another form of paralysis.
The ideas and themes that form the Leadership Toolkit are common sense and are obvious on a stand-alone basis. However, implementing these constructs effectively is not always easy and is critical to ensure that the company culture develops and scales as a resource efficient and low-friction one.