Startup diary: The ups and downs of management meetings and how to avoid the pitfalls

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Startup diary: The ups and downs of management meetings and how to avoid the pitfalls

 


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If you’re on the executive team of a startup, especially one that has started to grow, you’ll begin to experience the joy of the weekly management meeting (sarcasm intended). Such meetings have been a part of my working life for many years, and I’ve never been happy with their overall effectiveness. In Voxgig we’re trying a new variant to this traditional meeting, and it seems to be working out quite well.

Let’s go back to first principles. Why do you have to have a management meeting in the first place? In a growing startup you tend to have an executive for each function. The management team as a whole necessarily has to be a cross-functional team, probably the only one in the company. In larger organisations each function (sales, marketing, engineering, etc) has it’s own teams and meetings, but that’s not an issue in the early part of a startup’s life.

Larger organisations also have the luxury of creating cross-functional product teams. Since that’s what a healthy startup should already look like, and since you don’t have the infrastructural support of a larger organisation, it’s not that relevant to this discussion.

Each person responsible for each function needs to be accountable for that function, and needs to keep the rest of the management team updated on progress and status. This includes the CEO, who needs to know what is going on. Holding a weekly management meeting often feels like the obvious way to do this. Everybody gets together at 10am on a Monday, gives an account of themselves, then issues are discussed, consensus is reached, and decisions are made. If you just hold management meetings, because you know you should, or a mentor or investor told you to, then you’ll have a suboptimal outcome. Here’s what actually happens (hint: it’s not pretty).

Throw any given group of monkeys into the same tree, patch of savannah, or meeting room, and they’ll start playing status games. We are monkeys. If the purpose of the management meeting isn’t clear, then the purpose is clearly politics. Despite the best intentions of everyone present, things will get ugly. The clearest sign that more energy is being expended on politics than communication and collaboration are management meetings that run over by large margins. I’ve seen one-hour management meetings that start at 9am and run into the afternoon. We all love politics (see ‘Thrones, Game of’), and it’s an easy trap to fall into.

Individual executives will spin their results. This again is a natural human tendency. Taking a whole packet of cookies might be stealing, but just one – it’s not that serious. The standard format of the meeting is for the chair (usually the CEO) to go through the functions of the company one by one, getting a status update from each executive. This update is a direct measure of performance, each Monday. You would spin too if you had to. Worse, it’s in front of colleagues, and you have to consider the whole political dynamic. Say goodbye to useful information sharing, or collaborative problem-solving.

Each update should take 10 minutes, but usually gets side-tracked by interruptions and comments, and devolves into a entire off-topic conversation. Count the number of times somebody has to say “let’s take this offline” in your meeting (hint: even having it said is bad). Some people are more forthright than others and tend to dominate each discussion on any topic. Since they always have an opinion, other, perhaps more useful opinions get drowned out.

The CEO often uses this meeting for feedback, both positive and negative. It seems efficient, because otherwise you’d have to have a meeting with each executive separately, each week (hint: yes, you are meant to). Surely it also gives you, the CEO, a quick way to ensure everyone knows your opinion and decisions? Isn’t that important? (Don’t trust any sentence beginning with the word “surely”). At best, positive feedback serves somebody’s political purpose, at worst, negative feedback in front of colleagues is demeaning and destroys productivity.

I’m aware that there are multiple styles of management that do work and are effective. I would suggest, however, that more aggressive styles are the luxury of established businesses that can tolerate bad management. Startups are fragile.

I’ve always found these structural problems hard to work around. You have to have management meetings – otherwise your startup will descend into chaos and just waste investor money. I’m not sure you can rewrite our DNA to avoid politics, but I think you can design your management meetings so they can actually work. Meetings, in general, are a terrible waste of time. They feel like work and yet often achieve nothing. And yet some level of joint communication is needed. Here’s the approach we’ve taken in Voxgig.

First, start with a clear purpose, made explicit. This is half the battle. For us, the purpose of the management meeting is to share information that other executives need to know, and to ask for help if you need it. That’s it. No reporting, no on-the-fly decisions, no consensus-seeking. To make this work, each person gets a five-minute speaking slot with no interruptions. They can use all or none of their time. They communicate what they think is important. Everybody else must shut up – interruptions are not allowed.

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The chair of the meeting is never the CEO (me, in this case). That separates the order of the meeting from the chain of command. This removes any suggestion of feedback during the meeting.

Following the sharing slots, there is a general discussion. But now discussion has an explicit place, and does not derail anything. On each topic, thoughts are given, but explicit decisions are delegated to the relevant executive. In cases where there is no clear path forward, the CEO exercises “decide and commit” by making an arbitrary decision. Executives can give information on their decisions in the previous week. This structure also creates accountability, because decisions were not make by the group, but by individuals. The group provided data and perspective, but nowhere to hide.

What about reporting? How do the managers report their numbers? Isn’t this a critical part of the process of running a company? It is, and that’s why you have a dashboard with your critical numbers on it. We review the numbers each week in a short all-hands meeting. They are reviewed, but reviewed dispassionately. There is nowhere to hide, and good and bad results are plain to see. But I give the presentation, not the individual managers. This disassociates the number from the person, and makes it much easier to ask colleagues for help.

What about performance feedback? Group meetings are neither the time nor the place for individual feedback. Instead, what you run are one-on-one meetings. You need to meet your management team individually and separately each week. These one-on-one meetings are the place to do a deep dive on issues, numbers, and to have candid discussions. Without an audience, these can actually be constructive.

We’ve been running this meeting format in this form for about two months now, officially (before that we were more ad hoc). We never run over by more than 10 minutes, if that, and the Monday morning management meeting is not a source of dread. As in any startup we’re facing issues on some things, and doing well on others, but they are seen as shared problems, not sticks to beat people with.

There are five people in our management team. As we continue to grow, we’ll find out if this meeting structure can be sustained.

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Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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