Setting Priorities – and Sticking to Them


I’ve been working with this one client for about six years, so I know them well. I can recite their history of success – and failure – in setting priorities and sticking to them. Their biggest challenge is a lack of bandwidth to manage any large initiative. Everyone, from the CEO on down, is so busy focusing on client projects that they can’t support any large change. The move to matrix management? A failure. Market expansion? Mediocre results. So the purpose of inviting all the managers and senior staff to an off site meeting was to reverse that trend. I walked into the meeting, hoping that the CEO would do a good job championing our plan to delegate more project responsibility so that the leadership “bandwidth” could grow. I’d been coaching her for more than a month in preparation for this meeting.

She started off with her vision – and quickly got a barrage of questions. “How are we going to define these teams?” “Who’s going to set expectations?” “How are we going to manage internal chargebacks?” People in the room were way down in the weeds before they’d even stopped to think about why it was necessary to create a more decentralized structure. So I guided the CEO back to some crucial questions: Why was her vision important? What was the business rationale? What did she see as the transition plan? She settled into her rhythm, started talking about the benefits and the steps she envisioned. At one point she said: “If we don’t do this, I think we’re going to get gobbled up by the competition. That’s how serious it is.”

The responses shifted from skepticism to statements of support. After about an hour, I asked the group to signal whether they supported the CEO’s vision by standing up. All but three people stood up. I asked them: “Please share your concerns. Why do you think this is a bad idea?” I reminded them that this was a safe place to express their “inner scripts.”

The fervor of their emotions surprised me. “We represent the support staff, and we’re caught in a hard place between operations and programs. Everything gets dumped on us – and nothing in this plan changes that.”

The CEO paused and said: “I totally hear what you’re saying. But I respectfully disagree. My vision is that the support staff will be integral members of these teams. Communication will get better. Coordination of projects will get better. You still have to play a support role – that’s your job. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much different it will feel. I don’t think you’ll feel dumped on. You’ll feel like a member of a team.”

The rest of the meeting focused on how to implement the new structure. Once it was clear that it was safe to express real concerns, people opened up. I made sure everyone got a chance to talk and express his or her concerns. It took another hour, but by the time we were done, everyone was highly supportive and marching in the same direction.

As we were leaving the meeting, I asked the CEO if she thought this initiative would turn out differently. “I do,” she said. “This time we took the time to listen to each other. It wasn’t always pleasant to hear what people said. But I think that’s what will make the difference.”

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