I recently facilitated a leadership workshop for the senior management team of a leading PLC to focus on clarifying their strategic focus and objectives and develop their leadership competencies.  They are a relatively new team who work remotely and rarely meet as a whole group, getting together mostly in smaller groups focussed on immediate operational issues.  However, they are successful and this invites a key question: why do they need a two-day leadership workshop?  

To help answer this question there are two hints above.  Firstly, they are relatively new as a team, about 10 months old.  They recognised that since they had started as a team they had immediately immersed themselves in operational issues, getting on with the day to day business of hitting their targets.  That’s good, isn’t it?  Not according to them.  Firstly, they recognised that, albeit successful in the last operational year, that model would not be sustainable going forward.  They were concerned that their horizons were too short-term and their business objectives needed a longer-term perspective.  Secondly, this operational approach was creating a culture in their teams of dependency on command and control rather than their leading by setting clear objectives and empowering their teams to perform and deliver in their own right.   

With this in mind we designed a development programme and two-day workshop.  After the first exercise on day one we started the second session for the day, focussing on the business strategy and objectives.  At this point the carefully prepared structure for the two days largely unravelled.  Tensions in the team emerged and frustrations grew between the team leader and the team.  Issues which the team leader had thought could be disposed of in two hours turned out to need a much longer airing, and competing interests between business lines became more obvious.  What to do?  How did this happen?  We had prepared, set a clear structure and everyone had re-affirmed it and now it was in pieces round our ankles.   But this was no bad thing.  The worst step to take would have been to force the pace on the set agenda, leaving those tensions raised but then not resolved.  So I kept the team focussed on the business strategy and objectives and how they as individuals would deliver their bit – it’s one thing to say the business needs to deliver this objective, but it’s quite another to commit to ‘I will be accountable for delivering it.’  

After several hours it became clear to me that the team were experiencing a rapid process of “storming and norming”, i.e. the sometimes substantial and difficult mental and attitude changes necessary to adjust to the new norm of more joined-up and strategic thinking.  They hadn’t been together as a team for months or had the time to consider their objectives or how to work as a team, and here they were committing themselves to ambitious performance targets.  This was inevitably creating some degree of discomfort.  The solution was to back off, allow them to work their way through the session at their own pace, avoiding too much intervention while reflecting and giving them feedback.  That evening they achieved clarity and over dinner they engaged and ate together as a team in a more relaxed atmosphere.  

Day 2 – lift off!  The objectives were clarified after breakfast, commitment explicitly confirmed over morning coffee and they then focussed on how they would deliver the objectives and develop as a leadership team.  

So the three main messages for me were clear – that changes of the sort which this client felt necessary would never have been achieved without taking the management team out of the office to a nice hotel (in a remote part of Herefordshire, to deter escapers).  Once underlying issues had been forced to the surface, there was no alternative to a proper ventilation of them, even if that meant shelving other parts of the agenda.  Last, that there are very few off-sites indeed which are not improved by a decent dinner.