By Frédéric SOS - July 26, 2019

"The ExCom serves as the decision-making body!"

I especially appreciated my initial contact with senior management. For some ten years now, I've been focused on observing a collective sequence in order to explore the operating modes and positioning of each executive team member. Such observations prove to be even more fruitful given that the presence of an outsider perceived as an expert serves to further energize the team's preferred practices and behaviors. The resulting "magnifying glass" effect provides a close-up view of team culture and model indicators.
"How would I determine whether this ExCom has been effective?" is what I ask myself systematically before turning into a wallflower while the meeting unfolds. "You'll know it based on the number of decisions we'll have made" is the answer I hear 9 times out of 10.

Toward the beginning of last June, I observed in action for the very first time the executive team of a DSC (in reference to a Digital Services Company, a term that has become more widely used than the former software engineering services company). After asking the same old question and receiving the standard reply, I noticed the 8-member team paying special attention to controlling the agenda topics. At the end of the 2-hour meeting, we held a dialogue intended to share notes and analyses. The members expressed their satisfaction with the proceedings, which they found to be especially productive. "Well judge for yourself! We made 7 executive decisions in 2 hours, with the minutes being quite explicit: for each decision, one individual will oversee implementation, complete with timelines and efficiency measurement criteria adopted for the associated action plan. A model of its kind, right?". A model, most assuredly… but a model of exactly what?

What had I actually observed? A group of individuals most definitely involved in the process and knowledgeable of their subjects, based on the evidence at hand, had proposed decision options or exposed the difficulties being faced. This well prepared "shopping list" had been submitted to the Board, assembled under the undisputed leadership of a man acting with neither disdain nor domination, basically an affable individual, yet one who for 2 hours straight had taken stances, forged opinions and made decisions. Had he actually been bestowed with the power to act accordingly? Had the decision-making process truly been built around a collective dynamic? I'm not so sure.

Only limited exchanges were held between the team members, which probably explained the large number of decisions processed; these were simply "compliant actors", contributing all the background necessary for their Chairman to make an official proclamation.

In providing them with my observation and adding my impression of witnessing a "concerted effort to shirk responsibility", with members ducking their assigned tasks while leading their boss to make decisions that should have probably been handled at their individual level, I felt the full weight of the disappointment my presence created. This sentiment was reinforced as the Chairman took the opportunity to confide his profound feeling that too much depended on him, running counter to his intentions, and his desire for team members to assume greater autonomy. That said, his demeanor during the meeting did nothing to promote such autonomy.
This exchange had the merit of encouraging team members to clarify their commitment, this time in unanimous chorus, to ameliorate the situation. The steps necessary to achieve such improvement are currently underway.

It may be that many teams are all too familiar with such a situation, which is spawned from a likely confusion between a decision-making body and a body composed of decision-makers. For the decision-making body, it's the decision itself that garners all the attention, with each member's role to contribute to a decision made by the individual sitting in the Chairman's seat. The body of decision-makers, on the other hand, mobilizes each team member to act within the scope of his/her decision-making purview: the group thus acts in support of the individual endowed with decision-making authority. Whenever debate, expressions of disagreement and clarification of the respective positions are actually possible, the Executive Committee is most definitely the preferred forum for allowing members to test out their analyses, positions and decision in light of the objections, competing arguments and alternative viewpoints raised by the participants.

I'd like to use this space to offer praise to the President of an automaker, who has mastered the art of rallying his Head Office ExCom along these lines. If no objection has been raised during an entire presentation, he would typically reprimand - and rather harshly - the meeting organizer, arguing that a meeting without conflicting views was of no interest: "If we all agree on the matter, then why even hold a meeting and waste the time of all these participants? A simple memo or announcement would have sufficed". Upon completion of a brief presentation, this man so skilled in "the 7-minute meeting illustrated by a single slide" could spark a debate that he himself would help lead. After 15 to 20 minutes of exchanges, at times heated, he would turn to the individual assigned decision-making authority and ask: "do you now have all the background necessary to reach your decision?". The respondent would sometimes indicate the need for more time to adequately weigh the competing arguments, but most often would answer in the affirmative, thereby prompting the director to introduce the next agenda item. When I first started working for this team, I was surprised that he hadn't requested the reasoning behind the decision, but in fact his priority was merely to verify that the decision-maker had been properly informed, leaving plenty of latitude to determine the conditions for announcing and implementing the particular decision.

Beyond this show of trust, I came away with the conviction that an executive team's primary added value is to ensure that decisions are being made and moreover that this is happening at the appropriate level (and not necessarily by an ExCom member). What also struck me was the notion that promoting a culture of spirited debate is an excellent means for empowering "enlightened" decision-makers?