Strategic Meetings: Building Consensus

Strategic MeetingsStrategic meetings require everyone involved in developing both the format and content to work toward the same goals.  The challenge in today’s “management by consensus” corporate environment is to find agreement without falling into one of two outcome-killing traps.  The first is creating so many objectives that they compete with each other, leaving the audience confused about what you want them to do.  The second is creating objectives and messages that are so watered down that they become meaningless.

As you approach creating objectives and key messages with a group of senior managers, it’s important to remember that they are all strong personalities with very specific goals and challenges for their area of responsibility.  In many cases, their compensation is tied to achieving their goals so they will fight to protect their territory.  There are also political dynamics to consider where there is power, ambition and ego involved.

Given those constraints, these are the steps I recommend to give you the best chance of achieving consensus on meaningful, achievable outcomes and messaging:

Know Your Stakeholders

Never walk into a meeting unprepared; which in this case means a little research to learn two important things.

The first is to find out who will be in the room and what their roles are in the group dynamic.  In any management team there are thought leaders and followers.  The leaders are the people who actually make the decisions.  They are typically the people who sit quietly and hear everyone’s position and then weigh-in late in the discussion.  You can tell who they are because everyone stops talking when they speak.  In most cases, once the leaders state their position, the followers quickly fall in line behind them.

The second is to find out is what’s important to each person in the room.  Every stakeholder has objectives they want to achieve at the event, and usually there is one that is most important to them.  Knowing in advance what each person’s priority is can be very helpful in the give and take of building consensus.  Like all negotiations, if you can give them a win on that priority, they are probably willing to give on other issues.

Find a Friend

The best way to get the information you need is to find an insider to help you understand the dynamics of the group.  They can give you vital insight and will often provide support or nudge the conversation in the direction you need during the discussion.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to spot a mentor.  They are the person that greets you warmly, is truly interested in what you do and introduces you to people who are important to your success.  If you can’t identify who your mentor is, ask your client contact or a department admin.  They always know who is supportive and who isn’t.

Give Them a Starting Point

It may seem presumptuous, but I find it helps to give decision-makers something to react to.  I usually provide a list of outcomes and key messages to begin the discussion based on my knowledge of their business.  My suggestions might not survive the discussion, but they provide a valuable framework and catalyst to start the conversation.

Listen Carefully

Once the discussion gets started, stop talking and listen to what is being said.  Realistically, the leaders don’t really care about your thoughts and, by listening, you will gain amazing insight into their business and event expectations.  The only time I speak is to ask for clarification or to parrot back a key point.  Patience and quiet leadership are required at this point in the process.

Find Your Moment

If you are watching and listening, there will be a moment when you can end the discussion and finalize your outcomes and key messages.  The two clues I look for are repetition and loss of interest.  When the discussion stops progressing and people begin to repeat themselves, it’s time to finalize the deliverables.  The other thing to watch for is when the leaders lose interest and start looking at their watch or checking their email on their smartphone or tablet.

By this point in the discussion, you should have a list of three or four ideas that everyone agrees with, even if they have argued over semantics.  Seize the moment and lay out the key points you’ve heard for their approval.  If you’ve paid attention and your timing is right, the group will approve your outcomes and key messages without further discussion.

Building consensus doesn’t have to be a prolonged process if you can get all the decision-makers in the room at the same time.  If you prepare properly and listen carefully, you can usually leave the room with consensus after less than an hour.

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