How to Change Your Company Culture One Meeting at a Time

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Be it General Motors, the Veterans Administration, or the U.S. Congress, the answer to the problems these organizations face is always the same: change the organization’s culture.

Culture change appears to be a daunting task. A task so big, so formidable, we don’t even know where to start. So we give up. We go along all the while blaming the culture for the way things are. This is convenient, but hardly useful.

Culture Change: Yes, You Can

There is a way to shift your organization’s culture that is within your control and is not beyond your reach: Change the way you lead and participate in meetings.

Yes, meetings, those mind- numbing, energy- sapping experiences that we love to complain about but do little to change. With 11 million meetings per day in the U.S. alone and half of them unproductive, the ripple effect of changing a meeting can reach far beyond the meeting itself.

Leadership expert Peter Block writes in his foreword to Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations, “The structure, aliveness, deadness, whisper or shout of a meeting teaches and persuades us more about the culture of our workplace than all the speeches about core values and the new culture we are striving for … What we call meetings are critical cultural passages that create an opportunity for engagement or disengagement.”

Meetings are cultural snapshots of how people in the organization relate to each other. They tell us all we need to know about power and authority, decision-making, communication patterns and the way people relate to each other.

Ford Changed the Culture by Changing the Meetings

Sara Miller Caldicott describes in a recent Forbes article how CEO Allan Mullaly’s use of meetings was vital to Ford’s turnaround. “… it would have been a moot victory had Mulally not also changed the way meetings were conducted, the way supplier agreements were developed, and the way people treated each other day-to-day. It has been reported that before Mulally took over, internal meetings at Ford were like mortal combat. Executives regularly looked for vulnerability among their peers and practiced self-preservation over collaboration. Mulally changed all that, making executive meetings a safe environment where data could be shared without blame, improving collaboration and setting the stage for innovation success.”

While I’m sure the meetings Sara Miller Caldicott describes at Ford were efficient, that was not what she chose to highlight. The new ways of working together that these meetings fostered made the difference at Ford. Success in these meetings required a combination of listening, inquiry, and straight talk. Caldicott goes on, “By personally modelling candor and willingness to openly speak about complex, taboo subjects, Mulally built a safe operating environment for his direct reports.”

Start the Change by Changing the Agenda

Productive, collaborative meetings require a different kind of meeting agenda, an agenda that puts as much emphasis on the meeting’s process as its content. We have found that the Meeting Canoe™ gives meeting leaders such a framework, one that produces seismic shifts in the way people meet.

How to Change Your Culture One Meeting at a Time with the Meeting Canoe™

Creating meetings where people feel Welcome and Connected to the task at hand helps create an environment that supports fruitful dialogue. Listening, straight talk, and inquiry are the essential skills needed in the Discover and Elicit portion of the agenda. Being clear at the outset about the process the group will use to make decisions gives everyone a clear understanding of the rules of the game. Attending to the end provides closure to the experience, giving everyone an understanding of the decisions reached, the path forward and a way to improve future meetings.

When your meeting carries with it the electric charge of autonomy, challenge, learning, meaning and feedback, your meetings become productive work experiences. The more features you use, the better your meeting will be.

Autonomy – The ability to influence the meeting’s design and its outcome
Challenge – The prospect of stretching your skills
Learning – The opportunity to learn and grow
Meaning – The chance to work on something that is important
Feedback – The capability of measuring the meetings progress

You Have the Power to Change the Culture

Meetings provide a rapid way to shift your organization’s culture no matter where you sit in the organization. The beauty about what happens in meetings is they are under our control. If you are a meeting leader, you can use your power to create meetings such as those conducted within Ford– or not. You can use the Meeting Canoe framework– or not. You can create meetings that carry an electric charge– or not. You can decide whether your meeting experience will be one of self-preservation or collaboration. It’s up to you. When’s your next meeting? Head for the Meeting Canoe.

More about Dick Axelrod

Dick and is wife Emily Axelrod are pioneers in creating employee involvement programs to effect large-scale organization change, and co-founded the Axelrod Group in 1981. Dick is also a lecturer in University of Chicago’s Masters in Threat and Response Management Program, and a faculty member in American University’s Masters in Organization Development program. Dick and Emily created the Conference Model®, an internationally recognized high-involvement change methodology.

Together, Emily and Dick are frequent keynote speakers and co-authors. Their latest book is Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done it outlines a flexible and adaptable system used to run truly productive meetings in all kinds of organizations―meetings where people create concrete plans, accomplish tasks, build connections, and move projects forward.


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