Bottom Line: meetings must be minimized and managed. This is a key tenet for success as a senior leader (or one who aspires to be). Providing “killer” read ahead material is a critical success factor for managing meetings.
I am opposed to meetings that do not add value to the work we do. Meetings should be short, focused, begun with a clear end or purpose (agenda in advance, even if only stated at the beginning of the meeting), involve people who know the issues, should not be interrupted by side issues or phone calls/obsessive Blackberry checking, and have documented action items reviewed with attendees. I tell those who invite me to meetings or phone calls (for mentoring or any other purpose) to send me an agenda and read-ahead material. In most cases, I am not invited to the meeting as a mere participant, but to provide guidance and engagement to support your initiative or activity (both at the meeting and beyond). Failure to provide me with detailed material in advance inhibits my ability to do this. If you chair a meeting where others provide detailed input, provide me a summary of their key points and desired action from me or others before the meeting. You can use PowerPoint (not my preference since I think having to express complete thoughts in point papers is much better), but do not expect to read the slides to me at the meeting. I try to prepare for every meeting I attend, particularly those I chair or where I am the senior officer. I am acutely aware that time is limited and should not be wasted in meetings. I will read the slides in advance (I need them at least 24 hours in advance, earlier is always better) and may ask questions about individual slides, but I will primarily want to spend the meeting time talking about your conclusions and recommendations. If you display a graph or table, be sure to tell me what conclusions you draw from it and what actions you intend to take as a result. If you provide me PowerPoint slides created by someone from outside the command, I would prefer your advance material include printed copies annotated with your notes and concerns.
I try to practice what I preach. This post is a case study of how I prepared a read ahead for a phone call to RDML Campbell, SEA04, to work out some details about a briefing for him and his NAVSEA 08 counterpart 14 August (two days ahead of the call) on the Supship Newport News self-identified improvement plan (more about that in a future post perhaps). There was no need to go into a lot of detail about the plan in the email since he is already familiar with the big picture (why we are doing it, things we want to fix, etc.) associated with it.
By thinking through the brief and how I planned to present it, I thought of some things that it would be useful to convey in advance. Thus the purpose of the call. Here were the things I wanted to resolve with or convey to him over the phone:
Set clear expectations for what I would be briefing and how I would be doing it far enough in advance that he could give me additional direction, if necessary. He had already spoken to me about this, but I wanted to make sure.
Whether I needed to fly to DC to do the briefing in person (I was not in Newport News at the time) or could do it over the phone. I suspected, given the stakes involved in subsequently briefing VADM McCoy and ADM Donald on the plan, he would feel most comfortable with a face to face briefing, but I did not want to just assume that since flying to DC from my location at the time involved a lot of effort. A key point here is that I did not want to come across as wimpy about having to make the flight so I intended to give him enough information so he had the opportunity to tell me not to fly, but not specifically request not to do so.
Whether he needed me to be in uniform or not for the briefing. Due to bad planning on my part, I did not bring my uniform with me on vacation.
My confidence level in being ready for the brief. Just like public speaking, most senior leaders getting briefed by you want you to be successful at giving them the information they need and conveying your recommendations/key points. Do not take this for granted and take advantage of it whenever possible. By conveying my readiness and interest in the briefing, he should be that much more disposed to help me be successful.
I had spoken to the Supship NN Deputy last week and the night before I scheduled this call so we already had a plan for what to present during the briefing. I wanted to convey the latest information about that.
Shown below is the email read ahead I provided to RDML Campbell (cc to the Supship Deputy) prior to the call:
These are the main points:
• I am in Cato, NY (about 40 mi west of Syracuse) this week on leave. I have a flight scheduled Fri so I can brief you in person with the SSNN Deputy or we can do it over the phone at your option. I do not have my uniform with me, but may be able to have my father drive up from VA Beach to collect it and then drop it off with the Deputy so he can bring it to the Navy yard for me. This may not work as I am not sure my father has a key to our house.
• I will be practicing the presentation today and tomorrow over the phone with Mr. Taylor. We did some preparation prior to my departure and I have my notes/prep material with me so we will be ready to do a dry run for you of the briefs to VADM McCoy and ADM Donald this Friday.
• We will not brief ppt slides. Our plan is to brief from an outline, possibly with an enlarged version of the Problem Analysis Matrix, and use some examples/exhibits to demonstrate a good portion of the changes we have already made, including: positions recently created and personnel hired in project offices and engineering, an example of the project briefs we have been doing, changes made for CVN 78 that are different from what we did one CVN 77, and our multi-year schedule for improvements that will take us some time. We will plan to complete our brief in an hour (unless a different duration is anticipated) and save the last fifteen minutes or so for questions or further guidance.
• We intend to do each brief (SEA 04/08X, SEA00, SEA08) the same way so it gets better and better with the telling.
It turned out that I did not have a chance to do the call with the Admiral as his schedule was preempted by other events. I did get a call from his staff telling me that my cogent read ahead gave them and the Admiral all they needed to know so the call was unnecessary. They told me that they did expect the briefing to be face to face, that I did not need to wear my uniform, and that they were glad I appeared optimistic and confident about the briefing.
My lessons learned for this episode included: I should have sent a copy to the Admiral's Executive Assistant (so he could make sure the Admiral read it before the call) and the Admiral's staff (I know better than to send stuff just to the Admiral, but I just did not do it - argh!). Other than that, the read ahead accomplished everything I wanted.
What mistakes do I see junior officers make with read aheads for me? They include:
Poorly constructed Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) so I cannot tell what their key objectives are when I begin reading.
Only providing an agenda and not bullets stating the key points. Think of bullets as the outline you would use during the meeting. Why not be transparent about your thinking? A mere agenda is better than no read ahead, but only slightly.
Asking for something (like a recommendation or opinion), without telling me when you want it.
Being vague about the feedback expected from me or sprinkling it in a long email.
Providing attachments they do not explain, thus leaving it up to me to interpret them.
Not providing topics in order of their importance to you (in case our time is shortened).
Here is another example. This is the read ahead I provided for my last mentoring session with RDML Moore:
Subject: Topics for our call on Mon
- Latest on budget ops for FY11 surf ship maintenance
- What you see going on behind the scenes on the tug of war with Congress over the shipbuilding plan (i.e., “SASC Says No Surface Combatants After 2011 Without Major Analysis,” SLEP for FFGs)
- ED-N summit planned for 15 Jul with RDML Campbell (attached is presentation from SWO-N shop)
- SSNN information:
o 70 is back out for Flt Deck Cert
o 77 arrived for PSA, money problems (up to $10M)
o Latest head hurter on 65 is charging piping, end date est is late Dec now
Strange as it may sound, I do not do all the talking on these calls, but I do take responsibility for suggesting topics. I have been friends with RDML Moore since 1992 so I allow myself a little more leeway than you might take with me for topic suggestions.
Becoming skilled at providing good read aheads forces you to think through what is most important to you in meetings and telegraphs this to your intended audience.
Aspiring senior leaders must become good at providing quality read ahead material. It really helps you stand out from the noise that senior leaders constantly face.
The bullets you provide for a read ahead can be thought of as the outline you would use during the meeting. Be transparent about your thinking in advance.
As with developing any skill, you have to practice to get good at providing read aheads. EDs have plenty of opportunities as junior officers to do this so do not wait until you become a Commander or more senior to practice this skill.
As always, I look forward to any feedback or comments you might have, especially if you think I did not convey my points clearly or very well.