In our latest article, Paul Heugh, founder and CEO of Skarbek Associates, reflects on the efficiency of executing strategy from the office and home…
Strategy execution is easy to say and hard to do. Sat in the HQs of organisations around the world, it is hard to make happen, whether in the boardroom, the smallest office, or open desk space. How hard is it from home though?
For many years, my Mondays were dominated by one hour POC (Performance and Operations Committee) meetings. A one hour telephone call with the 17 person strong global leadership of GSK’s multi-billion pound Consumer Division. This meeting was created to bring an intense focus on our strategic priorities. We were turning around the business from low growth to higher growth and we wanted to create a sense of ‘we are all in this together’. We wanted to be on top of performance, successes and weaknesses and we wanted to leverage the power of cross functional teams to resolve issues with a touch of military precision. Like many of the world’s largest organisations, we had monthly leadership meetings where we were together in person for one and a half to two days, for deep dives on key strategies. But, the Monday meetings were focused on turning the strategy into results and the coordination needed to do that.
The POC had three standing agenda items:
• Performance: Updates from each of the regional and major market presidents
• Key Issues: A brief discussion of the plan and immediate action needed to resolve them
• Communications: Keeping all the leaders in the loop
It’s interesting to look back now on the process and dynamics of this meeting. My role for POC was to organise and run the meeting, sort the agenda and get it out by COB Friday, ensure that if there were any deputies representing their bosses, that they knew what was expected. My boss would let me know if there were any special topics – often a crisis, or urgent matter requiring global coordination. Sometimes these would come up by request, or I’d pick up through back channels. Action notes from the previous meeting and the agenda were circulated by e-mail and also lodged on our collaborative site.
About five minutes before the call, we’d open the line and I would take the register of attendees and then, when the boss arrived, recap for him who was online. Often there would be a brief couple of minutes banter which he would kick off – sports results, humorous anecdotes, or simply enquiring about people. The more intense the crisis, the more everyone appreciated this brief “human” moment. Once the tone was set, I would recap actions and affirm they had all been completed, or the owner would update on the work in progress. The POC started as a meeting many attended with reluctance, taking a precious hour out of every Monday. Over the months though it came to symbolise the rhythm of the business, everyone knew where we were versus the budget, everyone knew the issues and as the head of communications said, “we leave the POC with one version of the truth”, or as we describe it now, with shared consciousness.
The Benefits of POC Meetings
What did POC do? In summary, it helped significantly with strategy execution. We focused on growth and anything that enabled it, or would get in the way. It helped us when we got surprised with a crisis, when we would use POC as our virtual command centre to organise and conduct special projects and firefight. But, there was never a sense of panic, sometimes the discussions were intense and perhaps at times uncomfortable, but we always left with an understanding of the plan and the priorities. We left knowing what we had to focus on with our respective teams across the globe. Over time, the seventeen members became a tight team operating as a team and it’s no coincidence that performance increased significantly too. There were never any minutes from the POC, I only ever issued a very short summary of any actions requested, or agreed in the meeting. It was forward leaning.
On Monday last week, I had a sense of Déjà vu. I run a much smaller business now, but at 09.00, the Skarbek management team of eight met by videoconference, all working from home. We realised that our lives had changed, possibly for weeks, or many months. We face severe challenges as a business, but our approach and attitude has been forged by experience and so we all felt calm and confident. The weekly POC has now become our daily heartbeat telecon. We share our priorities for the day, those things we have to nail. At 16.30 each day, we have a half hour dial in and report back, what successes have we had and how can we improve our ways of working. We are no longer in the office; we may as well be in eight different countries. But, this book-ending of each day ensures we are focused on executing our strategy, resolving the issues of the day and coordinating matters for our clients and our business. Yesterday, I left the call feeling good, we had helped a number of clients adopt some novel technology to plan a global project by remote control. A dozen people in different locations, but all planning and collaborating in one virtual room. Yes, we can implement strategy from home, our own and our clients!
As a final reflection, as anyone who has been in an intense crisis will tell you, there has to be crystal clear focus on the priorities. There has to be a plan and owner of each issue and we need to all be in the loop. POC worked, our daily team calls work. Our business strategy remains sound, but the business plan for 2020 is not going to be the one we now execute. We have tough decisions to take in the forthcoming economic crisis. We have to adapt rapidly and significantly. I love Mike Tyson’s quote, “Everyone has a plan, until I hit them in the face”. COVID-19 has hit us in the face. Our agenda items on our daily calls are remarkably similar to the POC: performance; focus on the few critical things; work the issues and communicate, communicate, communicate. I want us as a business to have a rhythm that can be sustained for months and years to come. Today, I brief the board on the situation and priorities. I feel fortunate, I have one of our most senior former diplomats, one of our countries most distinguished soldiers and former head of UK Special Forces, a former partner in one of the top law firms and two exceptionally able businesswoman. Like POC, it feels good going into a team meeting.