Our executive off sites were average here is how they became amazing — Strat Planning Post #2

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This article is #2 in a series on strategic planning I’m writing. Before you go on if you have not, please read article #1 in this series.

Now that I’ve pointed out that a lot of companies don’t run an effective strat planning process I have to admit I’ve worked in a couple of those companies myself — and didn’t know better. What I did know was the feeling of tension between the execs and the functional teams that increases with the degree of misalignment. Even greater, I took on the responsibility and stress of feeling like the product strategy was the company strategy and that it was all on my shoulders. Maybe the anxiety is what drove me so hard to find success. I am sure some of the self-induced stress was counterproductive.

Here is the story of my journey to learning an effective strat planning process.

I’ll tell you right now this experience was personally and professionally transformative. In fact, some of the best memories of my life (yes life) stem from my times at Bizo where we went from good to great with respect to how our exec team worked together to craft our product strategy and the supporting company strategy.

I joined Bizo in 2010 as the first product hire to lead the product function as the 18th employee. For the first two years the way our exec team functioned was around weekly one hour meetings, ad hoc meetings on specific subjects and full day offsite meetings once a quarter. Our quarterly off-sites were, sort of, structured. A couple of us did prep work before the meeting. Most didn’t.

It isn’t just Bizo. It’s likely your company too. Over the past 3 years, I’ve met with 38 CEOs of companies of 200 employees or less. 4 of which could describe a convincing strat planning process.

“Hey we know our business, we live it every day. We’re a startup. We don’t need to do prep work.” I hear so many other execs say this. Then what is being said is that deep focused though is relegated to the small spaces… a drive home, a one hour meeting, during a mountain bike ride. This is not near enough.

Back to Bizo. During our exec off-sites, I was partially satisfied to highly frustrated. There were people who would dominate the conversation and others, who had a ton to contribute, who said very little. At times, key decisions would be made outside of our team meetings by a couple of the execs, and announced, not discussed. When that happened I was fucking enraged.

Russ Glass our CEO knew there was another level. What a wise man you are Russ. Love you man. Russ found a strat planning expert, Dwight Porter, and hired him to guide us through a strat planning process that would become the way our executive team ran the company.

Dwight made his name turning DoubleClick around as their strategy coach which lead to the $3Bill acquisition by Google. He sits on a number of boards, leads strat planning for roughly 9 companies today (many you are familiar with), is a Ph.D. in Econ and a Harvard grad. He’s deft at mediating conversations, communication and reading people. He’s seen more situations than Bill Belichick. Dwight took us from good to great and has become a great friend and mentor to me over the years. I’m so grateful to you Dwight!

When Dwight arrived at our office Russ introduced him as a “mediator”. Someone who would sit in on our exec full day meetings and guide the conversation. I learned quickly it would be MUCH more than that.

At this time Bizo had about 90 employees and ARR of roughly $20Mill.

Dwight stood up to the whiteboard and off the top of his head sketched out an annual strat planning process designed for the phase of our company that started late Feb, would have eight full-day meetings and would conclude at the end of November. It would set a revenue goal for the next year. It would build a company plan that included product roadmap and all of the functional area plans to support the delivery of the value our product strategy was designed to deliver to our target market segments so that the revenue goal could be hit. You need a strategy AND the ability to execute on that strategy. The product, the teams, the expertise all have to be built over time and in concert.

The process would uncover many insights we would use in the current year and provide great benefit quickly. We would agree to the six company initiatives we would get right next year, no matter what, and we would document things we would NOT do.

The room was silent. A pin drop silent. I was in awe. This guy is THE boss, I thought to myself. We were a room of highly talented and motivated athletes and the coach had arrived. It took a couple of meetings with Dwight but quickly we knew we were going to elevate our game BIG TIME.

I can remember a meeting where we were setting our revenue target for the following year. Donnie leaned over to me and whispered, “What is this guy worth!” It was becoming clear to us the value of his impact on the business, and the process he was teaching, was to be counted in millions.

As a product leader, you can study Silicon Valley Product Group or Pragmatic Marketing for the best practices in product management. You can start to feel like driving the product plan and the supporting company functional plan is all on your shoulders. I know many other product managers feel that way. I have. In our first meeting with Dwight, I was like, holy shit, this process is a lot about the product strategy. Dwight is talking to me at least 50% of the time… and I don’t have all of the answers!!

At the same time, my vision for our future product that LinkedIn would ultimately buy for $175 Mill was largely coming together in my head. This process helped me get it out, refine it collaboratively with the full participating of the entire exec team. I learned from Dwight that it is the responsibility of the entire executive team to deeply and thoughtfully collaborate to craft the product strategy and supporting company strategy — as a team. It is not ALL on the product function, nor shout it be. Everyone has a ton of market intelligence to bring to the discussion. There is nothing more important.

If this seems obvious and simple then why is it so infrequently done well?

Many product leaders I meet feel they don’t have the full collaborative support of their exec team. They see varying degrees of misalignment across the executive team. They can often be unsure as to how to align everyone. The point is, its not their sole responsibility. It’s the team’s responsibility and ultimately that of the CEO.

My experience is that there are many places we can go to learn about sales best practices, product management best practices, finance best practices but there are few places where we can learn a framework for strat planning.

Before I close it’s important not to leave out what these meetings did for the relationships and cohesiveness of our exec team. We had a fantastic team culture going into the process, however, coming out we were so much more aligned leading to deeper relationships and more fun working together. I believe the increase in vibes amongst the execs permeated out across the company in very positive ways.

It may be that the #1 thing Dwight taught us was clear, open, collaborative communication with no room for misunderstandings.

In my next post, I’ll describe the framework I learned from Dwight and changes I’ve made to it over the years.

If you would like to talk about getting your company on this path sent me an email at productmann@gmail.com

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Read the next article in this series: LTDPE has become how winning CEOs manage winning companies — Strat Planning Post #3

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Customer-Obsessed Product Guy, @IBM, @Coremetrics, @Bizo, @LinkedIn, @1Password, people, data, desire, grit, electric bass, family…

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Chris Mann

Chris Mann

Customer-Obsessed Product Guy, @IBM, @Coremetrics, @Bizo, @LinkedIn, @1Password, people, data, desire, grit, electric bass, family…

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