Death, Taxes, and. . . Meetings
Just because they're inevitable doesn't mean they have to be boring, painful, and a waste of everyone's time
When you get beyond the point of handling everything in your company yourself, a critical issue crops up: how do you get everyone moving in the same direction? How do you get them to do what needs to be done without setting up too much structure? In a sense, this is what managing people is all about.
Many well-meaning chief executives create elaborate systems -- state-of-the-art incentives, say, or whizbang training programs. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But when all is said and done, the trick of management is knowing a good, solid idea when you stumble on it. Or so C. E. Steuart Dewar would argue.
Over the past several years Dewar, the 42-year-old founder and president of Dewar Information Systems Corp. (DISC), a Westchester, Ill., supplier of editorial production systems for newspapers, has figured out an effective way to keep people focused. Even as the business grows -- sales are currently around $10 million and there are 65 employees -- he is in close touch with top managers who regularly share ideas with one another and the people who work for them. We're not talking about reports and memos flying back and forth; nor are we looking at a fancy high-tech system. Dewar's secret weapon is none other than the lowly meeting, a weekly powwow of managers.
Mention committee meetings to a lot of seasoned managers, and watch their eyes roll. The complaints almost always involve time -- or, more precisely, what comes or doesn't come from the long hours spent in the conference room. We've all heard the committee jokes -- "a camel is a horse designed by . . ." and so on. But Dewar and his three vice-presidents, DISC's executive committee, disagree. They see their meetings as an efficient mechanism for keeping one another up to date. The weekly meetings are also a forum for addressing the bigger questions -- everything from how to structure the organization to what products the company should be selling.
"We've found," says Ed Houcek, vice-president of sales and marketing, "that a group of people working together can come up with smarter decisions than one individual, no matter who he is." Houcek tells about the time he had a terrific idea for a product to be sold to small printing shops. He was positive it was a good bet -- until they began discussing the plan in the executive-committee meeting. Within an hour he'd been convinced by the vice-president of operations, Richard Secrest, that the product was great, but if they wanted to make money on it, they'd have to target a different customer base -- which is what they ultimately did.
The idea for regular meetings grew out of Dewar's needs three or four years ago. As DISC was growing and adding people, Dewar, a British-born software specialist, found that making decisions was tougher and more time-consuming than he'd expected. As issues came up -- questions about a particular contract, maybe, or a personnel matter -- he'd go around getting the opinion of one individual or another on the problem at hand. But as the business got bigger, the problems got thornier. How should they handle sales commissions? What about benefits? And what kinds of precedents was he setting by doing one thing as opposed to another? It was when the pressures of growth began to crowd out the time he could find to meet with individuals that Dewar set up his executive committee.
Three and a half years later, he and his three vice-presidents are champions of regular meetings, whatever the eye-rolling experience of other chief executives. The four meet every Tuesday, almost always in Dewar's corner office, and typically the meetings run from three to five hours, with one break. When one of the four members is planning to be away, the meetings are rescheduled for the same week, if possible. Why not hold the meeting anyhow? "It's a matter of balance," Dewar explains. "In order to evaluate things fairly, you really want somebody pulling from every perspective."
Even if you buy the argument that Dewar gets better decisions, how does he justify spending so much time in one meeting? Certainly his 60-hour weeks, including one or two days of travel, don't leave him a lot of slack. You have to think about the alternatives, he says. "A good portion of any manager's time is spent communicating with other people. It's a lot more efficient to get people together once than to do it piecemeal." Although it's hard to quantify, he's convinced that the meetings actually save time. "There's less redundancy. And we can anticipate potential troubles so we don't have to spend as much time solving problems that shouldn't have come up in the first place."
To illustrate his point, Dewar describes a situation that could have turned into a real headache a couple of years ago. The company had spent a lot of money on developing some new products, which left it short of cash for the traditional year-end pay increases. To make matters worse, some new hires had been given commitments about raises that the company couldn't meet on schedule. Dewar, after the executive-committee discussion, met one-on-one with the people most affected, explained the situation, and asked for their patience. He got it, and the company paid up in six months.
The meetings, Dewar says, make his job much less stressful. By having a team of managers to help him shape decisions early on, he feels there's less second-guessing and finger-pointing than he's seen at many companies. After an initial airing of views, most issues are decided by consensus, although as 85% owner, Dewar reserves the right to veto. So far, he hasn't used it: "If I can't persuade three smart people that something makes sense or is at least worth trying, it's probably not a great idea."
"When you leave a meeting," says Secrest, "you understand the issue. Even if we have conflicting views going in, we eventually come up with a package that everyone can live with." The process is particularly valuable, Dewar notes, when the matter at hand is controversial or emotional -- managers are better able to sell something they've all talked out and agreed on. Last spring, for example, the executive committee decided after weeks of proposals and counterproposals to scale back funding of health insurance. Given the history of generous benefits at the company, it would have been an unpopular decision under any circumstance, admits Dewar, and Secrest, for one, had serious misgivings about its effect on the company's ability to attract good people in the future. But eventually they all agreed that cost reductions were necessary, and employees were asked to pay about a third of their dependent coverage. "If I had made the decision on my own or if it had been made by John [Colwell, the finance vice-president]," Dewar says, "we would have been seen as the bad guys." Committee decisions, Dewar thinks, carry more weight with employees.
While the initial impetus for Dewar's meetings with his managers was to solve a specific problem, an unexpected benefit has been the role it creates for managers. In most businesses, the person in charge of, say, finance is hired to run finance. His or her involvement in marketing or operations would be at most an afterthought and often an unwelcome one. At DISC, however, the vice-presidents aren't just permitted to comment on proposals centered in other areas; it's part of the job. Like managers at other companies, they still run their departments on a day-to-day basis and make most of the decisions within their areas. Through the committee, however, they have an impact beyond their corner of the company. "You feel like you're part of the process," says Secrest, who, along with Houcek, has been with DISC for more than five years.
The key to Dewar's success may be that he has made each of the participants part of the process at DISC. The meetings aren't a drag for him or his managers. They're the place where one's expertise comes to the fore, where one's ideas can directly affect how the company is run. Each of the four can point to decisions that are better for having been discussed openly.
Even though all three vice-presidents have owned or managed businesses themselves, working in the DISC environment took some getting used to. "When I first came here in 1987, I found it very annoying to have to listen to [marketing vice-president] Ed Houcek talk about our cash flow," admits Colwell. But since then Colwell, who used to own his own software firm, has come to recognize that "a company isn't run for the accounting department." Now, rather than seeing other managers' comments as unwelcome attempts to meddle in his affairs, he says, "you learn to share information and hear how decisions would impact others. This is a tool for coordinating every aspect of our growth.
"I'd say that 8 out of 10 decisions come out better with this approach," offers Colwell, who saw a lot of decision making in the five years he spent working for a Big Eight accounting firm. "There's a level of coordination we get here that you rarely see in other businesses." And Dewar? He's so pleased with the way things are going that he can't imagine running DISC differently.
How to get the most from an executive committee
An executive committee isn't for everyone. To begin with, says C. E. Steuart Dewar, president and founder of Dewar Information Systems Corp., you have to be comfortable with the idea of sharing responsibility with your managers. If that isn't a serious obstaclefor you, here are some things to keep in mind:
* Be organized. You don't have to be overly formal, but it's a good idea to have a regular meeting schedule, a written agenda, and a chairperson. Without a structure, says Dewar, "you risk having it become a bull session for senior managers."
* Be open. Encourage committee members to voice their views strongly, no matter how controversial. That's the only way you're going to see the whole picture. If the finance person, for example, isn't pointing out the financial risks of a marketing plan, you could end up with a false sense of security, warns Dewar.
* Find the common ground. Once everyone has placed their cards on the table, it's time to sort out what makes the most sense. "Somebody has to begin synthesizing the pieces," Dewar has learned. "I'll make proposals and keep getting feedback until we find a consensus."
* Assign responsibility. Nothing is complete until committee members understand who's supposed to do what by when. After each meeting, Dewar gives his vice-presidents an assignment list. "Unless you spell out what's supposed to happen," he says, "it winds up like a lot of committees -- just a waste of time."