I was sitting on Bob Kelly's right, one of the fourteen at the table in a private dining room at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. Bob was running the company Arthur Andersen, and he had its top brass gathered for a strategy meeting.
The room was bellowing with high-powered conversation. As we finished the main course, Bob gently, yet deliberately, tapped his wine glass and the room went quiet. Bob Kelly could draw the attention of any room. Then he simply said, "Issues forward."
Over a Macallan later that night, I asked him about the "issues forward" move. He told me he noticed the group was largely discussing recent and past performance of the company. They were discussing why things had happened and why things were happening.
He told me that the past is only as valuable to him as its influence on making future action better. "Issues forward" was his device to re-orient the group to choices and decisions, informed by the past, that shall make the future better.
That meeting in the Jefferson took place 25 years ago. In the years since, I have noticed that this "issues forward" orientation is a characteristic of peak performance leaders and peak performance cultures. While other leaders examine the past and ask why things happened as they did, these peak performers are relentlessly future-focused.
Here are three moves you can make to get your team oriented to "issues forward":
1. Follow the PGA.
Instead of sitting with your CFO and pouring over last month's or last quarter's actuals regarding profit or revenue or expenses and asking why things happened as they did, start by discussing:
- Plans. Discuss your plan for the next month or quarter.
- Gaps. Ask your team if there are any gaps between what they are projecting to happen and what the plan intends to happen.
- Actions. If there are gaps, then ask your team what actions need to be taken to close the gaps between projections and plans.
The PGA identifies immediate actions that ensure integrity of your plans. It is completely "issues forward."
2. Ask the group, "So what?"
The next time you are in a meeting and the team is discussing past performance, be it financial or sales or expenses, ask them, "So what?"
When they ask you what you mean, say, "So what does this have to do with today, tomorrow, next week, and next month? How are we going to use this conversation and insights to make our future better?"
The "so what" question forces the group to shift to the future.
3. Listen for phrases like "because of" vs. "in order to."
Another leadership move to focus your team on the future is to listen for phrases like "because of." You want to have the conversation focus on "in order to" instead.
In a "because of" conversation, the group is focused on figuring out why things happened. "We missed revenue by 10 percent last month because of the difficulty we had in getting raw material."
The "in order to" conversation sounds very different. "We need to expedite our materials order in order to avoid a short fall that will restrict revenue for next month."
So here's the call to action: Learn to see the orientation a group is taking as they discuss facts. Intervene to pivot their orientation to the future. By keeping your group oriented to the future, you'll ensure that you realize your plans and intentions.