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Who's in the Room?

By Bob Frisch

(Jossey-Bass, 193 pages, $35.95)

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For those in the middle or the bottom of the corporate hierarchy, there's little doubt about who makes the big decisions: the senior management team.

But Boston-based consultant Bob Frisch, who works with many executive teams, has found that it isn't so clear to those at the top.

Often, members of the senior executive feel that weighty decisions are made even before issues come to their agenda, and that they are expected merely to wave the initiative on through. Instead, decisions are made by a team with no name – one that doesn't appear on any organization chart.

This informal group is what might be called the kitchen cabinet, a small core of intimate advisers to the chief executive, and perhaps a few people specially included because of their expertise about the issue at hand. These are people the CEO totally trusts; they are not seen as parochial, unlike members of the senior management team, who typically are ardent defenders of their own portfolio.

In Who's In The Room? Mr. Frisch argues that senior management teams have many strengths and are in a unique position to take on tasks no other group in the organization can handle. But making big decisions isn't one of their strong points.

"Although senior management teams are excellent forms for brainstorming, creativity, option development, information sharing, co-ordination, dependency management, and a host of other functions, they are often ill-suited to decision-making, even of the casual, consensus-seeking type that characterizes the deliberations of many senior teams," he writes.

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Senior managers tend to be torn between exercising the functional expertise that brought them to the top of the heap and the CEO's desire that everyone on the team take an organization-wide perspective.

Although called a team, they really are more of a legislature, with each person representing a significant constituency – the people in his or her department. But confusion inevitably arises about representation and influence. Should finance, purchasing, marketing, human resources, and operations have equal weight in the team's deliberations, or should some departments have more clout?

Mr. Frisch urges us to accept the reality that CEOs need different configurations of people – different people in the room – for various types of decisions and tasks. Chief executives need to create a portfolio of teams, and the senior management team must take responsibility for three conversations crucial to every company:

The common world view

The senior management team must agree on what is happening in the world that affects the company. Once these drivers of change are determined, the organization must be aligned around a shared set of assumptions about what flows from this.

This discussion must be carried out by the senior management team – not the strategic planning department or the marketing department – because its membership ensures broad input. He urges the team to figuratively walk the company's boundaries, testing the supposedly immovable "walls" – the things you believe you should not do – to determine whether breakthroughs could happen if the boundaries changed.

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Priorities

The senior management team should develop a list of all the major projects being undertaken within the organization – there are probably 80 to 120 in most large companies, he says – and then develop priorities. To do this, he suggests setting up a bull's-eye target with two circles around it for every company objective , and then agreeing as a team where on (or off) the target the project should be placed.

Initiatives

When new opportunities are being assessed, the senior management team – thanks to its members' instinctive parochialism – is ideal for evaluating what is involved in executing the idea and whether the company has the resources to get it done. They should commit the resources at the start, so the initiative doesn't later bog down, or put on the brakes if it clearly won't work.

Mr. Frisch ends by giving CEOs specific advice. "In thinking about the best structure to put into place for yourself, the goal is to ensure two things: That you're getting the input you need to make decisions and that the executives around you have the opportunity to align their points of view and co-ordinate organizational activities effectively."

Who's in the Room? contains many fresh insights and practical techniques that will help senior executives – and anyone interested in organizational dynamics – to understand how to improve decision making and to execute decisions more effectively.

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POSTSCRIPT

Anthony Griffiths shares tales of his time on a slew of Canadian boards, watching management and mismanagement, in Corporate Catalyst (John Wiley, 338 pages, $36.95).

Vancouver-based consultant Bruna Martinuzzi offers practical tool and techniques for Presenting with Credibility (Six Seconds, 359 pages, $21.95)

In The Information Diet (O'Reilly, 150 pages, $24.99), software developer Clay Johnson shows you how to thrive in today's information glut.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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