The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported this week on a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. Tracking how CEO's use their time, they report that CEOs spend a third of their time in meetings. The WSJ report does not indicate whether researchers thought this was too much or too little. The article’s tone, and its placement on the front page of the newspaper’s “Marketplace” section, suggests that the time spent in meeting is consequential. We better pay attention to how CEO’s use meetings for better or for worse.
Interestingly, accompanying this article on the WSJ website, (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204642604577215013504567548.html) is a link to an article on how CEOs can run better meetings. The article suggests quite sensibly that the CEO should have an agenda, start on time, ban cell phones and assign meeting members to follow up on decisions taken at the meeting. But these common sense suggestions stand in some tension to the article’s placement as a lead story. How could the subject be so serious if the maxims for using meeting time productively are so self-evident?
I want to suggest that the study and its report references, but then suppresses, a common experience-- that top team meetings can be distasteful, difficult and sometimes toxic. The question is why this should be? The answer lies in the corporation’s political nature, in the role of ambition as a prod for work, and on the climate of evaluation that pervades top team deliberations. Top team members live in two time zones; the here and now as it shapes their tasks and establishes the conditions for their success or failure, and the imagined future, in which ambitious executives strive to, and can, become CEOs themselves. The second time zone introduces competition and evaluation. Subordinates’ effectiveness is measured relative to one another, and the CEO of the team gauges his or her subordinates as potential successors, or even possible usurpers.
This second time zone diminishes the value of the pragmatic advice referenced on the WSJ web site. That is because the challenge is political not technical. How can a CEO lash together competing subordinates, particularly when the CEO himself or herself, uses this competition as a spur to performance, as a guide to promotion, and as a way to test subordinates’ loyalty? If the CEO is uncomfortable with the resulting tension, with the interplay of power dynamics and real work, then meetings will prove difficult, labored, and poor vehicles for accomplishing tasks.
Several decades ago it was more common for management theorists to pay attention to the corporation as a political organization. But this worldview gave way to two competing conceptions. One was the “economistic” view in which it was presumed that executives as “agents” of the shareholders, would act on behalf of the corporation as a whole because they would be rewarded, for example with stock options, when shareholders were rewarded. The incentive system eliminated the tension between the individual executive and the corporation as a whole.
The other view, based on the ideas of Organization Development and improvement, proposed that executives could form teams if good will, rational conduct, and when necessary, self-sacrifice, predominated.
While these two conceptions, one based on economics, and the other on a kind of positive psychology, may seem different, both share common roots in what we can call utopian thinking. The marketplace utopia eliminates all power dynamics by integrating interests automatically though its impact on incentives. The marketplace is the great emolument. The Organizational Development utopia eliminates power dynamics through exhortation and by propagating an image of the “ideal organization.” Utopias, by definition, are always beyond reach. But today we recognize that when we try to implement them, we risk destructive consequences. By failing to acknowledge the dark side, the utopian program drives it underground, where it becomes even more destructive.