Years ago, I worked with the top 100 leaders of a technology company in Silicon Valley in a two-day session to discuss how they needed to work together to build a strong leadership culture and set a tone of accountability for all employees. At one point in the discussion, we began to talk about how the team would fare in the face of adversity.
The chief executive officer jumped into the conversation and told his leaders that his ultimate test of them was whether they turned to each other or turned on each other. It was a great point that underscored what he, as CEO, paid attention to. He further explained that when times are good, everything is more straightforward, but when times are tough, leaders are tested, individually and collectively.
Like that CEO and company appreciated, organizations must be deliberate in building a strong leadership culture. Those two days represented the first leadership forum that the company ever held, but the CEO invested the time and money to have them regularly, because he saw them as a powerful strategy to drive clarity and commitment among senior leaders.
Now, as the world has gone more virtual, and remote work is becoming more the norm, leader forums are even more critical. The good news is that a virtual leadership forum is still valuable, and it’s critical to strengthening your leadership culture. When done right, it can help clarify your business strategy and reinforce your leadership expectations. You will also find that leaders are better able to collaborate, innovate, and hold themselves and one another accountable for their performance.
My team’s and my research has revealed that regularly bringing leaders together in forums is a powerful strategy for building a community and a strong leadership culture. Regular forums or conferences provide leaders with the opportunity to come together to network and build relationships. These forums can also help counter the isolation that many leaders experience from day to day — especially during a pandemic.
So, what makes a great leader forum? Here are some lessons gathered from working with clients around the world. They will apply whether you holding the forum virtually or in person.
1. Decide Who Needs to Attend
First, it’s essential to clarify who should be in the room. Organizations usually convene the top two or three layers of leadership and selected high-potentials. Attendees should be in leadership roles and have a mandate for advancing the organization’s strategy — which doesn’t always mean that they have direct reports. At times, leaders with corporate roles play critical integrator roles in companies. They are not often invited to these events, which is a missed opportunity.
2. The CEO Must Set the Context and Be Engaged
The event should begin with opening remarks from the CEO to update the leaders on the state of the business, provide a review of the corporate strategy and give a reminder of the leadership expectations. It’s helpful for the CEO to demonstrate his or her passion and excitement for the company, and it’s critical to remain engaged throughout the event.
3. Bring the Voice of the Customer
Some of the most compelling sessions happen when customers are invited to talk about their experiences working with the organization. Don’t just invite customers who like the CEO and have worked with him or her for years. Bring customers to the meeting who will challenge attendees to step up in new and different ways.
4. Tackle Tough Business Issues
Ensure that your agenda includes a balance of brief presentations with many opportunities for leaders to discuss and debate critical business issues. Usually, these issues are not divisional or operational priorities but challenges facing leaders across the enterprise.
These discussions cannot just be about empty talk. Ensure that leaders can drive recommended actions that will form the basis for personal commitments.
5. Build in Some Fun
The best leader forums find a way to build fun into the agenda, but every organization needs to define for itself what “fun” means. The key is to ensure the event fosters relationship-building and networking among your leaders.
6. Include Multiple Breaks
Whether the events are held in person or virtually, be sure to incorporate regular breaks for your leaders to interact and collect their thoughts.
7. Keep the Technology Simple
One early trend as companies moved to virtual events was the temptation to go overboard on technology applications. Not only were they using platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex, but they were also layering in other apps because they seemed novel and intriguing. It is essential to question why you would use some of these apps. Is it just to be “cool,” or does it help drive a better experience for your leaders?
8. Wrap up With a Call to Action
Finally, the best leader forums close out with a compelling call to action by the CEO. It should set the bar high for your leaders and reinforce the importance of individual and collective leadership accountability. It should also include a call to leaders’ responsibility to cascade critical messages back to their teams. Too often, information from these events doesn’t reach employees, which is a missed opportunity for them to learn.
Ultimately, great leader forums achieve two critical outcomes: clarity and commitment. Firstly, they drive increased clarity about the company’s strategy and leadership expectations. Secondly, they deepen leaders’ commitment to execute the strategy and work together to build a strong community of leaders, which helps you build a strong leadership culture.