Brent Robertson | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Brent Robertson

Background:  

Fathom LLC is a West Hartford-based consultancy that works with business leaders in the areas of strategic planning, employee engagement, leadership succession and market differentiation. Founded in 2005, Fathom works with some of the region’s most well-recognized organizations, including Kaman Corporation, BlumShapiro, Barnes Group and Foodshare.

The Mistake:

Assuming that great conversation results in action.

Some companies have a difficult time getting employees to tap into their creativity and think big. Fathom doesn’t have that problem at all. We’re really good at breakthroughs—in fact, we’ve made a business of helping clients break through their own limitations to get at what’s possible. Where we used to have a big problem was what we saw as the harder part—follow through.

We would have a very inspiring meeting where everyone felt challenged by the discussion and walked out of the room energized. It felt like we had accomplished something. However, there were no action steps, dates, deadlines, accountability or promises agreed upon. All we had were observations.

The trouble was, we weren’t applying our design skills to the meeting. The meeting would have a general topic assigned to it, but we would spend half the meeting time just getting prepared for the conversation that needed to be had.

I realized that as a leader, this landed on me. I made a study of how to get from discussion to materialization.

I find it’s helpful to assign a dollar value to a meeting.

The Lesson:

In order to make lasting change in an organization, you have to be intentional about designing conversations that result in action.

I find it’s helpful to assign a dollar value to a meeting. If you add up how much each person is paid per hour, you may find you have thousands of dollars invested in this meeting. That’s a good motivation for making sure you get a return on investment. It gives the conversation urgency, but you also need purpose.

The first step is to do as much work as you can ahead of time. Consider what context it would be helpful for folks to have before they arrive. Identify the question you are addressing and how to go about it before the conversation begins. A three-step framework, we find, works well.

Start by honoring the facts. No need for judgment here, just a general agreement on what the situation is. Next, ask what’s possible. How can we bring this situation more in line with our mission and the reality we want to see? Then, what actions will we take? Of the possibilities we discussed, which are we committed to taking actions around? Be painstaking about this part. Do we all understand what needs to happen and who is responsible for it? What resources do those who are accepting responsibility need in order to deliver? In what form will we provide those resources? When exactly will all of this happen?

This works a lot better than getting inspired and then just hoping it works out.

The getting inspired part is my nature. I am predisposed to the possibility conversation. The action part was something I had to learn. The experience of making this change in our own organization became part of the foundation of what we do. These days, our clients can count on us to guide them in following through as much as they can for the breakthroughs.

Follow Brent Robertson on Twitter @brentrobertson.

Photo courtesy of Fathom.

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