5 things you should do to prepare yourself to lead a strategic planning session

Every company and organization has them…or at least they should if they want to remain relevant and viable. Some conduct strategic planning sessions quarterly, others but once a year or so. There really is no “right” number. We hold them at least once a year, and for most companies that’s probably sufficient. You will need to decide when and how often would be optimal for your company or organization.

But they need to be done and they need to hold significant weight in the company culture. Don’t conduct them simply because they are on the calendar (like most employee performance appraisals – ugh). Conduct them because of their benefit to you, your associates, and to the company or organization’s culture. They keep us on track, point out what works and what doesn’t, and provoke ideas that might otherwise remain locked up in someone’s head.

There are plenty of places around the web that will offer advice about how to conduct a strategic planning session so I won’t belabor the obvious here. Instead, I want to focus on what you need to do to get yourself ready to conduct a successful strategic planning session.

First, decide how you want it to end. What outcome(s) should result that will assure you and the participants that the meeting has been worthwhile and successful? What will happen because you all took the time to meet and participate? If you don’t know that, then anything will do. All planning, all handouts, guides, supporting documents, and activities should be focused on and lead to the expected outcome. I am NOT suggesting that you decide ahead of time precisely what activities will result. The strategic planning session is not the place for you to get them to do what you want them to do. No, it is to discover what to start doing, what to stop doing, and what to continue doing…and to let others come to consensus.

Second, you are the visionary so it is your privilege to articulate, define, and celebrate the vision of your company or organization. Never neglect an opportunity to say it again. Strategic planning sessions should enable groups to avoid the trap of measuring progress by faithfulness to processes and systems. Instead, focus on product, those components that the systems are supposed to produce. I was in a meeting on Monday that provided the dynamics to discuss this critical principle. It is never enough to be busy or even fruitful. It is always important to do the right things that will produce the right results and everyone responsible needs to understand and appreciate the mandate.

Third, stand up, speak up, shut up. Prepare what you are going to say, say it, then get out of the way. A strategic planning session is not the platform for you to pontificate all day. It is the place for everyone else on the strategic team to participate and they can’t do that if you are in the way. Leaders are often in love with their own voices and gifted with immaculate perception (the belief that whatever the leader thinks of must be divine simply because he or she thought of it). This is not the day to do the talking. This is the day to guide discussion, inspire optimism and confidence, and frame the activities to engage everyone.

Fourth, ask questions but refrain from supplying answers. This is an extension of number three. Your role is to keep things on track, provide the parameters for analysis and discussion, and gather conclusions. The vision remains fixed. How your company or organization gets there is not all that precise. There is a context and a purpose for your existence. Once everyone understands the context and purpose, let them loose and leave them alone to come up with ways to realize them.

Finally, draw conclusions and enlist participation in the plan. We have all been involved in meetings where wonderful ideas were forwarded but nothing really happened. The real work of the strategic planning session happens after the session. Find participants, make specific plans, set schedules, and prepare to follow up. It is uniquely your job to equip and train, to give your people the information, equipment, and training they need to enact the plan.

Do not allow the ideas that emerged today to simply fade away. And do not take on the responsibility for developing and enacting them yourself. This is one of the most potentially productive days a leader can ever experience if they are committed to developing and releasing others.

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