Mark McDonald

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Mark P. McDonald
GVP EXP
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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The annual ritual of corporate kickoffs

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 9, 2010  |  2 Comments

A tongue-n-cheek look at something we all do every year.

[Screen] The scene pans in from outside a nondescript office building through a tinted window and into a conference room filled with people sitting at round table.

Please read the italics text as if being spoken by British Naturalist Richard Attenborough.

“Each year between mid-January and mid-February managers from throughout your company migrate to corporate headquarters.

[Screen]  Cut to an airport baggage claim areas where people in suits are picking p their luggage and greeting co-workers.

Drawn from across functions, countries and business units, this unique collection of people meet to engage in the first right of the new year – the annual corporate kickoff meeting.

[Scene]  Cut to a view groups of smiling managers talking with each other in high-energy conversation.  Some exchanging a joke with a hearty laugh, others are locked in serious and thought provoking conversation.

“While they come from different industries, live in different countries and share different values, the =recipe for this corporate ritual is the same.”

[Scene]  Cut to a view of a senior executive – male, late middle age speaking in earnest while standing in front of a screen displaying the corporate logo.

Executives review the year passed and explain the strategy for the coming year.  Citing accomplishments, affixing reasons for poor performance and stating their outlook for the coming year the executive exerts control over the corporate agenda.  Like a mother regurgitating food for their young, the annual executive speech is the most visible expression of paternalism in the corporate.  Sometimes the message is one of tough love, but more often then not executives are coached to lighten the sting out of the message so as not to ‘break the spirit’ of the employees.

[Scene]  Cut between two people speaking in smaller groups:

  • A younger executive, female, expertly dressed in the latest fashion, bright eyed and slightly overdosed on caffeine.
  • An older executive, a male, slightly balding and a little out of shape, they talk with feeling and the comfort of experience.

Divisional managers repeat the strategy while recognizing last year’s high performers and holding them up as examples for everyone to emulate in the coming year.  Here they play the role of re-enforcer, guardians of the corporate culture and perhaps more importantly for the staff, the allocator of resources and arbiter of decision.

[Scene]  Pan away from the divisional managers to focus on the line managers and front line employees.  Show them listening intently to the divisional manager but passing furtive glances to each other.

Managers and staff listen intently giving attention as a form of payment in return for information and the much-anticipated corporate chicken dinner.  Staff knows that they will be asked to walk through team building activities that exercise corporate strategy.

[Scene]  Cut to a hotel ballroom with music and people milling about watching each other to see who is going to make the first mistake.

But they also look forward in anticipation to the off hours faux pas create another layer of stories that are the foundation of corporate culture.  Who will be the first to take the dance floor and fuel the rumor mill by their dance partner selection?  Who in their nervousness will drink too much, blurt out a truth that everyone believes but no one will give voice to.  Who is talking with whom and what does that mean to me?

You get the picture.

The annual corporate kickoff should be more than ritual, more than an activity we engage in simply because we have always done.  Tough economic times have eliminated much of the social aspects of the kick off, but it has increased the value of the value of this meeting immeasurably.  If you are planning or attending a corporate kickoff consider how you will get answers to the following questions:

  • What are the real issues that will determine your success in 2010?  Back them up by data; demonstrate that you are willing to confront reality, despite how difficult that may be.
  • What are the actions we will take to address these issues?  These are not the ideas creating through brainstorming that will perish on the flipchart.  These are the things we will hold each other accountable for; we will measure and deliver to create results.
  • Who are the people that you need to create new relationships with?  The enterprise is a complex and social organism run by people.  Getting to know the people who will help you with the first two questions and maintaining

All kidding aside the value of the kick off is not in the rubber chicken dinner, nor in seeing Norm from Finance’s new dance moves.  It is on getting common understanding of issues and shared actions necessary for everyone’s mutual success.

Who knows perhaps Norm’s dancing lessons will pay off?

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