Great Leaders Know When to ‘Sharpen the Axe'

President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Business leaders can “sharpen the axe” of team performance by encouraging open and honest discussions about what their organizations need to continue, stop or start doing. A great leader knows when to take a step back from the hard-driving, stressful world of competition and the drive for results.

Let me explain with an example:

In mid-July, with vacations abounding, a CEO planned a four-day “off-site” meeting with her seven direct reports to align them better with her mission/vision, strategy, and with each other.

She scheduled sessions for business discussions and planning with the hope of getting her year-old executive team focused for the remainder of the year. The CEO also wanted to provide downtime in an environment where office protocols could be set aside, so she chose a spa in southern California for the off-site. There, activities such as daily massages, golf and sitting on the beach were available between morning and evening business meetings—an ideal venue for creating an atmosphere of collaboration, healthy nourishment, and open and honest dialogue.

The meeting date was announced two months prior and all were expected to attend, no exceptions. Some executives had to adjust personal schedules, but few, if any, voiced complaints. All seemed to realize this was an opportunity to learn more about one another and what had motivated each to join the team.

The schedule for each day looked like this:

  • Breakfast Business Meeting
  • Lunch (free time until dinner)
  • Dinner Business Meeting
  • Topics for Business Meetings:

  • Performance to-date and projections for end-of-year
  • What should we continue doing to support goals?
  • What should we stop doing that’s not working well?
  • What should we start doing to support goals?
  • Staffing
  • Stack ranking of individuals on each team
  • Human capital needs to support end-of-year projections
  • Training/Development
  • ROI of current programs
  • Needs to support end-of-year projections
  • Benefits
  • Level of investment anticipated for the coming year
  • ROI of “Wellness” program
  • Impact of new healthcare law
  • Performance Bonuses
  • End-of-year Celebration

  • Before the off-site, the CEO’s sense was that business was good, people were productive and enjoyed working at the company, and the firm’s culture was a competitive advantage. She was concerned, though, that the purpose for providing her firm’s professional services to organizations in return for large monthly retainers was being lost.

    During the very first meeting of the off-site, discussion was lively and everyone seemed engaged in conversation—but not in the conversation.

    Something was missing. There was no “buzz.”

    The CEO sensed her team was simply going through the motions. As the session drew to a close, in a normal tone, without any announcement, she spoke the mission/vision of the organization. Some heads turned while others simply continued to pack up in anticipation of lunch and afternoon activities.

    Thus, the CEO spent that first afternoon wondering if she had conned herself into thinking all was well when it was not. Her team liked the clients, the work they did and the salaries they were earning. But they seemed to lack the kind of excitement so often generated through collaboration.

    Deciding to take action, for the remainder of the off-site, the CEO repeated the organization’s mission/vision statement–reinforcing it–before and after each meeting.

    By the end of four days, the CEO found they had spent more time than planned in business meetings and, much to her satisfaction, the team seemed more passionate as they actively generated ideas and solutions. She felt a shift in cohesiveness as team members expressed genuine concern and respect for one another.

    While not all business leaders have the luxury of taking their teams away to prime locations for four days, great leaders have the ability to take their teams away from the office space to local hotels, restaurants, or other meeting places. Taking the time to “sharpen the axe” can reinvigorate a team. They gain clear action items, set goals to achieve, and leave the off-site with a greater sense of camaraderie.

    The choice is yours!