Make Meetings Productive
You can move your team forward with leadership and intentional effort (Leading an Effective Meeting, Part 1)
FEW FACTORS ARE more responsible for the glaring lack of effectiveness in the business world than the ridiculous excess of meetings. Unnecessary and badly led meetings suck up people’s time to a shocking degree, grinding achievement to a halt.
“Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”
Thus spoke Peter Drucker in his great little book, The Effective Executive. I’ll quote several times from that work in this article. He goes on (emphases in these quotes are mine):
“Meetings need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”
As an executive coach working with a variety of companies and industries, I have seen this everywhere. I know too many intelligent, dedicated professionals who spend inordinate hours of their days attending meetings, forcing them to finish their own work in the evenings. This is absurd.
Every meeting should be justified
I hold leaders responsible for these corporate bad habits. In my view, every meeting should be justified, meaning the question is asked, “Should this meeting happen at all?” If the answer is no, don’t have it. If yes, then ask this question: “Are these people necessary for this meeting?” If the answer is no, by all means, excuse them so they can get back to their real work.
A related issue should be considered. In many companies, people attend meetings they’re not otherwise interested in for sheer self-defense. They can be worried about several things: What is said about them in their absence; that important decisions affecting their area might be made without their input; that they might be committed to some path to which they would otherwise object; or because it’s the only way to know important things going on due to poor normal communication.
If those dynamics are happening, that’s a cultural issue that needs to be addressed and improved by upper leadership.
We all know that some meetings are truly necessary. If so, leaders should do everything in their power for those investments of time to be effective. In the remainder of this and the following article, I’m going to share Seven Principles for Leading an Effective Meeting. There are purely informative meetings, true, but here I have in mind primarily a team working together on a creative or problem-solving mission, seeking to “move the ball down the field” and achieve positive results.
1. Prepare: Assume the Leadership Position
If you are the leader or chairperson of a meeting, preparing yourself to lead an effective meeting is step one.
A common scenario is leaders walking into meetings unprepared mentally, and therefore having to “wing it” on the spot. That’s a major cause of unproductive and unfocused meetings. To be prepared means walking in with the right attitude, information, and plan.
The right attitude means:
Accepting the fact that you are responsible for the effectiveness of the meeting. Groups simply do not spontaneously organize themselves for corporate action. They need a leader, and that means you.
Respect for other people’s time. Let me again quote Peter Drucker:
“Time is a unique resource … one cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time. The supply of time is totally inelastic. No matter how high the demand, the supply will not go up. . . . Moreover, time is totally perishable and cannot be stored. Yesterday’s time is gone forever and will never come back. Time is, therefore, always in exceedingly short supply.”
He concludes with this:
“Nothing else, perhaps, distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.”
While Drucker has the individual executive in view in those comments, leaders of teams should hold the same view toward their people’s time. As a leader you are responsible for the effectiveness, not only of yourself, but that of your whole sphere. It is incredibly frustrating for self-motivated, dedicated professionals to have their time wasted. It also increases the pressure and stress they bear.
Being prepared with information means you take enough thinking time to be clear in your own mind what the meeting is about and what your objective is.
Finally, being prepared means having a strategy for the meeting. Sometimes people reply, “I have an agenda.” My answer to that is, “An agenda is not a strategy. An agenda is just the things-to-do list you need to accomplish in the meeting. A strategy is how you are going to lead the team through the agenda and accomplish the objectives.” Those are two different things.
For example: Let’s say you have four items on the agenda. One is a simple inform, updating people on what’s going on or how a related issue is changing. Two items will require discussion, but you don’t want to burn all your time on those, which you easily could if you’re not careful. The third item is a real stinker that, once you’re into it, will have people digging deep and hashing out.
Your strategy is how you will frame the issues and manage the clock through them.
I’ve written longest on being prepared and assuming the leadership position because I believe it to be the most important role of a leader who wants to lead a meeting effectively.
2. Opening the Meeting: Set the Stage
You’re now ready to begin the meeting. Some of this will be determined by your own temperament and personality, but here’s what I believe and recommend: Set a friendly, professional, and motivational atmosphere. The attitude you want to convey is, “We are friendly, dedicated colleagues meeting together to seek what’s in the best interest of our company.”
While I’m committed to beginning and ending on time, I still believe in giving people a little breathing room. In a world where everybody feels like they’re a hamster running in an endless exercise wheel, you’ll get your people’s best creative thinking and alertness by relaxing a bit. They’ve often run from one meeting to another, if not between several, so they need a break. They sometimes don’t even have time to get a drink or use the facilities.
That’s why my practice for years has been to grant “five minutes of grace” at the beginning of the meeting time. I assure them that I will start promptly at five minutes after the hour, but till then they can tend to their needs or just chat in a relaxed fashion. It helps everyone remember that we are human beings, not human doings. If you establish such a practice and are consistent, the team will adjust accordingly and like it.
3. Focus: Frame the Objectives
“Lack of focus is the most common cause of corporate mediocrity,” said Lewis V. Gerstner, Jr., and he’s right. Lack of focus is also a cause of mediocrity in meetings. Another cause of ineffective meetings is too many items on the agenda. You must be realistic about what you can truly accomplish.
Leadership is the key. Structure the meeting, explaining concisely the purpose of the meeting at the beginning: How long it will last, what form it will take, and what you hope to accomplish.
This is a good time to explain your strategy for the agenda. You could say, “We have four items on the agenda. Two are pretty easy, so I don’t want us to spend much time on those. One will require more discussion, but that last one could chew up all our time if we let it. I don’t think we’ll resolve it tonight, but we can make a dent in it. That’s the one I’d like us to spend the most time on.”
By explaining to your team what you’re trying to do, they will be willing and helpful to achieve that end. Otherwise, they may burn needless minutes discussing lesser matters.
The Need: Prepared Leaders
I’ll cover points 4-7 next week. In the meantime, notice this about the first 3 points: They require a thoughtful, determined, prepared leader. If you want to lead a team to accomplish great progress, preparing yourself is where it begins. Li