Leaders for Today asked:
Who among us hasn’t sat in a meeting thinking that they would rather be just about anywhere away from the droning speaker, the stuffy room and that faint waft of tuna salad left over from lunch? Often we feel this way when we are asked to attend a weekly staff meeting, monthly finance meeting or quarterly sales meeting – meetings that are on the calendar simply because they’ve always been on the calendar. Unfortunately, sessions like this tend to lack a thoughtful agenda, fresh ideas, and a firm commitment to time constraints and actually getting something done.
Okay, let’s assume you’ve got to plan a meeting. As you get started, consider whether you might spare prospective participants the aggravation of a meeting altogether. In short, is your meeting really necessary? For example, if your objective is to distribute quarterly results to your management team, consider forwarding results out electronically in lieu of the meeting. Meetings draw on the interaction of participants, and if that’s not essential, try to find an alternative way to communicate the material. One approach that works for me is to ask, “What would happen if my meeting didn’t take place?”
Leading effective meetings starts with establishing clear objectives and an agenda, sent out well in advance. In many cases, people who lead a regularly scheduled meeting fail to create a purposeful agenda, assuming that “everyone knows what we’re going to talk about.” That’s often because the same issues and concerns bubble to the surface, never being adequately addressed and dealt with. A clear, well written agenda that is carefully adhered to during the meeting is your best bet for a successful and productive gathering.
In The Unofficial Guide to Power Managing, Alan Weiss, Ph.D., identifies the important elements of an agenda. First, state the goal of the meeting and any pre-session reading required, and the starting and ending times of the event. Then, in the body of the agenda, list three columns. In the first column, name the results/objectives; in the second column indicate who is accountable for the objective; and in the last column, note the length of time allotted to that individual to discuss the objective. If the goal of the meeting is to decide on one of four candidates for Medical Director, for example, pre-session reading would include each candidate’s resume as well as comments from those who conducted the interviews.
On the actual agenda, one line entry might look like this: Objective – review major strengths and weaknesses of the four candidates; Accountability – Jim Smith, Director of HR; Timing: 25 minutes. Post-meeting work would include Jim contacting the chosen candidate and beginning the hiring process. What could easily take hours of back and forth discourse is now a focused action item with a time limit of under a half hour.
Despite the best planning, even the best-planned meetings can run into overtime. When this happens, you begin to lose your audience’s attention. Great meeting planners manage this through careful preparation: They prioritize so that the most important items on the agenda are covered first. That helps you ensure you have plenty of time to cover the most important items. You should share this agenda with your attendees in advance, so that they know what to expect from your session and can prepare effectively.
The meeting leader also has the responsibility for controlling the discussion during the session. This not only keeps any one individual from dominating the session, this also makes it easier for all attendees to contribute and stay focused, succinct and engaged. Don’t hesitate to explicitly state the ‘rules of engagement’ at the beginning of your meeting. Some managers find it helpful to display the rules on a white board or flipchart, and point to them when a particular guideline is being ignored or abused. You might also state your rules at the bottom of every agenda, just to be sure everyone is on the “same page.”
In addition to staying on task and starting and ending on time, your list of rules might include silencing cell phones and blackberries, keeping chit-chat to a minimum and asking attendees to pick up after themselves at the conclusion of the meeting. Ask someone to take notes and to record decisions made and any agreed upon post-meeting action steps (who will do what, when and how).
I recently spoke with Jim Masciarelli, CEO of PowerSkills Solutions, Inc., a strategic management solutions firm located in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Jim’s company offers a software tool called Agenda that helps executives plan and run more effective meetings.
“Executives feel that they go to meetings all day and use email all night,” said Masciarelli. “Many people feel meetings are duplicative and unproductive. Fortunately, today’s technology can help to promote alignment, accountability and execution of the organization’s goals and objectives.
As the meeting leader, you can take a number of steps to make meetings more productive and efficient. Being prepared with a thoughtful and precise agenda, focusing on results, holding firm to ‘rules of engagement’, and tracking follow-through will make your meetings far more valuable, and perhaps even more enjoyable, for everyone involved.
Indeed, it’s just possible that you can make the next meeting you lead more palatable to your participants than a visit to the dentist.