Unproductive, boring, or unnecessary meetings are a pervasive problem in U.S. work culture. It’s one of the most common complaints I hear from colleagues, friends, and clients.
Here’s the interesting part, it doesn’t have to be this way because the ways to improve are relatively simple.
Yet, many are still in the dark and to no fault of their own. I was never taught how to run a meeting in school, were you? Probably not.
It’s one of those skills you pick up once you start working. Social Learning sets in, which is the process of learning through observation and imitation of others. If you’re lucky, you work with a team who is great at meetings, and you learn to do it well from the start.
But, for most, they observe and imitate what not to do.
Therefore, we’re rounding out 2021 with a series of blog posts dedicated to everything you need to know to conduct and participate in a rock-solid meeting.
Like we introduced last week, great meetings follow a basic structure. There is the beginning that sets the tone and direction. The middle is where discussion, learning, disagreement, and clarifications take place. The end is when the intended action for the meeting is captured and confirmed.
We kick-off talking about those first 10-15 minutes. They set the tone and send an implicit message to attendees on whether the meeting will be a valuable use of time.
Great meetings require a bold start. Here’s how to do it.
Begin on Time
I can already hear it. "Really? This is the first piece of advice about being bold, start on time?”
Yes, because of this shocking statistic: employees lose an average of 3 days a year and executives lose nearly 6 days a year from meetings starting late.
Let that sink in. 3 to 6 days a year are lost just by late starts. This is absurd.
Yet, late starts are accepted almost everywhere.
These are work cultures, managers, and employees who believe they have their own sense of time. A meeting starts 15 minutes late and people say “Oh. We’re just on insert name of company …time.” As though their habitual late starts are unique to themselves. They’re not.
The first tip is stop saying this. Stop normalizing late starts. If excuses are continually provided, like “this is just how we do it” then it will never change.
Be bold and begin on time (or within 3 minutes). Here are a few more strategies to help you do it:
Send the agenda to attendees in advance and inform them that the meeting will start on time (or within 3 minutes) and then do it. Establish a reputation for being timely.
Don’t wait for all parties to arrive. Begin when you have 1/3 to 1/2 of attendees present.
Organize your agenda so that the least important topics are addressed at the beginning. If people are late, they won’t miss much. This is helpful in work cultures that schedule meetings "back-to-back" with little transition time between.
Finally, plan your agenda to conclude 5 minutes before the end time. Stop holding discussion or recaps right up to the end. It leaves no time for participants to arrive on time to their next meeting.
Be explicit about meeting purpose
No discussion should begin without there being a clear purpose for it. Be action oriented when describing the meeting’s purpose.
Upon starting, state the reason for bringing people together. "The purpose of our meeting is to hear everyone's opinions on how we cut our marketing budget by 10%." If people arrive late, don’t repeat this, refer them to the agenda. This means, have the meeting purpose clearly stated on the agenda.
Describe what you want to achieve by the end. Do you want the group to decide, agree, act, or solve a problem? Here's an example, "By the end of today's meeting, we will take a vote on what we cut from the budget. I want to conclude with a clear picture of what stays in and what goes out of the budget." Now, everyone will know exactly why they are in the meeting.
As a participant, if you aren’t clear on the purpose, be bold and ask. Say politely, “I want to be sure I’m on the same page. What do we want to accomplish by the end of this meeting?”
Being explicit like this is also behavior modeling. You will influence others to have a clear purpose for their meetings by showing them how it's done.
Describe the process
Everyone performs better when they know what is expected. Describe how the conversation will take place and what you expect people to do. This is the process of the meeting.
Request everyone refrain from multi-tasking and put devices away. The benefit is an engaged audience that results in a more efficient meeting.
State that you look forward to hearing all perspectives. Give folks the heads-up that if anyone remains silent, you may call on them. Invite disagreement. Make it ok and safe to disagree. By stating this before the discussion starts, you have prepared everyone to speak up.
Give advanced notice if you need people to volunteer for tasks or action items. Say, "I'm going to need your help. We'll be identifying action items during this discussion. You willingness to sign up for one is appreciated."
Have participants track their own action items. Say "Be sure to take note of your action items. During the last 10 minutes of the meeting, we'll go around and share what we're responsible for and when we'll have it complete." This sparks accountability from the beginning.
As a participant, you might be the one to foster this expectation setting. You might say “Before we begin, would everyone please join me in putting away our devices and giving each other full attention?” Or “How should we keep track of our action items?”
Setting expectations from the start will not only set the stage for a great meeting but also demonstrate to others what competent meeting facilitation looks like.
Being bold requires not only knowing what to do but also knowing what to say and how to say it. If some of these phrases for a bold meeting start are helpful to you, practice them out loud before the meeting. You’ll be more likely to be bold when you need to be.
Next week, we’ll talk about how to have a meaningful and productive discussion.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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