Managing Meetings: The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill

 "The cost of bad meetings is bad decisions." – Patrick Lencioni

I heard Patrick Lencioni speak recently about his new book, "The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities" One specific point he made was that some leaders don't recognize the importance of running meetings effectively. He stated that if you wanted to know the worth of a quarterback, you'd watch them play a game. If you needed to measure the skill of a teacher, one would watch them teach. So if you were to assess the strength of a leader, just watch how they run and engage in meetings. Leaders need to take this responsibility seriously and improve this skill as much as any other in the workplace.

The average American professional attends an estimated 60 meetings a month. This same study cited that nearly 50% of that meeting time is WASTED time. Running an engaging and effective meeting is an area where every leader should continue to learn and improve, but all of us need a reminder on the basics at times. I've worked for leaders that thrive at this and I've seen so many others phone it in. Below is a list of simple tips to run a more effective meeting: 

1. Plan ahead and set a vision for your meeting: I've sat in a lot of meandering and winding meetings that go nowhere and come to no tangible conclusions. I've also sat in meetings where no course was charted ahead of time and they get hijacked by a few well-meaning assertives in the room and become completely derailed from the original intentions (check out my previous article about setting balanced participation in meetings for tips on this).

In his book, "21 Laws of Leadership", John C. Maxwell talks about the Law of Navigation which essentially boils down to the principal that leaders need to have a vision and end goal in mind, but they also need to plan ahead and chart a course to be able to get there. He talks about how it's much easier to plan ahead and follow the plan than to try to correct a course mid-way once you're heading down a specific path. You can see how this principle can be perfectly applied to meetings as well. If there was no course charted ahead of time, the strongest voice in the meeting can take it wherever they want it to go. If there was no vision or goal decided on ahead of time, the leader may float aimlessly and directionless without accomplishing anything in the end and, of course, everyone attending ends up frustrated by the wasted time. 

TIP: Plan a thoughtful agenda ahead of time and send it to everyone early so they can prepare comments and questions since they'll know where you're heading. Strive to estimate the amount of time for each specific point so that your agenda is neither too full nor too sparse, keeping track as you go as a reference. Lastly, as a leader, you should think through your overarching goal for the meeting ahead of time. Is it to gain buy-in? Receive feedback? Relay information? Or a combination of these? Set your goal for the meeting and set the tone and agenda accordingly. 

2. Decide the relevant attendees: Include the essential people and don't make others sit through unnecessary information. Take inventory of essential personnel for the information being shared. A leader can then choose to amend the information shared to be relevant to the majority or tailor the attendee list accordingly to be respectful of people's time and responsibilities. 

TIP: This could also be a time when leaders can get creative. Present the information that everyone needs to know at the beginning and then split up the group into smaller more relevant discussion groups if needed. This also allows leaders to elevate and train other leaders to lead these sub-meetings where pertinent information is being processed and shared. 

3. Stay away from the extremes – oversharing or undersharing during meetings: What do attendees need to know? Acknowledge the fact that as the leader of the meeting, you are sometimes the expert or the one that knows the most about a given situation. This may make it tempting to overshare or spend the whole time talking and micromanaging telling your team what to think and how to process. Acknowledge what information might be helpful to your team and then resisting oversharing and over managing and leave room for listening and dialog Check out my previous article on how to improve your listening skills.

An opposite yet common tendency can also occur when leaders undershare in an effort to control information. Sometimes this goes too far and get's to a point where there isn't transparency and people are in the dark about the purpose of decisions or logistics. Leader's that try to control based on withholding too much information will come across as untrusting or not understanding their team's responsibilities enough to know how the information will impact their day to day lives.

TIP: Get feedback from a teammate after facilitating a meeting. Peers or employees can sometimes be the best judges of your meeting facilitation. If they are colleagues you can trust, ask if the information shared during meetings is relevant and pertinent to their work and ask how you can tweak the information shared if needed. 

4. Watch out for meeting derailment: A lot of wasted meeting times comes from talking about things that were not agenda items or if there are too many major roadblocks to come to a consensus easily and the attendees start talking in circles. A leader must be constantly on the alert and must consistently and graciously move the discussion forward and keep people on the task at hand refocusing them on the goals. 

TIP: The use of a "parking lot" should be established during each and every meeting as it can be a key tool for shutting down those derailing topics and also for not forgetting those essential things that really do need to be worked on, but at another time. A "parking lot" can be a piece of paper on the wall where attendees are encouraged to write sticky notes of issues mentioned during the meeting that need addressed but aren't on the agenda. Future agenda items or projects can be taken from this parking lot once it's time to discuss those issues. A "parking lot" can also be a list recorded by the person taking minutes as well and that person can do specific follow up after the meeting to decide the best course of action with each item at the appropriate time instead of letting it take over your meeting. 

5. Be respectful of people's time: This is a simple one – start and end your meetings on time. People that are on-time to your meeting may feel disrespected if they are waiting around to start for those that are late. Start on time and people will learn to be more prompt. Those that aren't fully engaged in the discussion will immediately become even more disengaged and distracted the moment that meeting starts running over the allotted time. To avoid this restlessness, plan on ending your meeting on time even if you haven't finished your full agenda. It may even help you to manage your agenda and improve your efficiency in the future knowing that you will keep yourself strictly to the allotted time.  

TIP: Those that are relationship oriented may miss the personal connection time that will go away when you promptly start on time. One idea is to let the whole team know if they come 5-10 minutes early that will be a good time to catch up with the others before the meeting starts. There are sometimes extremely relevant and important reasons for a meeting to go long. If this is needed, pause the discussion for a moment to gain consensus from the entire group for the extended time. If there are a handful that already have other responsibilities, either excuse them and continue with those that agree to be there or reschedule a follow up time for the discussion to be finished at a time when everyone is expecting it. 

6. Switch up your meeting structure if it gets stale: You may try all these tips and get into a really good rhythm and then, all of sudden, your employees are disengaged again! It's probably because the structure has become predictable and needs some life breathed into it. There are scores of researchers and thought-leaders with other tips about running effective meetings, so don't be afraid to try something new! 

TIP: Try a walking meeting with some of your one-on-one discussions. You could also try using sticky notes or something interactive to get movement and higher level of engagement. We also encourage leaders to switch up presenters or bring in new voices to change the tempo of a presentation. 

7. End with clear action and follow up after the meeting: Why did you meet if not to move forward, gain consensus, get feedback, organize a project, etc? Make sure team members see those tangible reasons why their time was worth while. Send a recap email reminding everyone of specific assignments if needed or record the decision made so that you don't waste time going over something again that was already discussed. When people know you valued their time, there will be more buy-in the next time you meet knowing you'll do it again.

TIP: Have a scribe, either the same person each week or make it a rotating position, whose job it is to record the key action items from each meeting. This person should only record a bite-sized list of takeaways and assignments that come out of the meeting. This list can then become a checklist for the beginning of your next meeting, making sure projects are on track and everyone is aware of major goals. 

The fact that one study cited 50% of all meeting times are perceived as wasted time by employees should be a wakeup call to leaders. With a little bit of intentionality and added effort, each leader can improve their meeting skills and create better buy-in, engagement, and make better institutional decisions by applying a few basics.

About the Author

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Jessica Beans is a researcher and facilitator specializing in group dynamics, leadership, and change management. She holds an undergraduate degree in public relations and graphic design and a masters degree in organizational leadership with an emphasis in change management and strategic innovation.

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