One of the activities that leaders find they do very often, is run meetings. In many organisations a leader finds most of her time being spent in meeting after meeting. Meetings with customers, meetings with the board, meetings with investors, meetings with high performers, meetings with auditors, meetings with employees — the list can be endless.
Given that so much time is spent in meetings, it is important for us to pick up the skill of running meetings effectively. If we miss out on this skill, we risk poor use of our time, poor use of other people’s time and ineffective leadership.
Focus . If a meeting does not have a specific goal that is clear and commonly understood by all participants, it promises to be a total waste of time. It is better to cancel it. If someone asks you to a meeting, your first questions should be “What’s the purpose of the meeting?” “What outcome do we want to achieve?”
Another important way to focus is to ensure that all participants are physically and mentally focused on the meeting and its goals. A big obstacle to this is the device. Mobiles, laptops, tablets. Simple rule: Ban them. If people are going to come to a meeting and end up using their phones or reading emails, that shows one of two things — either they don’t care about the meeting and its outcomes, in which case they shouldn’t be there, or they are extremely busy and think that their phone conversations and emails are more important than the meeting, and, therefore, again shouldn’t be there.
So, pay great care to who is called to a meeting. Only the people who need to be there need to be called. Smaller should be the rule. The oft-quoted maxim that “the effectiveness of a meeting is inversely proportional to the number of participants attending it” is a good rule to keep in mind.
The shorter the better. Short meetings are more likely to focus on action rather than endless or meaningless debate. One scourge of meetings is what we can call the meeting ‘Mexican wave’ where everyone needs to get a chance to speak and therefore much of the meeting is spent is ensuring everyone gets equal speaking time and feels like they have participated. Well-meant but a poor use of leadership time. Better to get everyone onto the basketball court and have everyone take a shot at the basket if that is the objective. An effective meeting should only have those people speak, whose briefing is necessary to move the meeting towards its stated objective.
In March this year, Donald Trump fired his National Security Adviser, three-star general HR McMaster. While policy disagreements seemed to be an obvious reason there was also the fact that Trump found McMaster ineffective in meetings. As The Washington Post put it, “The president has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant.”
Many briefings that happen in meetings should actually take place before them, as pre-read material that all participants should do their homework on. When a meeting starts, all participants should be able to take for granted that the information necessary to have an effective interaction is already available. The meeting can then focus on the decisions and actions the leadership needs to make and take.
One tip to make routine meetings snappy is to have stand-up meetings. When everyone is seated, the tendency is to get longwinded. When everyone is standing, there is more of an air of urgency and action.
Use them to lead . Meetings must become vehicles for effective management and leadership. Leaders must use meetings to lead. To make decisions, to take action, to follow up on action, to take a stand, to coach the team, to deep dive an issue or a crisis, to influence a course of action. If a leader does not do this, then it is a poor use of time.
In the movie Pearl Harbour , President Roosevelt, played brilliantly by Jon Voight, listens patiently as each participant of the meeting after the Pearl Harbour bombing, advises caution and a passive response,. Everyone brings up reasons why no action can or should be taken. The President urges them “we will not give up, we will not give in”.
One of the Generals responds “Mr. President, with all respect, what you’re asking can’t be done.” Roosevelt who is in a wheelchair, because of his polio-affected legs, then pushes back the wheelchair and with tremendous effort pushes himself up and stands erect before the whole group and declares “Do not tell me it can’t be done”. With that decisive leadership action, he leads his country’s battle and eventual victory in World War 2.
Follow-up : Our meetings today may be about organising a college fest, running a student body election campaign, or discussing a case study. But the principles to learn and imbibe are the same. Keep them focused, keep them brief and use them to lead. These lessons will serve us for the bigger meetings we have to run tomorrow.
It is perhaps best to close with Peter Drucker’s example of Alfred Sloan in his HBR classic “What Makes an Effective Executive”. It holds many lessons on how a leader should use meetings and is, therefore, worth quoting in its entirety.
“The great master of follow-up was Alfred Sloan, the most effective business executive I have ever known. (Sloan headed General Motors from the 1920s until the 1950s)….At the beginning of a formal meeting, Sloan announced the meeting’s purpose. He then listened. He never took notes and he rarely spoke except to clarify a confusing point. At the end he summed up, thanked the participants, and left. Then he immediately wrote a short memo addressed to one attendee of the meeting. In that note, he summarised the discussion and its conclusions and spelled out any work assignment decided upon in the meeting (including a decision to hold another meeting on the subject or to study an issue). He specified the deadline and the executive who was to be accountable for the assignment. He sent a copy of the memo to everyone who had been present at the meeting. It was through these memos — each a small masterpiece — that Sloan made himself into an outstandingly effective executive.”
It worked for him, it can work for us.