“Why do most business meetings suck?” This is a question I’m often asked. What people who ask this really want to know is why are the business meetings they attend so boring, so ineffective, and largely such a stunning waste of time. I understand this frustration. Let me offer some answers that may help you.
First, we cast our nets too widely. We involve too many people in our meetings. I’ve often sat in a meeting of a dozen or more people and thought to myself there were really only three of us who knew anything about the topic at hand. We were wasting everyone else’s time and they knew it. These others would have been thrilled for the few of us to make the decision and then put out the word. Job done. Instead, we invited too many to the meeting and then felt obligated to hear from everyone, no matter how thin their contribution. This sounds harsh, I know, but effective meetings have to be designed wisely beforehand. Keep this is mind. Only insecure leaders want to hear from everyone on every matter. Don’t be one of them. Don’t cast your nets too widely in the design of your meetings.
Second, meetings are often ineffective because the leader does not maintain order. You have to keep folks on track with a prior purpose. You have to constantly stop side conversations or people going off-subject at length. You have to call unprepared people to account. You get the point. Don’t be harsh and demanding but do realize that if you allow a diseased meeting culture to arise in your company, ineffective meetings become the norm. Everyone suffers.
Third, meetings often fail to hit the mark because no one person is responsible for meeting prep. This person shouldn’t be you, the leader, by the way. In the same way that Congressional Committees have staff, you should have at least one person staffing all your major meetings. This person develops the agenda, goes in advance to take the temperature of the attendees on certain subjects, coordinates media and outside attendees, handles all communications prior to the meeting, keeps out distraction, and assures that decisions made in meetings are executed. Not every discussion in a hallway needs a staffer, but every regular meeting—particularly if it is quarterly or annually—requires staffing by a skilled person.
Fourth, we tend to assume that people come from the womb knowing how to conduct themselves in meetings. It ain’t so! You have to coach them. They all want to be better but they don’t necessarily know where they need to improve. I’ve taken people aside to talk to them about their anger, their lack of prep, their habits with iPhones and food, their cussing, their interrupting, their disrespect, and their tendency to withdraw too much when challenged. All of this made our firm better and made better leaders.
Finally, I strongly suggest you start every meeting with a brief overview of the steps that were taken based on decisions from the last meeting. In other words, make it clear that meetings are ultimately about action and that you will measure the success of the meeting about to unfold in the same way. Winston Churchill’s motto with his staff during World War II was, “Action This Day.” May it be your motto too.
Great leaders insist upon effective meetings which yield productive actions.
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