Management Tools

Make Meetings Less Dreaded

By Jan 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, January 2007 Turn those groans into raves when you conduct effective meetings using these simple steps.

Mention the word “meetings” to a group of managers and you’re likely to hear at least one person groan. Meetings are the bane of our existence—the thing we love to loathe. Who doesn’t have a horror story to tell about the guy who won’t zip it or the perennial “devil’s advocate” who never has an idea of his own. My favorite is the person who can turn any conversation into an opportunity to grind the same old ax about something that happened 10 years earlier.

But the problem goes way beyond dealing with these kings and queens of wasting everyone’s time. Ineffectively run meetings cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and become career stoppers for managers. People and their time are your company’s resources, and it’s your job as the manager to maximize the value of both to the organization.

Financial Hemorrhages

When working with a client several years ago, I asked the senior- and mid-level managers three questions:

  • What percentage of your time do you spend in meetings?
  • What percentage of your meetings have a clearly defined objective?
  • If there is a clear objective, what percentage of the time do you achieve it?
It turns out they were spending approximately 70 percent of their time in meetings, the meetings had clear objectives only about 40 percent of the time, and they achieved their objectives only about 28 percent of the time.

How does that translate to real dollars? Say you have a two-hour staff meeting on Tuesdays. Ten people participate and each makes $60,000 a year plus benefits. Your direct cost for each meeting is about $300 per hour. Then, factor in that, on average, employees are expected to contribute 2.5 times what they cost, so the collective value of their time is $750 per hour.

What if each week at least one person is 20 minutes late and everyone else waits? Then it takes a few minutes to get started, so you routinely get down to business about 30 minutes after the established start time. Each week, you’re burning $375. If it happens 50 times a year, this habit costs more than $18,000 a year.

Multiply that number by four if you’re dealing with senior executives. And that’s just one meeting.

What if the generally accepted meeting behavior is for people to be late and then spend the first few minutes catching up on the city’s latest sporting event? Poor meeting discipline is a major financial hemorrhage, and frankly, as a manager, it’s your job to keep it in check. When we did this math for the company I mentioned above, we discovered that they were wasting nearly half of their fully loaded managerial payroll.

Get out of The ‘Event’ Mind-Set

Meetings are not events. Effective meetings take place on a continuum of thoughtful preparation before the meeting, focused execution during the meeting and diligent follow-through after the meeting.

Sloppiness in any of these areas can jeopardize a meeting’s effectiveness. By limiting your view of meetings to what happens in the room, you set yourself up for failure from the start. If your meeting is well planned, and follow-through is carefully defined and monitored, the odds of achieving your goals go up exponentially.

As a management consultant who works mostly with CEOs at the strategic level, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many organizations at work and the following steps are the best practices I see that help people save time and get more done.

Meetings that reflect these best practices become valued opportunities to communicate and learn instead of resented gauntlets we’re required to run.

Before Anyone Convenes

The following steps will help you and your meeting attendees prepare for the meeting:

  • Define your purpose. Without clarity about what you’re trying to achieve, there is no way to achieve it effectively. Once the purpose is defined, you can answer several key questions, such as: Do I really need a meeting? Who really needs to be there? What information will they need in advance to accomplish what I’m asking them to? How long will it take? In the absence of a clear purpose, you’re just guessing on these key questions and the odds of your wasting resources goes up.
  • Create an agenda. This one sounds so simple, but I find that it’s overlooked a stunning percentage of the time, even with senior people. Always create an agenda to focus the conversation on your purpose and always begin the agenda with a clear purpose statement. It’s the first step in holding everyone involved accountable for achieving it. If you are a participant and there’s no agenda, ask for one. One CEO I worked with refused to participate in any meeting without an agenda and told his team to do the same. That company experienced real change that improved meetings and, in fact, strengthened its culture. Of course, you have to be CEO to set that kind of policy. But wherever you sit in an organization, if you attend a meeting with no agenda on the table, you can say, “I’d like to have a sense of what we’re here to accomplish and sketch out a quick agenda.” Your time has value, and you have every right to demand it’s well used.
  • Meet only when necessary. Ask yourself honestly, do you really have to meet, or are you getting people together because it’s the only way to get them to review documents that can be e-mailed or faxed?
  • Meet only for as long as necessary. Not every meeting needs to take 30 minutes or more. Often habit makes us ask for more time than we need. If you only need 10 minutes, only ask for 10. Then, be highly prepared and keep people laser-focused on the purpose. The less time you allow, the less likely people are to ramble away from the objective because participants know they literally don’t have the time for it. Conversely, if you leave plenty of time, it always ends up getting used and not always productively.
  • Involve only the people necessary. Having people in your meetings is a luxury because their time is precious to the company and to their families. Invite carefully. (Pretend you’re paying for their time because, in a sense, you are.)
  • Prepare and give participants the time and materials to do the same. If you’re holding the meeting, distribute the agenda at least 24 hours in advance, 72 hours if you need colleagues to review documents before the meeting.

    If you’re invited to attend a meeting, always schedule time to review the advance materials. It’s simply your job. It also has the added bonus of validating that your presence is necessary. If it’s not clear to you why you’ve been invited to a meeting, ask. A simple e-mail saying, “I’m not sure what value I’ll add in this meeting; what did you have in mind when you put me on the list?” will do the job.

In the Room

Stick to these suggestions, and your meeting will stay on track:

  • Start and end on time. No matter how many people are in the room, shut the door when the meeting is scheduled to start. Always end on time unless you’ve asked for permission to run over and everyone in the room has agreed. You will get a reputation as someone who starts on time, and people will begin to come on time to your meetings. More important, waiting for latecomers is the practical equivalent of saying to those who came on time, “Their time is more valuable than yours.”
  • Get to the point. If it’s your meeting, begin by stating your purpose and then stay focused on it. If you’ve been invited, link every comment you make back to the meeting’s objective. If you’ve been asked to present, make sure your presentation is only as long as is absolutely necessary. As a general rule, you lose your audience after six slides, so try to stick to six and make each count.
  • Keep things on course. The chair is primarily responsible for this, but everyone in the room is free to respectfully comment if they believe a discussion is off course and request that an “out-of-scope” conversation be taken off-line.
  • Define roles. Each meeting should have a chairperson who runs the meeting, and a recorder who takes notes, captures action items on a separate page and monitors time. The chairperson keeps conversations from running on, and the recorder keeps the meeting from running over. Define these roles at the beginning of the meeting so everyone knows what to expect.
  • Foster conversation. Ask other people what they think and listen to their responses. Invite input from the people who have said the least; they have been listening the most, so their insights may be significant.
  • When you’re in agreement, move on. Don’t give in to the temptation of discussing how much you agree and sharing war stories about how right you are. When you say, “I think we’re in agreement,” it should be a signal to everyone that you’re moving on.
  • Wrap with action steps and commitments. At the close of the meeting, define next steps. Then determine who will own each and by when they can deliver. When setting deadlines, ask, “Can you commit to that?” People are much more likely to follow through when they’ve given their commitment. Ask the recorder to review any action steps that came up during the meeting and seek owners and commitments for those as well.

Follow-Through

A meeting is pointless without these follow-up action items:

  • Send meeting notes within 24 hours. At a minimum, these notes should capture the action steps defined by the group, who is accountable and deadlines agreed to. This is a key step in bridging the discussion from the meeting room back into business operations; it is critical to getting real impact.
  • Facilitate follow-through to ensure results. As each deadline approaches, send an e-mail to each task’s owner reminding him of the deadline and offering help or assistance to meet it. As participants deliver on their commitments, send a note thanking them for following through and copy everyone who attended the meeting.

Putting Steps into Action

I challenge you to approach the meetings you call in the next few weeks differently. Chart each on a continuum that includes preparation and follow-through, no matter how small the meeting seems. Commit to using these best practices to get the strongest result with the leanest resources and track how consistently you achieve your objective. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be hooked.

And, the next time you call for a meeting, those groans will be silenced.

Stuart R. Levine is chairman and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates LLC, an international consulting and leadership development company, and author of The Six Fundamentals of Success: The Rules for Getting it Right for Yourself and Your Organization (Currency, 2006) and Cut to the Chase: and 99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time (Doubleday, January 2007). Levine can be reached via his web site, www.stuartlevine.com, where you also can download a template of the best practices.

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