The Right Way to Run Meetings

meetings

I asked a few readers to tell me why they hated meetings.

Here’s one…

I have a quarterly meeting with a funder. I travel 250 miles to get there. When I get there, it’s clear that no one has read the report I spent hours putting together. I essentially recite the report and then travel 250 miles home. ARGHHHHH!!!!!!!

Here’s another one – a cross-departmental planning meeting for the upcoming fall gala….

My boss insists on a weekly team meeting. The agenda hits my inbox minutes before it starts and it’s missing important things, but that isn’t even the point. She begins by reading a list of RSVPs (which is already in a Google doc we all have access to.) Next she reports on things she had previously included in emails she had already sent to us. She then peppers us with questions that make us all feel like we are on a witness stand. We never initiate what we think are important discussion points. What a total waste of time.

No wonder people hate meetings. Meetings like these are keeping them from actually doing real work.

Fascinating, right? Many people see meetings as somehow apart from “real work.”

This is totally infuriating. Especially in the nonprofit sector.

Time is a precious commodity. And as we all know, time is money. And money is programs. And money is precious. And money comes from folks who believe in your mission. And you have a responsibility to those people to make the best possible use of your time to drive your mission downfield.

There is a nonchalance about this that also infuriates me. People just behave like lemmings at meetings they know will not add value to their work. And they do NOTHING about it.

You are all agents of change. And yet you are not prepared to take this on?

Come on!

It’s time to diagnose and fix this problem. And not only do I have a point of view (what a surprise), I also have some suggestions.

FOUR TELLTALE SIGNS YOU ARE IN A BAD MEETING

Some meetings are important. Some are even useful. But as we all know, many are not. What do those look like?

1) No agenda

I’ll talk with clients en route to a meeting. I’ll ask what the meeting is about. They will simply say, “No idea; we just meet every week.”

2) An unprepared meeting leader

The agenda is the first telltale sign but there’s more to it. I call it the “I’m sorry I’m late, I feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon” meeting leader who then says either “OK, so what are we talking about today?” or “OK, so what’s going on?”

3) Let’s go around the room

This is either selfish or lazy. Go ahead. Disagree with me. This is why the Internet created “Comments.” If the information is being delivered as a monologue, these are oral reports and not a meeting. And you know an unprepared meeting leader will not cut off the person who believes the longer the monologue, the greater the perceived value of her work. So an unprepared meeting chair also manages the meeting poorly.

4) Attendees are “Congressional representatives”

Folks who show up for meetings attempt to make their case for their own fabulousness (or of the fabulousness of “their” people), or are advocating for more of something for their department. In the worst of instances, they find crushing their colleagues like bugs to be a kind of sport. Sounds like Congress.

THE 2 KINDS OF MEETINGS

Before I offer tangible suggestions on how to take control of meetings and ensure that they are actually an integral part of the work, let’s distinguish between two kinds.

Standing Meetings

The best example here is a weekly meeting of the boss’s direct reports. A senior team meeting. Here you are bringing your key lieutenants together regularly to _______??

This is the question. And the one that is answered only rarely. Generally these meetings happen because that’s what you do when you are a boss.

My tips below will only work for standing meetings if this group has a charge. What value does this meeting bring to the entire organization? Standing meetings only makes sense if all participants understand what is expected. Am I to stay in my lane? (Development, Finance, for ex)? Or do you expect me to leave my department “hat” in my office and arrive with my “organizational hat?”

Once everyone understands the purpose of the meeting and what a successful meeting looks like, there is hope that we can create a meeting that is actually work!

Specific Problem Solving Meetings

Typically, this type of meeting is called to untangle a cross departmental knot. It could be within a department if there are multiple areas that are not in sync for a particular purpose – an event (like the example above), a strategy, a crisis. 

THE 5 THINGS EVERY GOOD MEETING MUST HAVE 

1) A Reason

It should be clear to all that this meeting will make the work of each individual AND the group more effective and/or efficient.

2) An Agenda Crafted By All Participants

Every participant gets an agenda and has the opportunity to help to shape the agenda. The very best meetings are owned by the participants.

3) Everyone Participates

And when I mean ‘participates,’ I mean that every single person offers a point of view, an opinion, a new idea. And participating does not mean spending 10 minutes telling everyone something you could have shared in an email prior to the meeting.

4) An Invested Meeting Chair

“Invested” means (a) believes the meeting will have merit (b) believes that the decisions reached will be richer for the opinions and comments of attendees (c) is willing and able to take control and manage the conversation so it is productive, so that the agenda gets covered, so that no one dominates, and so that everyone is heard.

5) Action Items Circulated the Same Day

What was the outcome of the meeting? Did folks agree to do some kind of follow up? People, deadlines, and activities should be circulated ASAP before folks forget what they committed to do.

TWO BONUS PIECES OF ADVICE

If you can’t make “The 5 Things” happen, POSTPONE THE MEETING.

Do not waste your time or the time of your group. The more often you do that, the less happy your employees or board members will be. Keep it up and you will lose them.

Use questions to spur the right kind of conversation.

My colleague from Canada, Michael Bungay Stanier, is the author of a new book: The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way you Lead Forever. I’ve invited him to be a guest on an upcoming podcast.

Michael believes that the best leaders ask the best questions. So if you are going to have a meeting, don’t pepper people with questions that make them feel like they are on an episode of Law and Order. Try a few of these:

  • What’s the real challenge here?
  • How can I help?
  • If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying NO to?
  • What was most useful for you about this meeting?

The last question is my favorite. At the end of every meeting, ask a simple question: Was this meeting helpful? What was most useful?

Can you imagine a workplace where people worked really hard to build a culture where you could not do your best work without meetings?

FRIDAY MORNING HUDDLE

Last week on my Friday Morning Huddle, I ranted on this topic of meetings. You can watch below.

I do a Friday Morning Huddle every Friday morning (surprise!) at 9am eastern on my Facebook Page. If you’d like to catch these live, or even watch sometime after the recording, make sure to follow me on Facebook.

QUESTION OF THE DAY…

How do you (or your boss) make meetings an integral part of the work?

Please let us all know in the comments below.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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