Based on how many business meetings I’ve attended in my career you’d think I’d be a meeting guru. You’d think I’d have mastered the dark arts of meeting leadership and engagement and knock it out of the park every time.
But the truth is I still have moments when I struggle in the art of leading productive meetings.
It’s not so much that I struggle in the dynamics of what makes for a meaningful and productive meeting but rather it is often the soft skills of meeting leadership that lead us off the rails into the unproductive dialog, complaining and in some cases, even high conflict level arguments among team members.
These pitfalls aren’t uncommon, and they all are just symptoms of greater problems lurking underneath the surface of the meeting attendees.
What I’ve discovered, however, is that when meetings go “off the rails” so to speak, it’s not always a bad thing. Just like having a bad cough or a high temperature, it often is an indication that something else is wrong.
As leaders, our meetings are often a good way to help us determine the overall health of the organization. They are a way for us to take the temperature of our units, teams, and departments to determine how well the organization is functioning, beyond the reports and metrics and KPIs.
But in order for this to be a productive analysis, it’s important to establish some baselines first. Generally speaking, for example, I structure my weekly team meetings to be no longer than 30 minutes.
In this structure, each team member or team leader is to report on the work they performed in the previous week, any challenges they had or home runs they hit and what they’ll be working on this week.
If they discuss any problems they are having they have to discuss their proposed solutions to the problem for all to hear. This keeps the meeting from descending into a grip session and also builds confidence in the team members as problem solvers and leaders.
Also, it establishes a framework for team members to establish subsequent offline meetings to work on problem/solution sets that may be helpful in resolving challenges by engaging their peers.
It’s much easier to generate support from other team members when you’ve demonstrated that you’ve already started working towards a solution and that you’re not looking for a rescue-fix-save me scenario.
This may seem like a lot to accomplish in only 30 minutes but if you can’t accomplish this simple baseline in that time frame then your teams are either too large or the team members don’t have a good grasp of their specific projects and functions.
Team size is a difficult calculus but I stick to the rule that a team is too large if you can’t feed all the team members with two large pizzas. I picked up this concept in my startup days and it’s always served me well, even in very large organizations.
If it’s not the team size that is causing you problems with the 30-minute timeline then it’s a good idea to have some one-on-one time with those long winded team members to help them better grasp their projects and functions so they can report on them more succinctly and in ways that are more meaningful to the team. Read more about this in my article The Inside Scoop On High-Performance Teams.
Once I’ve established this simple baseline for meeting productivity, and the meeting starts to descend into non-productive discussions or behavior, it’s much easier for me, as a leader, to bring it back under control.
It could be that team members are becoming defensive about their projects or that other members of the team aren’t pulling their weight. It could just be that the team is getting stressed over deadlines and other external factors and they need motivation or encouragement.
Sometimes it could just be that the team needs me to re-communicate the vision and our mission so that they can be better grounded in our priorities and what’s most important to the team and the organization.
All of this requires me as a leader to engage in the soft skills of managing others and calibrating their expectations as individuals and as a group. It requires me to sometimes be a manager, sometimes be a coach and to sometimes be a source of inspiration. It’s my job to know when to pivot into these and other roles when needed.
As I stated when I started, every meeting I conduct or attend is not always as productive as I’d like or expect it to be. But if I adhere to some basic principles, I can always find ways to make the most of each meeting I’m involved with, whether as a leader or as a participant.
To your success!