How to Run a More Effective Meeting
We’ve all been stuck in a bad meeting. You arrive on time only to have the meeting start 10 minutes late. The agenda? Unclear. The person in charge? Also. Some people start to offer ideas, others shoot them down. Nothing is really decided and the meeting wraps up, as you silently lament the lost hour. There is a better way. Over the course of speaking to more than 500 chief executives for my weekly Corner Office column, I have learned the rules to running an effective meeting. These tips and strategies can work for anyone, regardless of title.
Set the Agenda
It may seem like an obvious requirement, but a lot of meetings start with no clear sense of purpose. The meeting’s agenda can be summarized on a handout, written on a whiteboard or discussed explicitly at the outset, but everyone should know why they’ve gathered and what they’re supposed to be accomplishing. The agenda provides a compass for the conversation, so the meeting can get back on track if the discussion wanders off course.
“If I don’t have an agenda in front of me, I walk out,” said Annette Catino, chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network. “Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting. It’s very important to me to focus people and to keep them focused, and not just get in the room and talk about who won the Knicks game last night.”
Start on Time. End on Time.
Nothing can drain the energy from a room quite like waiting for the person in charge to show up. Why do so many in positions of power fall into the bad habit of being late for meetings? Is it just that they’re so busy? Or is there a small thrill in keeping everyone waiting for them, a reminder that their time is somehow more valuable than everyone else’s?
Time is money, of course, and all that sitting around and trying to guess when the boss may arrive is a waste of a precious resource. When establishing the informal rules of an organization, employees take their cues from the person in the corner office. If that person wants meetings to start on time, meetings will start on time.
Terry Lundgren, the chairman of Macy’s, has never hesitated to enforce a strict policy of on-time meetings. “If the meeting is at 8, you’re not here at 8:01, you’re here at 8, because the meeting’s going to start at 8,” he said. “Busy people that can’t get off the last phone call to get there, [need to] discipline themselves to be there on time.”J
Just as important as starting on time is ending on time. A definitive end time will help ensure that you accomplish what’s on your agenda and get people back to their work promptly. “I like to have an agenda that we think through,” Mr. Lundgren added, “and we say, ‘This meeting’s going to go for two hours,’ and we force ourselves to carve through the agenda.’”
End with an Action Plan
Leave the last few minutes of every meeting to discuss the next steps. This discussion should include deciding who is responsible for what, and what the deadlines are. Otherwise, all the time you spent on the meeting will be for naught.
“When you’re in sports, and the ball is thrown to you, then you’ve got the ball, and you’re now in control of what happens next,” she said. “You own it. It becomes a very visible concept for making sure that there’s actually ownership to make sure things get done.”
Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties – Atlanta, a real estate operating company, uses a phrase to end meetings that has become a common acronym in office e-mails: W.W.D.W.B.W., which stands for “Who will do what by when?”
“If somebody says during a meeting, ‘We’ve got to get this lease signed,’ everybody knows what the follow-up question is going to be. I type the acronym so often in emails — “W.W.D.W.B.W.” — that my phone just auto-fills it. So we’ve trained ourselves and each other, but we’re also trying to do it with people we work with. We developed a system where before we hang up the phone with somebody, we’ll say, ‘When do you think I can have that?’ We track people who deliver and those who don’t.”
More on Running a Meeting
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Give Everyone a Role
Establish Ground Rules
Ask yourself, “What is the role of the meeting participants?” The more clarity you can provide about what you want to get out of them, the better; people are more likely to contribute if they know what role they’re supposed to play. Is the point of the meeting to give out orders? To brainstorm? To discuss a plan of action?To help you clarify the type of meeting you are running, try one of the strategies from these leaders or use them as inspiration to develop one of your own:
Be clear whether your thoughts are an idea or a command. Dawn Lepore, the former chief of Drugstore.com, sometimes used this framework as lighthearted shorthand for the goal of her meetings: “People don’t always know if you mean something as just an idea, or you want them to go do it. A light bulb means this is just an idea I had, so think about it. A gun is, I want you to do this.”
Who gets to make the final decision on an issue? Sheila Lirio Marcelo, chief executive of Care.com, a company that helps people find caregivers, developed this system to signal who’s responsible:“Type 1 decisions are the decision-maker’s sole decision — dictatorial. Type 2: People can provide input, and then the person can still make the decision. Type 3: It’s consensus. It’s a great way to efficiently solve a problem.”
Not all decisions are made by consensus. One of a leader’s main responsibilities is to get as many opinions as possible on the table. But you have to be clear when you’re just soliciting input.Carl Bass, the former chief executive of Autodesk, said there is often a built-in tension in encouraging people to share their opinions, as it may lead them to believe a decision will come down to a democratic vote. Here’s how he addresses it up front:“We’re very clear at the beginning of every meeting whether it’s one person’s decision, or whether it’s more of a discussion to reach consensus,” he said. “I think it’s a really valuable thing to understand because otherwise people can feel frustrated that they gave out their opinions but they don’t understand the broader context for the final decision.”
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Learn the strategies that chief executives have developed through trial and error to help you go beyond the polished résumés, pre-screened references and scripted answers, to hire more creative and effective members for your team.
How to know when a meeting is necessary
Deciding what does and doesn’t need an actual meeting can be tricky. It’s common to believe that we have to check in with people by holding meetings. We like to see each other face-to-face and hear each other’s voices.
If you need to discuss something you’re not sure if it’s worth a meeting or not, try writing a draft of an email that you would send about the topic. If you’re a strong communicator and can get to the point within a short paragraph, it’s a good sign that you don’t need to call a team meeting.
If the topic you need to discuss needs to be done by a group working collaboratively , it could demand a meeting. Or if it’s time-sensitive and you need to give instructions fast and clearly, you could need to call a team meeting .
Regardless of the meeting’s length, it needs to have a purpose. What are you trying to achieve with this meeting? If you don’t clearly define the goal , you’re more likely to waste time and lose track of your meeting agenda.
What defines a successful meeting?
A successful meeting reaches a conclusion that leaves meeting participants with a better understanding of approaching their work or a clear resolution of the problem. Depending on the type of meeting you’re running, so long as the purpose and objective are met, your team members can leave feeling more informed.
Successful meetings also take up an appropriate amount of time, and they don’t go into too much detail or leave out too many details. Productive meetings don’t have to last for hours or have any fancy props. But they do need to grab the attention of the meeting participants and communicate why it’s important that they met.
Organizing a successful meeting requires strong communication, leadership, and organizational skills. If you’re not there yet, that’s okay. With BetterUp, you can get access to one-on-one coaching to help boost your skills , confidence , and mental fitness .
Effective meetings provide a safe space for divergent thinking
A bit of divergence goes a long way when you’re looking for creative ideas, puzzling through solutions to a problem, or exploring options. You don’t have to put a specific brainstorming exercise on the agenda, but you do have to make the group feel comfortable expressing opposing opinions or offering up off-the-wall ideas.
Build trust in the room
People need assurance that stepping outside the norm won’t be a career-ending move. Known as psychological safety, this is one of the leading indicators of a high-performing team. (And what is a group of people in a meeting, if not a temporary team?) As the meeting organizer and facilitator, you have a chance to lead by example and be the first to broach a controversial topic or offer an unusual perspective or idea.
You can also build trust by asking questions that prompt a deeper discussion, even when you think you know the answer. Questions like “Why do we think that’s true?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “How could we measure that?” demonstrate humility and curiosity on your part, which sets the tone for the rest of the group.
How to counteract 3 types of bias and run inclusive meetings
If you’ve done a good job gathering a group with diverse knowledge and perspectives, everyone will be “the odd one out” in one way or another. The only introvert, the only person from finance, the person who just started last week. Your job now is to take advantage of that diversity by making sure everyone is (and feels) heard.
Ask the new hire how things look from their still-fresh point of view. Draw out the introvert toward the end of a discussion by asking whether they see points the group hasn’t considered yet. Encourage the lone representative from finance to share how the decision would affect their team. If one person starts to dominate the meeting, ask them to take over capturing notes on the whiteboard. This transitions them into listening mode and gives the rest of the group a better chance to discuss their perspective.
If your meeting includes a mix of in-person and virtual attendees, pay attention to whether participation seems balanced. It’s easy for the in-person group to dominate the discussion without realizing it. Make a point to ask the virtual attendees for input proactively throughout the meeting so you get the full benefit of their expertise.
Effective meetings produce real, shareable results
You know the meeting’s purpose because you’ve thought it through. You crafted an agenda designed to achieve the goal. Now stay the course! Be mindful not to meander off-topic or dive too deep into technical discussions. (Just how long is “too long” and how deep is “too deep” is up to you as meeting facilitator to decide.)
Create a “parking lot” on your whiteboard, your shared Confluence page, or your Trello board to capture ideas, topics, and questions outside the meeting’s scope. The catch is that you’re honor-bound to follow up on them, or you’ll lose the group’s trust.
If the meeting centers on a decision, don’t let your team members off the hook and settle for a “maybe.” Push for that decision or recommendation so people can start pursuing action items as soon as they walk out of the room. You might not reach full agreement, but that’s OK. Effective teamwork means agreeing to trust each other enough to rally behind the decision once it’s been made.
Chances are, your meeting will generate some kind of artifact: an action plan, a collection of ideas, a customer journey, a list of next steps, etc. Atlassian meetings typically capture all that stuff as a page in Confluence (the wiki-flavored intranet tool we make) and share the page with everyone on the invite list and other relevant people. Sharing via email and Google Docs works fine, too.
Err on the side of sharing with more people than is strictly necessary. It’s really hard to keep track of exactly what everyone around you is up to, or how the outcome of your meeting will intersect with their work. Sharing broadly reduces the chance you’ll discover conflicts late in the game, and might even lead to joining forces with a team doing complementary work.