Meetings tend to have a bad rap, like that they’re the “necessary evil” of management or the grown-up equivalent of homework. They’re parodied as wasteful, bureaucratic and boring, though nobody seems to be able to get rid of them entirely. And we spend a lot of time in them. A 2011 study found that, on average, chief executives spend 60% of their time in meetings, with another 25% spent on calls or at public events. Another study analyzed a single executive meeting at a large company and found that, all told, it took 300,000 person-hours across the entirety of the organization to prep for — a staggering number!
Think of all the bad meetings you have attended. Maybe the room argued in circles. Or you went in for clarity and left with confusion. Or the attendees felt disengaged. Or the content shared was repetitive. Or the group veered sharply off course from the agenda. Or an individual or two dominated the room and nobody else could get a word in. Or there was a secret meeting after the meeting. Or some combination of any of these — and countless other annoyances or disappointments.
That said, at the end of the day, talking with someone face-to-face is still one of the best ways to communicate and get work done. As an employee — particularly if you’re a manager — you will attend countless meetings as well as run many of your own. Take the responsibility seriously and don’t perpetuate bad meeting culture. Instead, steer the precious time you and your colleagues spend together toward what’s truly valuable.
How can we have smarter meetings? Below are some of the best practices I’ve picked up over the years.
To start, give your calendar a deep cleaning. Not all the meetings you run or are invited to are a great use of time. Question what attending the meeting trades off against and whether there is a more efficient forum. Too often, our calendars are jam-packed with meetings that could be handled as a weekly email update. If you find yourself in a recurring meeting of questionable value, do everyone an important service by kindly letting the organizer know.
Next, if you really do need to meet, ask yourself, What is a great outcome for this meeting? There are only a handful of reasons for people to get together in person, so being crystal clear about the outcome you’re shooting for — whether it’s a decision getting made, key messages being internalized, useful feedback being given and received, relationships getting deepened, or good ideas or plans getting proposed — is essential to running great meetings. Try to avoid targeting multiple outcomes so that you can focus the meeting on doing one thing exceptionally well. It’s unlikely that the best meeting format for making a decision is also great for brainstorming solutions.
Then, invite the right people. If you don’t have the right stakeholders taking part, the outcomes may not be trusted — which means the entire meeting may then need to be redone just to get everything in order. And if you have too many extraneous people in the meeting, it can be inefficient, energy-sapping and prevent direct and honest conversations from happening as freely. How do you know whom you should invite? Go back to your answer for what a great outcome looks like for your meeting, and ask yourself, Which people are necessary to make that outcome happen?
Once you’ve settled on who’s coming, give people a chance to come prepared. Sending out an agenda ahead of time shows a level of care and intentionality in helping the group stay focused. It’s a good idea to do this for meetings of any size — even one-on-ones — but the larger the meeting, the more important the preparation.
Only after all that is it time to meet. In the room, make it safe for people to contribute. Early in my career, I was the quiet person who hesitated to speak up in group meetings. After I became a manager, I saw this same phenomenon in many folks on my team. What helped me find my voice was environments that felt safe, supportive and nonjudgmental. Structures that give everyone a chance to be heard, like going around the room to hear opinions, or having the room vote on which proposal they support, create the impression that every voice matters. You will get better results if you can get your entire group to contribute, so work hard to foster a welcoming culture. Be sure to manage the flow of conversation by pushing back on interrupters and ensuring that the spotlight is passed around broadly, not just hogged by one or two people. If you are an attendee shy about speaking up, remind yourself that the best outcomes come from hearing a diversity of perspectives. Your voice matters. If you are confused about something, ask questions. If you agree with something that was said, lend your support to that point by explicitly saying “I agree.”
Finally, ensure that the meeting closes with clear next steps and action items. Summarize what the takeaways and next steps are in person, and then follow up with a written email so that there are no misinterpretations.
Life is too short to be wasted in subpar meetings. So plan ahead. Set some goals. Get the right people involved and prepared. And achieve more — together.
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