Career coach: Tips for making your meetings more productive

April 10, 2011

Most of us have been a part of a work meeting where we’ve found ourselves counting the minutes until we could leave, feeling it was a total waste of time. Or we’ve dreaded scheduling a meeting with a certain group knowing that very little would get accomplished. Then there are the meetings where no one arrives on time, or bothers to pay attention when he or she does arrive.

If you feel that your meetings are not going according to plan, take stock and figure out what is going on.

Here’s some suggestions for improving the efficiency of meetings:

•Meet only when you must. Schedule a standing time for team meetings to make sure everyone blocks the time, but then use it only if you really need it. If there is no purpose for the meeting, don’t hold it.

•Think about the best forum for the meeting and the best use of time. Does it need to be done face to face or can it be done via phone conference or some other media? This is especially important in a congested traffic area where holding a meeting could actually require more time in travel than the actual meeting itself.

•Try to keep meetings short (an hour or less). Longer meetings are often less efficient unless they allow for short breaks or breakout activities. If you’re done early, let people go. They will appreciate it.

Feel free to have food at meetings. I have known many employees who really appreciated having breakfast foods, snacks or lunches provided.

•Only invite those people who have to be there. Sometimes we invite too many people to a meeting, which makes it difficult to schedule and to get anything accomplished.

•Require preparation. Have an agenda that is sent out in advance (the night before does not count!).

•Assign tasks and deliverables to people to hold them accountable. Have them present at the meeting to enhance their engagement and participation.

•Send any advance materials at least two days before the meeting so you are not using up a lot of time during the meetings watching presentations or reading.

•Have clearly defined starting and ending times.

•Use skilled facilitators to keep on track. Make sure the facilitator has enough credibility to “handle” members who have a tendency to monopolize the conversation or pontificate about how great they are.

•Follow norms for good team meeting behavior (listening, turning off cell phones, not interrupting those who are speaking, staying the full time, etc).

•Allow for debate and healthy conflict. Have someone play the role of devil’s advocate to question ideas or issues.

•Have a person play the role of a recorder. It is usually helpful to rotate the duty of taking the minutes unless you have a staff person with this responsibility. It’s amazing to me how many groups do not take minutes and then use up future meeting time trying to recall what they already agreed upon.

•Build a few minutes at the end of the meeting to conduct a group review of how the meeting went. I once worked with a firm that followed this practice at the end of every senior executive staff meeting. Watching the C-level staff follow this practice for five minutes at the end of each meeting was impressive. Probably the most efficient and productive meetings I have ever witnessed.

•Have a follow-up process that provides written minutes of the meeting (within a week) outlining key actions and accountable parties.

In addition to doing all those things, think about how to get people to be more engaged. Patrick Lencioni, author of several well-known business books, wrote “Death by Meeting.” He points out that for meetings to add value to employees’ days and work, they must have some amount of drama and vary in structure. Think about your typical staff meeting — it probably is held the same day each week for the same length of time, following the same format. One point Lencioni raises is that most managers try to avoid conflict or drama in meetings, yet by doing this, the meetings become boring and people “check out” or are no longer engaged.

Lencioni asks, do all of the company’s meetings have to be run the same way each time? He suggests having at least four different types of meetings: a short (five-minute) daily check-in meeting where key members touch base with each other; a weekly tactical meeting of about an hour, where each team member gives a quick update; a monthly strategic meeting where you can get more in-depth into a few key issues; and a quarterly off-site review where you spend a day to review the strategy, morale, performance, etc. His point is not necessarily to have fewer meetings, but instead to make the ones we have more productive to become time savers, not time wasters.

With a little care and attention to how meetings are run, employees may actually show up on time and enjoy them.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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