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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Making Meetings Matter

Effective Sessions Have Clear Agendas and Stay on Topic

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page F06

How many meetings do we sit through in any given week? What is it we actually walk out of those meetings with? For some of us, the meetings are kind of like pep rallies to get the week going. For others, they're a way to express our ideas or agenda. And for many, they're just a waste of time.

It is because of bad meeting experiences that those who hold meetings really need to think before they gather.

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As president of EFX Media, a media and communications company in Arlington, Jennifer Cortner spends a lot of time on conference calls or sitting in a boardroom. But it's the "drive-by meetings," the ones that take place in the hallways, that are valuable, she said.

"I think, honestly, those are more effective than scheduled meetings," she said. "There is usually a single action item. Just a piece of information to move forward."

And what's different about a drive-by meeting as opposed to a formal, scheduled meeting, she said, is that the person who stops her is more likely to give her ideas or criticism right there, alone, rather than when they are surrounded by a dozen colleagues.

"What happens, especially in larger groups, is people shrink away," she said. "It's like in classrooms. Just because that little girl in the back of the room is quiet doesn't mean she doesn't have anything to say."

How many of us sit quietly in meetings, scribble a few notes about what we think, and save those thoughts until we are alone with our boss or a co-worker? I'd say that describes many of us, particularly if a meeting is set on a tight agenda, something many meeting-goers want so they can get on with their day.

"My personality, I'm very agenda-oriented," said Reggie Kouba, a vice president with the SheaHedges Group, a technology public relations company in McLean. "I always run meetings with a strict commitment to people's time. I think there should always be a purpose for a meeting. I can't stand them to just happen."

SheaHedges used to hold weekly staff meetings until late last year, when employees were asked what they wanted. "The staff said they felt a weekly meeting was a lot, especially when we're a billable organization," Kouba said. Now the company holds the meetings every other week and keeps them to an hour. "Any longer, and you sort of lose people," she said.

Losing people's attention is just what Penny Pompei tries to fight every time she holds a meeting. The president and chief executive of the National Women's Business Center, a nonprofit that provides business development training, said she keeps a strict schedule when she runs a meeting. It is important to have one person in charge, and an agenda is key. "That kind of keeps people involved in not wandering away," she said.

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