Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The reality for professionals in business is that as they get more and more senior, they will spend a significant majority of their time in meetings of one sort or another (1-2-1, direct reports, team, project updates, opco/exco/manco, governance committees, board etc) and yet so many of these meetings are of poor quality.
As I have written about previously, there is little that is more important than looking after how you spend your time and hence the time and attention of the busy and talented people in your team. Alongside time, I intentionally add attention as a scarce resource because in my view they are both important and interlinked. I am a believer that we have a finite amount of mental bandwidth and so to be at the top of our game we should manage distractions.
Study successful people and you’ll realise that they do everything in their power to increase the odds in their favour which includes having great executive assistants that shield them from dozens of daily annoyances that would otherwise distract them from the real priorities.
If each of us has a limited mental bandwidth then distractions and attending meetings unnecessarily can eat into it. Psychologists call it decision fatigue, where making a decision erodes your ability to make decisions later (in the day or week). Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States said,
“you need to focus your decision-making energy.”
He told Vanity Fair Magazine in 2012 that “You see I wear only grey or blue suits, I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
So, the challenge is to ask yourself whether you need to attend all of those meetings that populate your packed schedule as each meeting will consume some of your finite attention and decision-making bandwidth. The same thought process should be applied when running meetings and as meeting organiser you can help people to decide whether they should attend: keep the meetings focused, make sure people know the subject, what actions are expected and why they are invited.
Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), in a leaked email to his employees, said
“…excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time.”
Jeff Bezos (Amazon), as reported by Inc.com has three key rules for running an effective meeting:
Meetings and teams at Amazon are no larger than can be fed by two pizzas. Otherwise, they feel the greater number of opinions make it more difficult to reach conclusions and make decisions
No PowerPoint, they opt for a structured memo with real topic sentences and not just bullet points. A lot of time goes into these memos which ensures only important topics are raised and the time and attention helps fully communicate the thoughts behind the ideas
They start the meetings with silence whilst they read the memo before they debate and discuss.
These are headline-grabbing especially as Musk and Bezos are always in the news and are successful entrepreneurs, who are driven to succeed. Whilst they are celebrities and rarely out of the business news their points emphasise the importance of running an effective business meeting. A business meeting can either be something that adds value or more typical of today the meeting becomes an inefficient, unproductive gathering where people leaving the room are unclear of the outcomes and what has been decided.
Effective meetings, the basics
I strongly feel that to be an effective leader you have to get the basics rights and that starts with running impactful meetings. Your meetings should include most of, if not all the following:
They start and finish on time (even better to finish early).
People know why they have been invited to make sure the most appropriate people attend.
People know that they will have time to speak and that they will be listened to.
An agenda to be shared with meeting participants in advance.
Updates on prior agreed actions obtained and distributed in advance of the next meeting.
Each agenda item has a reason and an owner – is it an update for the group, passing on important information, or is a decision required?
Concise follow up notes to be sent shortly after the meeting and to include action owners
Effective management of the agenda and participants – this is your role.
It is important that the host/chair of the meeting is able to listen effectively and manage the agenda – it must not include taking notes. I previously wrote about how to listen more effectively in this article. We cannot listen effectively (levels 2 and 3) if we have to take notes. I vividly remember a retired serious crimes detective explaining that they always had three people attend their interviews when they questioned suspects:
The first person is the lead person, they do all of the speaking and ask the questions
The second person has the job to point out anything important they felt the lead had missed, even if they have to make up an excuse for them to leave the room to confer
The third person is there to take the notes, for review and follow up after the meeting has finished
It is a powerful example even if three people is not possible in the modern business world. Have one of your team in the meeting to take notes and own the meeting administration.
Being on time to a meeting is in my opinion undervalued significantly (I score very high in conscientiousness so of course, I do!). In my experience, it is common for people to routinely arrive late for meetings as inevitably they will be running from another meeting with no time in between. It gets so common that some organisations joke that they have their own start time for meeting e.g. 10 minutes past. Yet think of the time wasted at these meetings in which people are late or don’t turn up: the waiting around to start which is dead time or the restarting a meeting so that people are brought up to speed with what has already been said.
In “Integrity: Where Leadership Begins”, Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen distinguish integrity as a matter of that person’s word being whole and complete and, in that context, they define integrity for an individual, group or organisation as
Honouring one’s word.
In their abstract they go onto say, acknowledging their oversimplification, that honouring your word means you keep your word, do what you said you would do and by the time you said you would do it. The added emphasis is mine, what an interesting thought, perhaps by linking integrity with turning up on time to meetings we can challenge what has all too often become the norm.
If you want to discover more about the importance of time and how to listen, check out:
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