How to Lead Meetings That Get Something Done

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Endless Journey: Meetings Without EndWhen was the last time you heard the two words, “great meeting?” If you’re like most business professionals, most of the meetings you attend are frustrating, lack focus, start late and run long.

But meetings don’t have to be painful. There are three sure-fire ways to distinguish the meetings you run.

  1. Identify and communicate your desired outcomes and agenda for the meeting
  2. Break through meeting clutter with active facilitation
  3. Prepare in advance and follow-through on commitments made during the meeting

Desired Outcomes and Agendas:

You wouldn’t get in your car, drive without knowing where you want to go and expect to arrive somewhere. Similarly, successful meeting leaders need to think through what they want their meeting to achieve (desired outcomes) and how they can lead the meeting to achieve those outcomes (their agenda).

Helpful desired outcomes are specific, for example, “three options for solving a major problem” or “an action plan including next steps, areas of responsibility and a timeline to move forward on a plan.”

Often meeting leaders have an agenda (great!) and they’ve outlined the sixteen items they want to discuss (not so great!).  Meeting leaders and participants can’t get their heads around a super-sized, laundry-list agenda and know from years of experience that the meeting will wrap up long before it’s covered everything on the agenda.

The human brain remembers things in threes so outline just three items for discussion. For example if a team is meeting about an upcoming product launch, the three-part agenda might look like this: milestone dates in our launch plan; short-term deadlines; and team member roles and responsibilities.

Really smart meeting facilitators distribute the agenda and desired outcomes in advance of the meeting and jumpstart the meeting by restating what everyone’s there to accomplish together.

Active Facilitation

Every meeting needs someone in charge. When you’re “it” there are three ways to actively facilitate a great meeting:

1.     Engage your meeting participants:

If you’re looking for active participation you need drive it!

  • Think about what open-ended, discussion-starting and thought-provoking questions you can ask. What exercises will encourage the individuals around the room to share their ideas or opinions? How can you make it safe for everyone in the room to speak?
  • Begin with a warm-up that helps people break away from the work they left behind at their desks. Warm-ups also help jumpstart thinking or alleviate the self-consciousness that people sometimes feel when attending a meeting with managers or people they don’t know well.
  • Respectfully listen to each person’s contribution. Capture ideas on a flip chart. Repeat part of the idea and use that as a foundation for your next question. Meeting facilitators need to be able to focus on the discussion happening in the room while still tracking timing and where you need to move the group to next.
  • Encourage the less-than-confident meeting participant to contribute by creating an opening in the conversation for them and noting that their experience would be really helpful on ABC topic.
  • Don’t tolerate meeting bullies and toxic meeting participants. Set a ground rule that all input is welcome as long as it’s constructive and benefits the group discussion. When people are overtly critical about every idea, challenge them to reframe their concern as a constructive statement or question. For example, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work” can be reframed as “what could we do differently this time so that this idea is successful?”

2.     “Park” distracting tangents:

Before every meeting, set up a “parking lot” for problems that can’t be solved during this meeting or discussion tangents that could derail the meeting. A parking lot is a sheet of easel paper on the wall where you respectfully capture the issues that need to be revisited at a later date. Remember to return to the parking lot at the end of the meeting to determine any next steps on the items listed.

3.     Break through the clutter of endless meetings:

  • Start and end on time.
  • Anticipate room set-up most conducive to the meeting outcomes and agenda. For example brainstorm sessions should have lots of colorful paper, markers and tactile toys on the table, with flip chart paper “wallpapering” the walls.  Try having something unexpected on the table for your next team meeting to help people contribute differently, such as inexpensive sunglasses symbolizing that you’re going to take a new look at presenting project results.
  • Create different experiences for long meetings: Vary large-group facilitated discussion with smaller break-out groups and individual reflection. Change speakers.

Prep and Follow-Through

  • Meeting Preparation: Once you’ve anticipated the desired outcomes and agenda for your meeting make the conscious decision that a meeting is, in fact, the best way to achieve your outcomes. Then decide who should attend the meeting because either they’ll benefit from participating or the meeting discussion will benefit from their presence. Decide whether you’d like the group to prepare for the meeting by reading a small amount of background information or coming prepared to share relevant data. Anticipate whether others should lead parts of the agenda and clearly communicate what you’d like them to do (e.g. how much time you’re allocating to their part of the agenda and whether you want them to drive discussion or simply relay information).

  • Meeting Follow-through: We know that people find it frustrating to attend meetings, make suggestions and never hear about the discussion again. When you wrap up your meeting, make sure to clarify next steps, responsibilities and deadlines. Report back to the meeting participants on decisions that were made and ideas discussed during the meeting.

With meetings taking up so much of your business day, imagine how much more your business can accomplish if the meetings conducted are productive and engaging, and people leave saying to each other, “Now that was a great meeting!”

Beryl Loeb is a trainer, coach and facilitator helping corporate executives and PR, advertising and web marketing agency professionals boost their communication and people skills. Learn more about her firm, The Loeb Group, and let her know if she can help you and your company at: http://www.theloebgroup.com.

Photo credit: Bruce Fingerhood