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We’ve all been stuck in a bad meeting. You arrive on time only to have the meeting start 10 minutes late. The agenda? Unclear. The person in charge? Also. Some people start to offer ideas, others shoot them down. Nothing is really decided and the meeting wraps up, as you silently lament the lost hour. There is a better way. Over the course of speaking to more than 500 chief executives for my weekly Corner Office column, I have learned the rules to running an effective meeting. These tips and strategies can work for anyone, regardless of title.
The Three Rules of Running a Meeting
Set the Agenda
“Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, then there’s no reason for a meeting.” —Annette Catino, chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network.
It may seem like an obvious requirement, but a lot of meetings start with no clear sense of purpose. The meeting’s agenda can be summarized on a handout, written on a whiteboard or discussed explicitly at the outset, but everyone should know why they’ve gathered and what they’re supposed to be accomplishing. The agenda provides a compass for the conversation, so the meeting can get back on track if the discussion wanders off course.
If leaders make sure there is an agenda before a meeting starts, everyone will fall in line quickly.
“If I don’t have an agenda in front of me, I walk out,” said Annette Catino, chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network. “Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting. It’s very important to me to focus people and to keep them focused, and not just get in the room and talk about who won the Knicks game last night.”
Start on Time. End on Time.
Nothing can drain the energy from a room quite like waiting for the person in charge to show up. Why do so many in positions of power fall into the bad habit of being late for meetings? Is it just that they’re so busy? Or is there a small thrill in keeping everyone waiting for them, a reminder that their time is somehow more valuable than everyone else’s?
Time is money, of course, and all that sitting around and trying to guess when the boss may arrive is a waste of a precious resource. When establishing the informal rules of an organization, employees take their cues from the person in the corner office. If that person wants meetings to start on time, meetings will start on time.
Terry Lundgren, the chairman of Macy’s, has never hesitated to enforce a strict policy of on-time meetings. “If the meeting is at 8, you’re not here at 8:01, you’re here at 8, because the meeting’s going to start at 8,” he said. “Busy people that can’t get off the last phone call to get there, [need to] discipline themselves to be there on time.”J
Just as important as starting on time is ending on time. A definitive end time will help ensure that you accomplish what’s on your agenda and get people back to their work promptly. “I like to have an agenda that we think through,” Mr. Lundgren added, “and we say, ‘This meeting’s going to go for two hours,’ and we force ourselves to carve through the agenda.’”
End with an Action Plan
Leave the last few minutes of every meeting to discuss the next steps. This discussion should include deciding who is responsible for what, and what the deadlines are. Otherwise, all the time you spent on the meeting will be for naught.
Shellye Archambeau, chief executive of MetricStream, a firm that helps companies meet compliance standards, likes to end her meetings by asking, “Who’s got the ball?”
“When you’re in sports, and the ball is thrown to you, then you’ve got the ball, and you’re now in control of what happens next,” she said. “You own it. It becomes a very visible concept for making sure that there’s actually ownership to make sure things get done.”
Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties – Atlanta, a real estate operating company, uses a phrase to end meetings that has become a common acronym in office e-mails: W.W.D.W.B.W., which stands for “Who will do what by when?”
“If somebody says during a meeting, ‘We’ve got to get this lease signed,’ everybody knows what the follow-up question is going to be. I type the acronym so often in emails — “W.W.D.W.B.W.” — that my phone just auto-fills it. So we’ve trained ourselves and each other, but we’re also trying to do it with people we work with. We developed a system where before we hang up the phone with somebody, we’ll say, ‘When do you think I can have that?’ We track people who deliver and those who don’t.”
Give Everyone a Role
“We’re very clear at the beginning of every meeting whether it’s one person’s decision, or whether it’s more of a discussion to reach consensus.” —Carl Bass, the former chief executive of Autodesk.
Establish Ground Rules
Ask yourself, “What is the role of the meeting participants?” The more clarity you can provide about what you want to get out of them, the better; people are more likely to contribute if they know what role they’re supposed to play. Is the point of the meeting to give out orders? To brainstorm? To discuss a plan of action?To help you clarify the type of meeting you are running, try one of the strategies from these leaders or use them as inspiration to develop one of your own:
Light Bulb or Gun?
Be clear whether your thoughts are an idea or a command. Dawn Lepore, the former chief of Drugstore.com, sometimes used this framework as lighthearted shorthand for the goal of her meetings: “People don’t always know if you mean something as just an idea, or you want them to go do it. A light bulb means this is just an idea I had, so think about it. A gun is, I want you to do this.”
Type 1, 2 or 3
Who gets to make the final decision on an issue? Sheila Lirio Marcelo, chief executive of Care.com, a company that helps people find caregivers, developed this system to signal who’s responsible:“Type 1 decisions are the decision-maker’s sole decision — dictatorial. Type 2: People can provide input, and then the person can still make the decision. Type 3: It’s consensus. It’s a great way to efficiently solve a problem.”
My Decision, or Consensus?
Not all decisions are made by consensus. One of a leader’s main responsibilities is to get as many opinions as possible on the table. But you have to be clear when you’re just soliciting input.Carl Bass, the former chief executive of Autodesk, said there is often a built-in tension in encouraging people to share their opinions, as it may lead them to believe a decision will come down to a democratic vote. Here’s how he addresses it up front:“We’re very clear at the beginning of every meeting whether it’s one person’s decision, or whether it’s more of a discussion to reach consensus,” he said. “I think it’s a really valuable thing to understand because otherwise people can feel frustrated that they gave out their opinions but they don’t understand the broader context for the final decision.”
Control the Meeting, Not the Conversation
Let Them Speak
“Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting.” —David M. Cote, the executive chairman of Honeywell.
If you’re running a meeting, be crystal clear on the agenda and on what you want to accomplish, but then it’s time to be quiet and let others speak. If you share your thoughts first, you’re likely going to look around a table of nodding heads, with people saying they completely agree with your instincts.
It’s a lesson that Navin Nagiah, chief of DNN, a web content software company, said he has learned.
“Sometimes I have all the information about a particular item beforehand, and there are times when I’ve stated the conclusion first,” he said. “Once you state the conclusion, there’s no discussion. You don’t get anybody else’s perspective, and those perspectives are still important for you to understand the business or other decisions. So you have to hold yourself back.”
Here is a useful reminder from David M. Cote, the former chief executive of Honeywell.
“Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting,” he said. “It’s your job to flush out all the facts, all the opinions, and at the end make a good decision, because you’ll get measured on whether you made a good decision, and not whether it was your idea from the beginning.”
Make Everyone Contribute
“If you’re not going to participate, then that means you’re just sponging off the rest of us.” —Julie Greenwald, the chairwoman and chief operating officer of Atlantic Records.
There are three common dynamics in a large meeting:
- A few people like to showboat and dominate the conversation, while others hang back.
- Some people volunteer ideas, while others only offer criticism.
- People are reluctant to offer opinions that go beyond their area of expertise or their rank within an organization.
Any one of these scenarios can lead to people censoring themselves, which leads to a lost opportunity to get the best ideas and make the smartest decisions.
Here are some ways some chief executives make sure everyone is contributing:
Pile It On
Kathleen Finch, chief programming, content and brand officer at Scripps Networks Interactive, likes to hold a meeting every few months that she calls a “pile-on meeting.”
“I bring about 25 people into a room and go over all the different projects that are coming up in the next six months, and everybody piles on with their ideas to make those projects as successful as they can be,” she said. “The rule walking into the meeting is you must forget your job title. I don’t want the marketing person just talking about marketing. I want everyone talking about what they would do to make this better. It is amazing what comes out of those meetings.”
Julie Greenwald, the chairwoman and chief operating officer of Atlantic Records, sets the tone for her discussions by talking about vulnerability and risk.“
In meetings, I constantly talk about how we have to be vulnerable, and that it’s not fair for some people to just sit or stand along the wall and not participate. If you’re not going to participate, then that means you’re just sponging off the rest of us,” she said.
“I’ll throw out ideas. Some of them will be horrible, and I’ll let people tell me that was the wackiest idea on the planet, and we’ll get through it. They won’t get fired. And then I’ll say to others, ‘O.K., what’s your idea?’ It’s important for everyone to understand we’re a company where risk-taking is necessary.”
Make Everyone a Judge
To make sure everyone shares their honest opinion try this clever tactic from John Nottingham and John Spirk, who run Nottingham Spirk, an innovation and product design firm. All it takes are some index cards and pens.
- Lead a brainstorming session and put the ideas on a wall or whiteboard.
- Give everyone three index cards: One says, “Wow,” another says, “Nice,” and the third says, “Who cares?” Everybody sits around the table with their cards face down.
- Someone gets up to pitch one of the ideas on the wall.
- The meeting attendees then hold up the card that best expresses their feelings about the idea.
“If everybody says ‘Wow,’ you’re going to keep that idea,” Mr. Nottingham said. “That’s easy, but it doesn’t happen a lot. So another idea is presented, and everybody may hold up the cards that say, ‘Who cares?’ So you take that product and just shove it off the table. It’s not going to work.”
According to Mr. Nottingham, the worst card is often “Nice.” Someone can produce a nice product, but it’s not going to move the needle, he says. “Too often, too many nice products get produced.”
Everyone should hold up their card at the same time, so there are no influencers in the room. If there’s one person in the meeting and he answers one way, everyone is going to follow suit, Mr. Nottingham says.
Make Meetings Essential
Do a Meeting Audit
“One of the things I do on a quarterly basis is to review the standing meetings on my calendar, and every one of them ought to be able defend itself,” —Lew Cirne, the chief of New Relic, a software analytics company.
You’ve heard of “mission creep?” It refers to a gradual shift in goals during a battle or some other military campaign, often leading to a long-term commitment that was never part of the original plan.
A similar problem is “meeting creep,” a phenomenon in which, without you even noticing, your schedule starts filling up over weeks and months with new meetings that then become routine.
To keep meetings in check, do a meeting audit every few months. Ask yourself whether each meeting is the best use of everyone’s precious time. It’s an approach that Lew Cirne, the chief of New Relic, a software analytics company, puts into regular practice.
“One of the things I do on a quarterly basis is to review the standing meetings on my calendar, and every one of them ought to be able defend itself,” he said. “The point is not to keep going to that meeting just because you always have to go. I ask myself ‘Why?’ and I encourage my managers to question their calendars, too.”
Cancel Them All
Want to try a more drastic measure? You could borrow a page from Stewart Butterfield, chief of Slack, the messaging service for teams, and cancel your regular meetings to see which ones you miss and want to restore.“
People can go to work every day for a year and not really get anything done because they’re just doing the things that they felt they were supposed to be doing,” Mr. Butterfield said. “We just went through this process of canceling almost every recurring meeting that we had, to see which ones we really needed. We probably do need some of the ones we canceled, and they’ll come back — but we’ll wait until we actually need them again.”