By SueCanyon | March 27, 2008
As the team concept and self-empowerment strategies develop in the work place, so grows the need for competent leaders of group discussion. If we can accept the concepts that reinventing the wheel without help merely gets us a wheel, that ‘my way’ thinking hinders progress, and that two cooperative heads are better than one… if we truly have a desire to move forward in great strides rather than tiny steps, then we must accept that meetings are necessary and can indeed be fruitful.
The ideal meeting would begin on time and every member would participate in the molding of an idea to some grand specific purpose. The meeting would end on time with members eagerly going their separate ways to accomplish the tasks assigned in the meeting. They would reconvene on time, and every task would be complete. It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? How many of us have actually participated in an example of the ideal meeting? Few. Leadership is what sets these few meetings apart from the many others which waste our precious time and resources.
Rampant poor management has solidified a belief that a meeting is a painful event where we must listen to a viewpoint with which we may not agree and can’t work to mold, where burdensome tasks will be assigned, and where a late start will mean a late finish, making us late for our next appointment. Our hands are publicly slapped if we are tardy or absent, if we haven’t completed our tasks, or even if we suggest alternatives. In reality, meetings are often a negative experience to all.
A good meeting manager can make all the difference in the world. Prior to the meeting, strong leaders pay close attention to many variables: the guest list, the type of meeting, the invitation, the timing, the presentation materials, and the setting. During the meeting they pay equal attention to the time, the agenda, and to the guests. They seldom contribute to the subject, and their meetings get a great deal accomplished. Let’s learn their secrets.
The Guest List
To have the authority to call a meeting in itself puts the leader in a position of power. Many find power to be intoxicating. Meeting managers are misguided when they begin to think that more guests, mean more power; higher ranking guests, more power. Completely forgotten is the agenda and the project as they instead court power.
Remember: He who earns his power will surpass he who takes it. So, lead for results, not renown. Evaluate your guest list. Carefully select and invite only those who will ultimately contribute to the success of your meeting or project. As you extend invitations, ask each guest if there are others who could contribute to your subject. Major faulty decisions are often made when input is not available from areas which would be grossly affected by the decision, because the leader did not think to invite their participation. This error can have serious repercussions.
How Often Will Your Group Meet?
Meetings are held at three different frequencies, and each should be treated differently. There are those which are held daily, those which are held regularly, say, once a week toward the completion of a project, and those held only once or twice with a specific short-term agenda.
The Meeting Invitation
If you must schedule a room in which to hold your meeting, choose several open dates and times so you can be flexible enough to accommodate all of your guests. With the exception of large, all-employee gatherings, invite all guests by phone or in person prior to setting in concrete the meeting time and place to ensure there will be no conflicts.
Call first upon the guest who has the most difficult schedule. If you are unable to reach agreement on your optimum day and time, either choose another time, remove him from your guest list, or ask him to appoint an alternate whose schedule may be more flexible. Continue until you’ve spoken to each guest. Once your meeting is on each person’s calendar, then confirm the room, and confirm the meeting by email. In this way, schedule conflicts can be ironed out at the earliest opportunity.
Follow the live invitation with a meeting notice for some meetings, but not for others, based upon meeting frequency.
Notices and written agendas are not necessary for daily meetings. They are attended as a normal routine of the jobs we hold. For example, the production manager will invite the newly hired supervisor to the morning production meeting. The supervisor will be expected to attend the meeting every morning thereafter. No other invitation is necessary.
When a subject requires only one or two meetings, a follow-up notice is appropriate. If properly used, it will encourage the attendance of those needed at your meeting. A standard meeting notice includes the date, time, place, and length of your meeting. It explains the purpose and agenda, and lists items or information that participants are to bring. It would be sent to the entire guest list.
But, however simple the use of a meeting notice may seem, there can be problems with its use. It is often thought to replace, rather than augment, the live invitation. Without the live invitation, upon receipt of the notice, your guest will have little chance to defend a prior engagement. As leader, you cannot assume that the importance of your meeting will take precedence over another duty, so be sure to call on each guest prior to sending the notice.
Agenda statements are often weak, leaving your guests under-prepared. Be very clear and detailed about your subject in the notice. Always be specific about what you expect others to contribute to the meeting. These suggestions will help reduce absence and confusion at your infrequent meetings.
The weekly or regularly scheduled meetings are the most challenging for a leader. They are usually held for information exchange, staff discussions, or to manage projects. Many leaders use the meeting notice for this type of meeting, but shouldn’t because problems are often created by its use.
The notice reminds your guests of the meeting, their action items, and may include a summary of the previous meeting. I have even seen meeting leaders mark an asterisk next to the names of those who failed to attend the previous meeting. All of these measures, including the notice itself, contribute to absenteeism rather than encouraging participation for several reasons.
To send notices to remind someone of a meeting that they are to attend each week relieves him of the responsibility of managing his calendar. “I don’t need to remember or write this meeting in my calendar because I will get a notice in my email.” The meeting forgotten, the notice is received at the last minute ─ when there now may be a conflict.
The notice reminds the guest of his action items, which he now has no time to complete. To send a reminder of action items due implies that your guest is also incapable of managing his assignments.
The asterisk next to his name is supposed to act as a slap on the wrist by making it obvious to all readers that the absent party is not committed to the subject of the meeting. To include a summary of the last meeting simply okays the absence of the alleged participant by filling him in after the fact. All of these ‘solutions’ breed even less participation, rather than encouraging it. Let’s stop treating people as if they were children and allow for the integrity we all deserve.
If you are conducting a weekly meeting, don’t send a notice at all. Your guests can manage their workload without your reminder. They are capable of managing their calendars and avoiding future time conflicts. A well-managed meeting will attract participation. Measure the effectiveness of your meeting management skills by the level of participation you get.
Leaders often give little or no thought to the environment in which they hold their meetings. As a result, they subject their guests to any number of interruptions and restarts. With a little care, you can make your guests comfortable and keep the subject flowing smoothly by paying attention to the meeting environment.
Meeting Room Setup
Meeting rooms are often designed to be flexible so you can set them up in various ways depending on the requirements of your meeting. You can set up the room classroom style, where all the chairs face one direction in rows, with or without tables in front of them. You can set it up with one big table in the middle of the room with all the chairs around it, round-table style. You can set it up horseshoe style, where the tables are placed end to end in the shape of a U, with the projector placed at the top of the U. Or you can set it up in small group style, where for example, there are four seated around each table, as if they were playing cards. This style best serves sub-group task work or meal meetings.
If you are new to public speaking and don’t feel as comfortable as you would like, I suggest using the U style and a projector. Place the screen at the top of the U, and you and the projector at the bottom of the U. This way, you’re not really in front of your guests while you speak because they are looking away from you toward the screen. When you finish your presentation, allow your guests to ask questions. When discussion .ensues, you can take a seat. This method allows you to become comfortable as the center of attention in short increments rather than all at once.
Early in my career I was very shy. Using the U seating arrangement, I have tediously made progress to where I can now speak without hesitation. The key is in knowing your subject very well.
Many meetings become loud and unruly, or entirely too quiet simply because the guests have not been seated properly. Remember that people who face each other tend to talk to each other. If you seat the two most outspoken members opposite one another, they will talk to each other, ignore everyone else, and dominate your meeting. If you want a high ranking guest to focus on one of your members who has a great idea, seat them across from each other. If you want to diminish the effect of an aggressive talker, seat him next to yourself or another talker and the meeting will proceed more quietly.
A person will tend to ignore another with whom they have a conflict. If two conflicting parties are seated directly across from each other, they will be forced to talk directly to each other, and therefore may resolve the conflict more quickly.
In any case, strategic seating can have a profound affect on the outcome of your meeting. Give thought to room and seating arrangements as you prepare for the meeting. Purchase some place markers and strategically seat your guests if they typically stray from the subject.
Arrive at your meeting early and prepared. It is most disconcerting when a leader announces to prompt guests that his secretary is “just about to finish the presentation”, or when he fumbles around for markers or erasers for the white board, or when the projector light bulb burns out and he is not quick to change it.
It is better to bring no presentation than it is to begin the meeting late. Have your materials in the order you wish to present them. Bring your own markers if you will be using the boards or an easel, and use napkins if you can’t find an eraser. Make sure there is plenty of paper on the easel. Check the projector bulb and its spare before the meeting begins and know how to change it. Bulbs are notorious for burning out during a presentation. If you can provide your guests an environment without interruptions, you’ll quickly earn the reputation that your meetings are worthwhile.
Once you’ve made the initial contact with each guest, they should have a clear idea as to the purpose of your meeting. They should be able to expect that your meeting will not waste their time, so let’s not disappoint them. Let’s now learn some serious meeting management techniques using the project meeting as an example because it is the most difficult to manage.
Project Meeting Format
Your team has determined that 1:00 every Thursday is a good time to meet. You have arranged to use the same meeting room for the duration of your project. Email a meeting notice a week prior to the first meeting.
The first week is organizational where the team will discuss the responsibilities of each member, and you will offer a preliminary project plan.
The procedure for new agenda items is discussed. It is agreed that anyone who wants to add new agenda items would bring them to you by Tuesday, unless there is a project emergency. Anyone outside the group with an interest would be welcomed to sit in or join the team. Anyone outside the group who has a problem associated with the project would be invited to deliver those concerns in person rather than through another member of the team who may not fully grasp the problem.
After the first week, a little repetition will go a long way. Every Thursday, at 1:00 p.m. sharp, begin the meeting no matter who is absent. Humans love feedback. We thrive on the recognition that we’ve accomplished something. We live to cross completed items off our lists. Use this knowledge to your advantage to discourage lateness by reviewing the status of the project first. When tardy members discover that you will discuss their favorite part of the meeting first, they will begin to arrive on time.
Discourage Repeat Performances
Ask latecomers, who inquire about material covered previously, to meet with you after the meeting. The other members will appreciate your efforts to keep the meeting moving forward. In future meetings, they may carry the ball for you. When a new member is late and disruptive to your flow, the others will explain the procedure.
These are highly successful tactics. Since you’ve made it clear that you will begin on time, will discuss the status first, and won’t repeat yourself, it shows that you are taking the subject seriously, and the members will take your meeting seriously. I have attended team meetings where all members were five minutes early, eagerly awaiting the project status, even when the meeting was held immediately after lunch.
Transfer the Meeting
The next permanent item on the agenda is a short update by each member on the action items assigned the previous week. This serves to transfer attention from you to your team. As you sit down and recognize each member, he will discuss his progress and any problems he may have encountered, leading toward resolution. Of course, you already know about these problems because you have followed up on the progress of each action item during the week. It will generate enthusiasm and help keep your project moving forward if you show your team that you genuinely care about their progress.
Discussion of agenda items will take up the balance of the meeting. Once this transfer has been made from you to your team members, your entire job becomes one of keeping the meeting focused on the subject and moving forward. Devote the last five minutes to deciding the agenda and speakers for the next meeting. Plan no more items for the following week than can be handled in one session, and never allow your meetings to run longer than an hour. Gauge the length of the discussions so that those who are prepared, can talk. If too many items are available for the next week, let the team decide which items should be postponed until the following week.
Never allow a meeting to continue beyond its scheduled time. If there is a discussion in progress when it is time to stop, interrupt it and pick it up the next week after your status review and action item updates. Your members will learn to expect that you will not cut them off, but merely postpone the discussion until the next meeting. Those who are scheduled to use the meeting room after you will appreciate your promptness. Members of your team who have meetings scheduled immediately after yours will also appreciate it.
Keep Your Views to Yourself
One of the most difficult, yet important aspects of meeting leadership is acceptance of the concept that your views are not why you were selected as a facilitator of the team, but rather your ability to lead. If you have a personal stake in the outcome of the decisions of the team, you should have become a member, not the leader. Strive never to say, “Well, I think…”, when you can say, “What do you think?”
If you feel strongly about one alternative, wait for someone else to bring it up. If no one does, let it go because getting your way is not what you’re here for. You are here to earn the reputation that you can move projects forward by listening to your team and letting them develop the best path for the project.
Stick to the Subject
Don’t allow idle conversation to creep into your meeting. This will kill participation and project effectiveness sooner than anything else. Meetings should have an occasional element of humor in them, but never allow the off-subject to continue for more than two sentences or so. Get the meeting right back on the subject. “Thank you, Mark, for your comments. I think Jo Ann was about to voice her opinion on the new design.” The less serious participants will get the hint that you mean business, while the more serious participants will appreciate your respect for their time.
The same holds true for near-subjects, those subjects which appear to be fifth-cousins to your subject, but are not directly related. Don’t let your planning session for the new bridge on Main Street get sidetracked by a discussion of how difficult it is to get through all the traffic lights on Pine, even if the members of your team are the very people who can adjust the lights.
To be an effective leader you must be able to discern what is and is not a valid concern to the purpose of your project, and be able to focus your members accordingly. “Yes, those lights are a problem.” Perusing your calendar (which you always have with you) suggest, “perhaps we could meet on Tuesday at 3:00 to discuss a change in the lighting strategy.” Calendars open, heads nod in approval. “Now, I believe Chase had expressed his opinion as to whether we should add a light at the corners of Main and First to slow traffic on the bridge. Does anyone have another opinion on this light?”
Remember, as leader of the meeting, take off your ‘participant’ hat. The fastest way to diminish participation is by offering your opinion. It will seem to your team members that, rather than their ideas, what you want is their approval for your ideas. Hesitate to give your opinion, and then do so only after everyone else has spoken. I know that it’s one of the most difficult things to do, but try to let the discussion come to its natural fruition without your comments.
If the group happens to choose your idea as it was voiced by another, you can take pleasure in that they see things the way you silently do. On the other hand, if they choose another path, you will not later be perceived as uncooperative having not ‘gotten your way’.
Heated arguments among members will damage the effectiveness of your meeting. The parties may need more time or more information to resolve issues. Schedule a special off-line meeting between these members and act as an arbitrator. Don’t take sides. Let them discuss the problem, and listen carefully for what one may say that another does not hear in the same way.
Manage Inter-Personal Conflict
Invite all the people you need, not just those you get along with. I once led a project where one of the members was very strong willed, wanted everything done his way, and was generally negative to every suggestion. I could have avoided his negative influence (and reduced my own stress level) by not inviting him. But, I believe strongly that this is the reason that many projects fail the first time.
As I listened to his concerns week after week, I struggled to understand his viewpoint. At the same time I didn’t allow him to dominate the meeting because other aspects of the project might have suffered. After many one-on-one meetings, we began to understand each other’s concerns and motives, and grew to respect one another.
I learned that his ideas were rooted in the protection of his isolated group. He learned that mine were rooted in the protection of a best fit for the entire plant. We forged a win-win situation. By involving his opinion in the team decisions, the project had a higher quality outcome than if I had not involved him simply to save myself some grief.
You may have one member who doesn’t seem to have an opinion on anything, who doesn’t talk much, but who you believe may have a contribution. Everyone deserves to feel important. Prove to him that his ideas are important to the project by actively involving him in your discussions. When a decision is proposed by the group, ask him what he thinks about it. Visit him off-line to see if he has any concerns he wishes to voice in private, and ask about his progress on action items. Remove roadblocks which may be in his way. Convince him that you genuinely want his opinion and you will get it. Many a wallflower has bloomed when actively included in the process.
It’s Still Your Ball
Once you have scheduled the meeting, set up the room, and conducted the meeting, you must now follow up. By Monday of the following week, you should have a firm grasp of how people are performing against their action items. If a member has encountered a roadblock, use all your resources to remove the obstacle so your project can remain on track. Off-line meetings are commonplace in the effort to remove unforeseen obstacles. If you are actively involved and concerned about the progress of your project, your team members will respond more actively.
While managing a project you may need to assign action items to team members who belong to other management chains. In other words, you will need to manage a portion of an employee’s time who works for someone else. Unless your project has the genuine approval of the other manager, your action items will often be set aside in favor of the tasks assigned by him.
To get this approval, determine who is the person lowest in the management chain who manages all the members of your team. Request that a priority be mandated from this level.
For example, if you need manufacturing, production control, and finance as members of your project team, and the lowest person in the management chain to whom all these people report is the Vice-President, then he must set the priority for your project. The person who assigned you the project should sell the importance of the project up the chain to the Vice-President.
If the V.P. is willing to support it, he will send that message down the other branches, and you will have a much more cooperative team.
If you can’t get the support of the managers of your team members, then give yourself plenty of time and expect to complete most of the action items yourself. If you can’t get management support in a matrix-managed situation, and aren’t given plenty of time to complete the actions, you are likely to fail. A project that fails will have a considerable negative impact on your career. Don’t accept a project for which you cannot get management support. But, decline the project only after every approval avenue has been exhausted. A project or a team which enjoys management support is highly visible and can open up great opportunities once it is successfully completed.
Leading a meeting or a project is a huge responsibility, but it can also be a major feather in your cap toward promotion. The organizational skills you display in meetings will be viewed and evaluated by others. These are the skills possessed by successful managers. Management candidates are often chosen from those who possess meeting leadership and organizational skills.
© Business is Booming! llc 2008
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