Escaping the Meetings Trap: Leadership Institute Belfast

leadership instituteby Shaun Pendry, Leadership Institute Belfast

‘Well, that was a waste of time’, ‘So, what was the point of the last two hours?’, ‘Anyone any idea what that was all about?’ Have you ever left a meeting thinking this yourself or hearing one of you colleagues say it?

The shocking fact is that in many organisations people spend an inordinate amount of their work time in meetings. I was recently working with a group of European Directors who estimated that they spend 25 – 40% of their work time in meetings. They also admitted that many of these meetings delivered few benefits, and they were often bored during them. These were the same Directors who told me that they did not have enough time to talk to their staff, engage with their clients, or really give much thought to strategic issues. They also complained that they regularly work late or over weekends.

There is no doubt that meetings are an important part of running any organisation. They are used to engage with the team face to face, make decisions, generate ideas, report on status etc. The question is, how effective are they? As leaders we need to continuously challenge our thinking and ways of working. Here are six quick questions to ask about the effectiveness of the meetings you attend.

What is the aim of the meeting? How clear are you about the aim of the meetings that you attend? Once the aim of a meeting is established, other elements such as attendance, time, location will become clear. The most effective meetings I have attended have been those where the aim was stated right at the start of the meeting. This focuses the attendees on the issues, sets their expectations and gives you something to measure against at the end of the meeting.

Have we prepared? Meetings need to be planned and prepared.  The basics: the meeting invitation, the location and time, the  list of attendees,  the agenda and any pre-reading all need to be in place, 100% of the time.

What is the right mind-set and behaviours? People often go into meetings in a negative frame of mind. This can lead to people displaying negative behaviours in the meeting and it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resist the temptation to be negative and try to look for the positive. If you are more open, approachable and inquisitive it is likely that you will add value to the meeting and it will be a more positive experience

What are the roles? We all hope that there will be someone who will manage the meeting. What is often less clear are the other roles. For example, who will record the meeting and make sure that any actions agreed are correctly noted? This does not have to involve lengthy sets of written minutes but a brief record of the decisions made and who will take action is important for follow-up. Someone will also need to keep the time. All too often meetings over run or agenda points are hastily dealt with or not at all. These are symptoms of poor time management. If someone is appointed to keep track of the time it is less likely to happen.

How often is feedback given? We all need feedback on our performance. In my experience, feedback is generally recognised as a key skill in the workplace but also that it is generally poorly delivered.  You should seek feedback on the meetings that you chair. Ask if the meeting delivered what was required, did it meet the aim, and most importantly how could it be improved?

How often is the status quo challenged? Have you recently thought about the structure, attendance, agenda, frequency and style of the meetings that you are responsible for? If you are conducting your meetings in the same way that you were two years ago you need to revisit them and see if they can be refreshed. This is not change for changes sake but more of a stock take to answer the question ‘it would be even better if…’

In my experience if you think about these questions in relation the meetings you are responsible for, it is much more likely that you deliver really effective meetings.

My last challenge is to you when you next attend a meeting and you find yourself at the back of the room bored, thinking about what you are going to do at the weekend, surfing the net or sending e-mails on your Blackberry. If you are doing this it means you have mentally checked out of the meeting and you are no longer adding value to it. My challenge is that if you have mentally checked out, then why not physically check out? I know that this is not as easy as it sounds but think back to my European Directors and the amount of time that they are wasting in unnecessary meetings. Being only physically present at a meeting takes up time that you could be spending on the other leadership activities that you really need to focus on. There is the challenge for us all if we want to escape the ‘meetings trap’.

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