It’s Monday morning and you roll into the office, fully caffeinated and brimming with hope of a productive week (ok, I exaggerate– you’re probably half-asleep and still daydreaming about your weekend). You fire up your computer, give a round of friendly greetings to your colleagues, and turn cheerfully to your calendar to see what the week has in store.
Then, you quietly sob to yourself because this is what your calendar looks like:
Yep. Meetings are the worst. We all know this and yet very few of us have figured out how to purge them from our lives. There’s plenty of literature out there telling us to have fewer meetings and to be highly protective of our time. But if you happen to be in a role where that isn’t an option, what are you supposed to do?
Let’s just take a moment to embrace the reality of the situation. Until robots take our jobs, we are all going to have to attend meetings. You can either allow them to waste your time, or you can arm yourself with these three tactics to lead more efficient and effective meetings.
Ready to lead better meetings? Read on.
Every meeting has an owner.
This seems simple, but it’s actually the most important element of a successful meeting. With one person at the helm, a meeting can stay on track. With nobody steering the ship – or worse, everyone trying to – a meeting will wander and waste time. Instead of decisions and clear action steps, you end up with confusion and frustrated people… who have to attend another meeting to do what was supposed to be done the first time. This is fun for literally no one.
The meeting owner is a facilitator and guide. She sets the agenda and outlines clear meeting goals. She asks questions that drive the conversation forward. She documents critical decisions, places off-topic ideas in the “parking lot”, and she reminds the room to come back to the original goal when the conversation starts to drift.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but it can be a tough job. Especially when you are just starting out. Here’s a quick script to help you kick off a meeting which you own:
- “I called this meeting because [state clear purpose of the meeting]”
- “The desired outcome of this meeting is [state what you would like to achieve in the next 30-60 minutes]”
- “The agenda I propose is [write your agenda on the whiteboard so everyone can see it or find another way to visually display the agenda]”
- “From this agenda, the most important items that need to be covered today are [circle or number the most critical items]”
- “How does that sound to you?”
This last piece (“how does that sound to you”) is important for a few reasons. It allows the other people in the room to voice their opinions. They can also add important items you may have missed and express their personal priorities within the context of your agenda. But most of all, they have the opportunity to give their consent to the meeting road map. If they accept the agenda, it empowers you as meeting owner to hold everyone accountable to it.
But… how do you know who owns the meeting?
Sometimes it’s not clear who should own a meeting. To help you through the process, here are two quick ground rules to help determine ownership:
Rule #1: If you called it, you own it (unless otherwise discussed).
If you place a meeting on other people’s calendars, it is your responsibility to make sure that the meeting is successful. Do the prep work to set an agenda and walk into the room with a clear goal in mind. If you scheduled the meeting but think your boss or another member of your team should lead it, be proactive about having this conversation. Call out ownership explicitly so the right person is prepared to facilitate the conversation.
Rule #2: If no one is leading the meeting, step up and actively facilitate.
If a meeting is off to a meandering start and no one has taken initiative to set an agenda, this is an opportunity to step up. Ask the people in the room if you all can take a moment to set the agenda and identify the primary goal of the meeting. Together, you will build a roadmap for the conversation. If you feel empowered to help the group walk through the agenda, do so. If there’s someone else who should be taking the lead, ask them if they can guide the group through the agenda. Likely, they will be happy to drive things forward.
Whether you enter the room as the meeting facilitator or end up in that spot along the way, it’s important that there is someone actively shepherding the meeting along.
Again, this might seem like a simple concept. But if it really were that simple, meetings wouldn’t constantly end in disappointment and frustration.
Here are a couple things you can set expectations around at the start of your meeting:
- TIME: The time the meeting ends.
- TAKEAWAYS: What everyone needs to walk away with by the end of the meeting.
- IS/IS NOT: What the meeting is and what it is not.
Meetings can drag on, bleeding carelessly into your next calendar block. To avoid this, take a moment at the beginning to clearly communicate the time the meeting ends. Also let everyone know that, as meeting owner, you will keep track of the clock and help everyone wrap up on time. This sets the expectation that this meeting will be punctual and meeting attendees will be receiving time cues.
Other quick tips about managing time:
- Don’t wait until the end of the meeting to check in about time. If you are facilitating the meeting, let everyone know when you hit the halfway mark and when you have 10 minutes left. The midway check in helps everyone understand how quickly they need to move through the remaining agenda items. The 10 minute warning helps everyone start wrapping up.
- Set time constraints for each agenda item. Give yourself a set number minutes to discuss an agenda item. When time for that item is up, take a moment to check in with the group. Have we done what we needed to with that agenda item? If not, do we all feel comfortable taking time from another agenda item? It’s ok to renegotiate your agenda as you go, as long as you are actively managing time and expectations in the room.
Not great at keeping an eye on the clock? Use a timer. This way, you can pay attention to the conversation without worrying about the time. This will also share a clear signal to the room that it’s time to start wrapping up or moving forward. Just let everyone know that you’re setting a timer so it doesn’t catch people off guard.
In your meeting setup, it’s always helpful to let everyone know what you expect them to gain from this meeting. For example, you can say “By the end of this meeting I expect …
- … everyone to have an understanding of the complete project plan.”
- … everyone to have one clear action item to follow up on in the next week.”
- … us all to come to a decision on X.”
This sets a personal goal for each person in the room and makes them accountable for something specific. With this expectation set, meeting participants can stay engaged and help drive the meeting so they end up with the stated takeaways.
One of the first steps in leading an effective meeting is to stop making assumptions. For example, you may have a beautifully articulated goal and a neatly organized agenda, but you might be assuming that everyone understands the goal and agenda in the same way.
To reduce ambiguity, take a moment to set expectations by saying what the meeting is, and what the meeting is not.
Here’s an example of an “Is/Is Not” that I shared with my team at the start of meeting. The goal of this specific meeting was to share results from a content audit. This is how I set expectations about what I was about to share with my team:
Because of the topic of this meeting (Content Audit), it had high potential to wander. “Content” means a lot of things and there were plenty of different directions I could have taken my analysis. Sharing this framework at the start of the meeting helped us stay focused on the specific scope of the meeting. It also helped my team understand the meeting in context of a bigger scope of work.
Every meeting has a parking lot.
Parking lots are great facilitation tools. They are literal spaces where you park ideas. Parking lots create a polite way to recognize an idea but put it to the side if it has potential to derail the meeting.
I usually set up parking lots with either whiteboards or flip charts, but a simple piece of paper can work if you’re in a pinch. As ideas pop up that are interesting but off-topic, say “Great idea! Would you mind if I add that to the parking lot so we can come back to it after we wrap up this portion of the discussion?” Then write down the idea in the physical parking lot so it can be seen, remembered, and readdressed if there is time at the end of the meeting.
Having a parking lot creates an environment where people feel heard, acknowledged, and respected. By writing the idea down for all to see, you give validation and help that person stay engaged in the conversation. This is far more effective than ignoring or dismissing an off-topic idea.
Invite your team into the process.
Leading effective and efficient meetings is challenging. It’s even harder when you step up to lead and no one else knows what you’re trying to do. If your company has a bad meeting culture, trying to implement these tips on your own may feel frustrating. Instead, bring your team into the process and share better meeting practices with everyone. When the entire team (or the entire company) agrees to a new, more effective approach to meetings, everyone wins.
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