If you, like most leaders, spend the majority of your days in meetings, being able to manage a constructive meeting is a critical skill to master.
So, what does an effective meeting look like and what can you do to get the most from your meeting time?
1. Get in the zone
If you’re leading, you set the tone for the entire discussion. Before you walk in, make sure you’re in a constructive mood. Get clear on the purpose. Make sure you have everything you need that’s relevant for the discussion. If there’s something bothering you about what’s about to happen, see if you can shift your attitude and mood to establish the tone of possibility and progress – even around the tough situations. It can help to breathe, centre and align your body, and to do a body scan for tension and release this ahead of time. Then arrive a little early, take your seat and create a mood that others want to join.
2. Get everyone else in the mood
As your attendees begin to arrive, greet and welcome them. It is now your job to set the scene. Doing this up front and directly will give them an assurance they have made a positive investment of their time. Consider doing a ‘check in’. That is, move around the table or room and ask everyone to also do a body scan, release any tension, notice the thoughts that they’ve come in with and bring their attention to what’s about to happen. You might even ask them to reflect on the mood they bring in relation to the subject and to find a helpful emotion or mood that will help everyone make progress in the discussion before they begin participating. This is one of the best 2-minute investments you can make.
3. Check in – ask them to share something
It is helpful to allocate say 10 minutes at the start of each meeting to allow every participant to ‘check in’. That is, each person has the chance to share what’s present for them at the start of the meeting, to express or declare any concerns, to identify a constructive mood and to declare what they want to gain from this investment of time. It is the Leader’s role to either lead this or nominate another person to do so. The desired impact is to help each person take responsibility for the mood they generate for the team as well as be present for the conversations about to take place.
4. Use an agenda
Regardless of what you’re there to discuss, an Agenda will help you make the most of your time. Your agenda identifies the conversations you’ll have and how much time is allocated to each, offering an orientation to the subject and making sure that you reference past dialogues that are relevant as well as recent contributions from participants that should be added to the discussion. As the leader of the meeting, it will validate people’s voices and ongoing contributions since what they have put forward has been included at the collective forum.
5. Identify meeting behaviours and hold everyone accountable
Meeting behaviours are specific, observable and repeatable actions that all attendees undertake in support of the shared agenda. They include being seated at the meeting start time, arriving with an agenda, contributing to relevant conversations, listening to others without interrupting, asking questions when things are not clear and mindfully committing to requests. If one or more meeting attendees is not behaving in line with the agreed behaviours, then, the conversations must be initiated by the Leader, ideally in the very moment that the non-conforming behaviour arises and otherwise, offline after the meeting. These conversational practices are critical to maintain a team’s focus and morale.
6. For major projects…get agreement up front
For critical projects, it can be helpful to meet at the outset and document an agreed range of commitments each team member both contributes to and agrees to. This is a reflection of the broader culture you’re establishing, and the conditions and standards acceptable (or not). An agreement like this offers a baseline for future conversations if one or more team members breach any agreement. High leverage inclusions may be an agreement to deliver on promises, be prepared to make offers, communicate any deviations to agreements, prepare what’s requested or required ahead of time and to have the items you’re speaking to in good shape to support ease of communication to meeting attendees.
7. Manage the time and use the parking lot
If you’re using an agenda, you’ll also need to manage time. Time keep or ask someone else to do that for you. If the discussions feel like they’re slightly off track or too big to deal with in the allocated time, use a whiteboard to capture them in what we call a ‘parking lot’ and commit to coming back to these at a later date. You can use this same method to prioritise key conversations that need to happen another time. If you do not do this, your meetings can get bogged down in the ‘small stuff’ or you can be derailed by issues related but not central to what you need to achieve.
8. Manage participant concerns
Meetings often provoke people’s concerns – not merely about the subject but rather about their own sense of identity and safety in relation to what is being discussed. At one end of the spectrum, this can appear as people being disengaged and not participating, and at the other end, people being aggressive, assertive and forceful in the way they present. Your job is to manage this. The best ally you have is the power of observation. As the leader, you can point out that three people have not contributed so far, and you’d like to hear their views. You can also identify that two people have spoken more often, using strong language and you’d like to balance this by asking the other three to chime in. Skills and practices to manage yourself and others when provoked are a worthy domain to cultivate as a leader.
9. Support accountability
The process of note-taking will help you document discussions as they unfold. It is helpful to allocate this role to someone other than the leader so that you can keep a track of the human interactions and observe the conversational threads. It will equally be the leader’s role to ensure that promises are owned and kept by all team members and to address any commitments ‘not kept’, with a focus on supporting team members that do not deliver to recommit for the sake of the collective.
10. Keep a commitment register
The entire purpose of a meeting is to bring a range of different people and perspectives together to make progress on a specific issue or domain of action. Ideally, these conversations involve requests and offers that produce commitments. These must be documented in some sort of register to track specific commitments. Ideally, this includes what the commitment is, who the commitment belongs to, when it will be delivered and any other specific standards that support quality delivery. It is best that this register is a living thing, tracked live inside the meeting for the sake of accountability, peer line of sight and progress towards the shared goal or purpose.
The quality of a meeting is largely determined by the consciousness of the individuals attending and their commitment to the shared purpose. Balancing tasks, results and the human needs expressed inside any meeting forum is part of the art of effective leadership. Effective refers to your skill in being able to manage moods, conversations, provocation, accountability to key priorities and keep each person engaged and moving towards the shared goal. Investing in developing these skills and practices as the intrinsic way you ‘show up’ will offer your organisation the best chance at achieving what it sets out to, as well as enhance the engagement and innovation potential of your team.