“I was one chemist who sat with the same seven executives nearly 11 hours every week to find out why I wasn’t getting more done,” notes pharmaceutical product analyst Neil Lister. Be it virtual, face to face, phone, or video screen, an ever-encroaching part of our workdays seem to be spent not working, but talking about work. For some of us, such conferences are the stuff of our jobs. As executives we execute, oversee, direct, and investigate. For others, like Lister, it might be a break (welcome or otherwise) from their productive routine.
Meetings are, after all, a group of human individuals getting together. Initially they have a stated purpose, but because we are all separate people, involved in differing things, meetings tend to take on a life of their own. And if not managed well, they can beget more of themselves than they accomplish. To paraphrase Plato, the unexamined meeting is not worth holding. So, to conduct a meeting forensic, Biz4NJ queried a panel of consultants and business owners about how they give their meetings brevity, efficiency, and value.
* Really Necessary? Worthwhile meetings tend to be held for several reasons:
Activity Updates. The goal here is to let the left hand (and head and legs) know what the right is doing. The whole body moves better when coordinated - a good meeting cause. Just be careful to inspire problem-sharing, rather than only best-face-forward reports.
Problem Solve & Brainstorm. Whether called to urgently put out one fire, or develop mutual direction and vision, these conferences are primary team builders. Many brains do, of course, enhance solutions. But beware here. Not every person needs be called to solve every crisis. The manager needs to foster responsibility as well as team spirit. Before hitting the group alarm bell, ask yourself, “can Joe - or perhaps Joe with Judy - solve this quickly themselves and report afterwards?”
Introduction of New Team Members. At this point the moderator/leader takes on his greatest challenge. Selection of venue and method of introduction become prime. Remember these are individuals. People do not remember two dozen names in two minutes of rapid-fire introductions. Try more creative, naturally-paced name familiarization. (All consultants agreed that fun & games introductions felt off-putting.) Rather, they suggested assigning each new individual a project with one of the veterans who could provide a bit of mentoring.
The Regularly Scheduled Reporting. Sometimes jestingly referred to as the “CEO’s chance to feel in c”harge”, these meetings can prove valuable in uniting folks that don’t normally meet. The key here is to keep sessions fresh, and seeming non obligatory. Herb Greenberg of Caliper, Inc. has noted that he has tried to bring in one new person to such meetings who normally would not fit the normal scope of the agenda.
All of the above meetings can claim justifiable benefit, but there may be ways to shorten their length or lessen their frequency. First, strive to make more use of your own informal communications systems before resorting to the formal and scheduled. Humans love to chat and share news. If you can break the barriers of office fear, you will find communication flows freely. One Montclair consultant tells managers to “find that one individual who likes to talk to everyone, or those workers who have acquaintances in other divisions. Ask them to put the word out on certain items. Then plan your backup.”
After the word has been grapevined, list your points to share in an “up to speed” memo. List the individual who knows (or talks best) about this topic as the person to contact on the memo and direct those who have thus far remained out of the loop. This conversational approach, with written backup where needed, is guaranteed to shorten agendas, and even eliminate some meetings. Additionally, establishing subject experts does wonders for individual morale * When Strangers Meet. Few business developers bring more strangers together from more different fields, more often than Dan Conley. As head of New Jersey Angels.net and the New Jersey Entrepreneurs Forum, Inc., Conley places a steady stream of startup CEO’s before backers and business service providers. His mental Rolodex is immense. Never does Conley leave new attendees to make awkward introductions alone. Like an adept party host, Conley matches the newcomer to someone of like interest in the room. Then, as master of the quick quip, he makes each individual unforgettable in the other’s eyes.
“If you want to put your press releases on steroids, you’ve gotta meet Bob Baker...”
“You’ve heard the legend - now meet the man - CFO, Tom Owens...”
Automatically, ice is broken, smiles stretch across faces, and conversation ensues.
*Written Agendas? If you have a lot to cover and an ache to keep moving, certainly the written list allows the moderator to nudge the noise from topic to topic. However, often as not, one person’s passionate point of discussion falls outside another’s prefab categories. Speakers get inhibited. Vital news remains unspoken. An alternative mode practiced by Ken Parker, President of Atlantic Electric, has been to simply give each meeting member e.g. three items to raise. You may even set time limits, and allow double time for two members bringing up the same issue.
Of course, paper does not always translate into fact. Speakers get hit by trucks, they have to bail their children out of jail (a recent NJEF occurance,) or they just run late. Recently, at State Chamber of Commerce, 30 very high level business leaders sat waiting the appearence of the head of the Assembly’s Budget Committee. With absolute seamless continuity, Chamber moderator Mary Ellen Peppard transformed a lecture on state taxes, into a open forum on the same subject. The speaker - held up in an emergency meeting with the Governor - never showed. Yet, everyone learned and went away gratified. When the best laid plans go awry, it always helps to have a plan B to slip into place.
Even if you did not write an agenda, you will almost certainly want to send out some follow up notes. Nothing feels more like the futility of Sisyphus than a meeting that ends merely because the allotted time is up. Any leader who wants his team to ever return had better write up some conclusions which tell of decisions reached and detail all the progress made during this session. In this process of recording and showing people that their time was not wasted, the scribe himself may realize new things that were achieved during the session. * Where Oh Where? Attendees never really think about it, but when Biz4NJ founder Pravin Philip calls meetings, the locale is frequently varied and the atmosphere always effective. When a new or outside individual is coming in to confer with several members of the company team, they often gather at a restaurant, or some out-of-office place. Meeting in the office implies turf. Just as pet owners know you don’t initially introduce new animals into the old pet’s territory, so humans meeting for the first time feel more comfortable on neutral ground.
Within the office, such neutral ground that dispels rank, even between two individuals, may be found in a conference room as opposed to one’s office. For those quick and dirty problem-solving meetings, establishing one familiar room as a “situation room” can give the meeting a sense of purpose - and even supply the required urgency. One software engineer noted that when the issue to be addressed is more standard, he always snatches a few flowers or evergreen branches from outside the office to lay in amongst the foods. When things are dire, he places his son’s toy fire engine on the table. Such not-overly-subtle mood clues may or may not prove useful in getting the attendees into the right frame of mind. But many individuals have found that a few tokens (not overly cutsey) set about at the beginning of meeting hold an amazingly solidifying effect.
Finally, the one meeting type all too often neglected is the thank-you or celebratory meeting. Let it be a brief gathering in an office with the team leader sincerely giving his thanks publicly to all his team members, or a more hair-down party with glasses hoisted in grateful appreciation. Either way, don’t just end one project, launch another, and give your fellow workers a treadmill feel to their efforts. Nothing stimulates like sincere thanks - particularly from those who have worked to become a well knit crew. Biz