9 Hardcore Steps to Leading Incredibly Effective Meetings

Last Updated Sep 26, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

I hated meetings when I worked for big companies. Most meetings -- even the ones you lead -- are a waste of time; that is, unless you take a different approach.

Here are nine unconventional but very effective steps to leading effective meetings. Good employees will love the difference.

  1. Never set a regular schedule. Consistency breeds complacency. After a while the "Monday meeting" becomes just another entry on a calendar, and attendees stop preparing and quit caring. If at all possible, set a different date and time even for consistently held per-time-period meetings. If you meet weekly, alternate days of the week, mornings and afternoons, and even go so far as to set unusual times (like really early or really late in the day.) The more "unusual" you can make the meeting, the more likely your team is to see the meeting as notable and worth preparing for. And speaking of preparation...
  2. Publish an agenda that only lists action items. Your agenda should never include the words "information," "recap," "review," or "discussion." In most cases the agenda can be one or two sentences, like, "Determine the product launch date," or, "Select software developer for database redesign." The goal of a good meeting is to decide or do something. "Review" is irrelevant because you should...
  3. Never use the meeting to "share information." Information should be shared before the meeting. If I need to make a decision during a meeting, shouldn't I have the information I need to make that decision ahead of time? Send documents, reports, etc. to participants in advance. Using meetings as a way to share information is unproductive, a waste of time and, well, lazy. If anyone in a meeting says, "I'm just thinking out loud..." then you haven't done your job -- their thoughts should already be together.
  4. Never meet primarily to promote "team cohesion." Team members do need to work well together. But we don't need to hang out together in order to become a unit. Great business relationships are created when people can count on each other to do their part, meet commitments, get things done... in short, produce tangible outcomes. Otherwise the relationship is more interpersonal than productive.
  5. Allow digression. Tangents can be surprisingly useful, but it's your job to decide whether to let a discussion go or cut it off. Here's a simple guide: If a discussion involves ideas, solutions, or suggestions, let it run. If a discussion involves complaining or finger-pointing -- without very quickly shifting to how a problem can be eliminated -- cut it off. Be professional, but don't worry too much about hurt feelings. Good employees appreciate a controlled, on-point, productive meeting, and poor employees quickly learn that whining isn't welcome.
  6. Clearly identify decisions, takeaways, and action steps. Every meeting should result in tangible outcomes. Make sure everyone knows what was decided and what will be done -- otherwise, all you did was talk. A discussion is never an outcome.
  7. Create accountability. Who is responsible for which actions? Make sure everyone knows. Never let ownership be fuzzy or unclear; an action item without a clear owner is an instant orphan.
  8. Publish a meeting recap, but only include action items. State what was decided, what will be done, who will do it -- and nothing else. Never include statements like, "Discussed possibility of re-aligning department responsibilities." If all you did was discuss realignment: 1) Shame on you; why didn't you make a decision? and 2) Including "discussion" in a recap implies that discussions without decisions are worthwhile. Don't give general discussions credibility by including them in the recap; team members might start to think general discussions do have value.
  9. Conduct initial follow-up offline. Establishing accountability places responsibility on individuals, not necessarily the team as a whole. If you need a follow-up meeting, fine -- but do so after progress has been made and reported on offline. As the leader, you should follow up individually, and team members should send progress emails to the team. Only meet when additional decisions need to be made. Never meet just to share updates that could have been shared offline.
Note: Occasionally you may hold a meeting to discuss an idea or potential initiative because group input is important. Fine. The action item can be to brainstorm and then narrow down possibilities, to decide whether to investigate further... you should still plan to decide something. Then recap what you decide, even if all you determined was that one of three approaches makes sense and specific team members will flesh out and build a business case for each.

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Photo courtesy flickr user toffeehoff, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.