How to Control Highly Charged Meetings

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

We all love to dump on meetings, and understandably so. Sure, they suck, but let's face it; it's hard to do anything spectacular flying solo, and if you put a bunch of people in a room together, well, then you've got a meeting. The truth is that great things can happen in meetings, if the person running the show knows what he's doing.

Unfortunately, most managers are so inept at conducting effective meetings you'd think it's rocket science or a rare genetic trait. Well, I know a fair amount about the subject, having run hundreds of management and executive level meetings. And I'm here to tell you that you can become adept at running effective, productive meetings. No kidding.

But as we discussed in How to Lead Under Fire, it's easy to lose control of the room. So here are some well-tested tips that will help you keep a group of highly intelligent and opinionated professionals on track when they're all trying to fly off in different directions.
How to Control Highly Charged Meetings

  1. The setup. Early on, explain in no uncertain terms what you expect from those in the room and, this is important, what you don't expect from them. Be specific. For example, "we're going to determine our product's value proposition to customers," but "we're not going to sit here and wordsmith it to death; we'll do that offline."
  2. Be the alpha person. From the start, your manner, level of confidence, eye contact, and body language need to project and reinforce who's in charge. I don't care if the CEO's in the room; it's your meeting. You can be respectful and still be the alpha person. You can even tell them in the setup that your job is to accomplish xyz today and, come hell or high water, that's what you're going to do. Just don't overplay it.
  3. Channel useful debate. There will inevitably be heated debate where the meeting starts to get out of control. That's fine, as long as you bring it back. First you have to get everyone's attention with something like "Folks, I have to jump in here --," and once all eyes are on you, then perhaps you summarize the two sides and start to bring everyone to consensus. Then you're back in control.
  4. Table useless debate. Same as above, except once you have everyone's attention, tell them they'll have to take it offline or table it for a separate meeting or however you want to do it, then just continue with the agenda -- with authority. Be honest, "it's time to move on and there's a lot to cover --" Be tough. Remember, it's your meeting; you get to override.
  5. Improvise. Sometimes meetings get out of control because you screwed up and executives can sense loss of control like a shark with blood in the water. Well, before they take over the meeting, you have to improvise, and that can only come from experience. As I said in a prior post, thinking on your feet is equal parts knowledge, experience, preparation, self confidence, and maintaining a sense of humor.
That's about all I can tell you. That, and learn from your mistakes and don't make them twice. Learning to control meetings is definitely a trial and error process. Be patient, you'll improve over time.

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