A meeting can be boring. If it is, something’s wrong or maybe you shouldn’t be there. You can usually tell within the first thirty seconds whether a meeting will be successful or not. It all starts with the confidence and purpose shown by the chairperson the minute the meeting begins.
How you manage a meeting of colleagues, a social group, clients or whoever can be a good indication of your leadership abilities. Rather than being a mere facilitator working down a checklist of topics, your leadership skills are showcased if you can successfully facilitate motivation, information sharing, direction on key issues, mentoring and even some refereeing.
Whether you’re chairing a meeting, or participating in one, being ready and prepared are paramount. Too many people on too many occasions don’t prepare and just arrive, beaming and holding their coffee cup without a clue as to the content or purpose of the meeting. That said, many meetings are held for no real purpose or because they are simply regular dates in diaries. Many organisations now insist that all regular middle management meetings are held standing up – and doing that certainly curtails long and convoluted sessions.
If you’re chairing a meeting, it’s important to give people proper lead-time to ensure maximum attendance and, anyway, it’s a courtesy. Let them know at least two weeks in advance when possible and definitely longer if the meeting is high-profile or involves external personnel.
As chair, one way to ensure participation is to assign relevant roles, topics or updates that all or some participants can share with the group. With participants taking more of an active role, they are more likely to pay attention and feel empowered by the new responsibility. If you’re a participant, then clarify why you've been invited to the meeting. Are you there because of your job title (not the best reason), to offer specific input or to present an idea? If you're unsure, ask the chairperson in advance what s/he expects of your contribution. If you don't seem to have a clear role, but your attendance is mandatory, then perhaps create one. Ask the chairperson or other attendees if there's any beneficial advance research to undertake.
By the way, if you’re chairing, limiting the meeting attendees to those who most need to be there will save time. You may not be able to do that always (organisational politics are, alas, a barrier) but it’s worth trying. Then people who don’t need to be ‘in’, don't have to spend time in a non-essential meeting, and they can spend more time on essential work. Plus, it allows you to run more efficient and focused meetings with just the key stakeholders. However, there are people at all levels in most organisations who always want to be in every meeting because they feel that otherwise they will miss out and be regarded as unimportant.
Always have an agenda, start the meeting on time and end it when promised. Much over one hour and you'll start to lose people’s focus – unless the meeting is high-profile or at the Board level. Try not to have too many objectives otherwise, they will never all get addressed and that’s both bad management and frustrating for anyone who needs to deal with whatever is excluded.
Treat the meeting seriously, no matter whether you’re chairing it or a participant. There’s nothing wrong with occasional humour (provided everyone at the meeting can share and understand the joke), but there’s everything wrong with private asides which cause mirth from – or continuous fooling about by a few people. Similarly, don’t ever play down the meeting and diminish its importance. Don’t say, for example, “I know that it’s a beautiful Friday afternoon and that you’d all like to be by the beach, so let’s keep the meeting short.” This attitude applies to whatever role you have – respect people’s time and their investment in attending.
A successful meeting involves individuals with different strengths, talents and styles of contribution. Understanding the objectives helps to bring individuals and information together. So, at the beginning of any meeting, as a leader or chair, make the objective for coming together crystal clear. Usually, a few sentences rather than a lengthy speech will suffice. Try, “At the end of this meeting we will decide on x, y and z.” Or, “We are here to generate and evaluate options for a, b and c.” Add boundaries of time for each step in the process. Starting with the prime objectives (even if there are other sub-prime ones) greatly increase the likelihood of achieving them.
Confidence is important – again whether you are chairing or participating. If you’re chairing, thank people for attending, but don't let them feel they’re making a supreme sacrifice by being there. Begin the meeting by stating the key objectives and the desired duration of the meeting. Be confident in your initial greeting. Instead of saying, "Well, I don't know where everyone else is, but I suppose we’d better begin…”, try: "We've got lots of exciting issues to discuss today, so let's get started. Welcome – it's good to have you here." Make it clear that you disapprove of latecomers. It’s the height of discourtesy anyway to be late and, barring emergencies, it’s just unprofessional. Timings are key as is time-keeping. Some companies nowadays have a policy where, if a meeting is called for say 10:00 am, they lock the doors from the inside at 10:01. You only have to do that once to motivate punctuality.
Meetings should be productive. Many aren’t. So, it’s important that a chair ensures that focus is maintained and it’s the duty of a participant to ensure that he or she remains focused. It’s too easy for meetings to travel aimlessly down cul-de-sacs and channels that are of no relevance to the meeting’s agenda. Meetings are not, an opportunity for anyone just to have a rant on anything that’s uppermost on their minds. Respect is key as is the art of listening. Both, alas, are often in short supply. By the way, if you are asked a question, answer it properly. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know something, say so immediately and promise to provide the information. And make sure you do provide it, whether you’re the chair or a participant.
If it's your meeting, you deserve the participants' full attention. Should some people launch into side conversations, say something like, "Our time is valuable so let's all stay focused on the business at hand." Similarly, if a conversation between two participants gets adversarial and recriminations start to fly, suggest that the three of you meet privately to discuss the issues. Do your best to restore calm since the entire group can lose energy quickly in the face of irritability, upset, or anger. Energy loss is common and that bodes ill for everybody.
Similarly, people leaving the room to take or make phone calls or nipping out to see someone who’s waving madly through a window are unhelpful.
Verbal or overly zealous contributors can be managed by saying, "We all appreciate your enthusiasm. To do full justice to your ideas, I'd like to suggest you and I have a chat after the meeting." This is important because otherwise, a meeting can become a diatribe between two people only. That’s not healthy and, while it may provide good spectator sport, is not helpful in driving a successful meeting.
In a meeting, everyone's view counts, provided any contribution is relevant and on message. It’s helpful therefore to know who’s in the room and it could be that you don’t. If you’re in a meeting where you don't know all participants, before the meeting starts, make a point of walking around the table, introduce yourself, and ask about their role within the organisation or project. Always find out who's around the table and, if you’re chairing, make sure that everyone knows who everyone else is – and who you are.
As chair, it’s your job to ensure that minutes (highlights and decisions – taken by the meeting secretary) are taken and distributed to participants as soon as possible. If you are participating, it’s to your advantage to note down anything that either you need to act upon or that requires thought after the meeting.
As chair and at the meeting’s end, be sure to thank everyone for their time and contribution. As a participant don’t just walk off or immediately talk into your phone to prove how important you are. Be polite to other participants and also make a point of thanking the chair.
No one likes meetings for the sake of meetings. They disrupt workflow and leave you, if you’re a participant, with the feeling that the organiser or chairperson doesn't appreciate your time. But if you consider that every meeting is actionable and has clear outcomes, then make it your job to ensure that you leave knowing what they are. Whatever your role.
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