Monday morning. Your in-tray is jammed. It’s standing room only in your email inbox. You’re already five minutes late for your 9.30 meeting and you have the CEO’s secretary on the line asking you to attend a lunch meeting today! At the same time, one of your team is tapping you on the shoulder anxiously demanding a moment of your time. Time?
Why have this meeting anyway?
Bernard Langley, a manager in a west-end entertainment company, says meetings are a pain. ‘Lets face it. Attending meetings is an inevitable part of every manager’s role,’ he says. ‘However, when it comes to the stage where your daily life is taken up with meetings of one sort or another, it’s time to prioritize.’ Clever managers artfully dodge or manipulate meetings. You too can learn the mechanics of minimizing meeting madness – and make successes of those meetings you do attend.
You’re juggling ten tasks an hour. You have deadlines to meet and can’t entertain the prospect of attending yet another irrelevant meeting. Before you panic, take a few moments to ask yourself a few questions:
- Who called the meeting? When did they call it?
- What’s on the agenda? What’s it actually about?
- Is it really necessary for me to attend?
- Who is running the meeting? Is anyone?
- Who are the other attendees?
- Can I delegate someone else to go?
It may be that you discover it’s not really necessary for you to attend. Bernard says, ‘Someone may just have mentioned your name in passing conversation. People often rush to include anyone who might have a passing interest in the topic under discussion and it ends up being crammed.’ Could you get by on being sent the minutes?
Alternatively, your investigation may pay off. It could be a bonus that you took the time to find out more, because an agreement you’ve been pushing for is finally going to be discussed – and this is your last chance to get your word in.
‘If it’s not vital you yourself attend, but there must be a presence from your department, it’s a good chance to delegate,’ says Bernard Langley, ‘In fact, junior members of staff often quite like the idea of attending meetings, as it gives them the opportunity to network or get noticed by other managers.’ So, sending your apologies and sending your minions – who have not yet acquired meeting fatigue – can be an effective meeting avoidance ploy.
If your presence is a must, try charm. How about putting your particular topic of interest on the top of the agenda – because you ‘have to dash to another meeting’.
On the other hand, the management just wants you to be there. ‘If management value your input, it can be flattering,’ says Bernard. ‘Your wisdom and experience may simply be sought. In which case, drop everything!’ And if, ultimately, you’re required to attend, and can’t get out of it, delegate some of your other tasks and allow extra time.
Making meetings successful
Timewasters are a manager’s worst nightmare, according to a survey distributed to managers within the business and finance sector. Louis Pearson, a finance director downtown says, ‘I can’t tolerate people who set up a meeting to discuss when to set up another meeting!’ 86% of the people surveyed said their main frustration during meetings was lack of direction; whereas the remainder said they could not tolerate lack of preparation (6%), lateness or absenteeism (5%) and unfulfilled actions (3%).
One of the keys to managing meetings successfully is the knowledge that there are two main objectives to meet – achievement of business and satisfaction amongst attendees.
Your agenda is simply a list of what is to be dealt with during the meeting, i.e. where and when the meeting is taking place, the attendees’ names and items to be discussed. ‘It’s essential to distribute the agenda to all attendees prior to the meeting,’ says Bernard Langley, ‘so that they have time to prepare. Not everyone will, but at least they have been given the chance.’ If you can influence the agenda, it’s a good idea to say how long the meeting will last, even how long to allow for each point to be discussed. This may provide useful ammunition against excessive verbosity!
Think: does the agenda have a purpose? Think about what you want to achieve, and select the corresponding key points.
- Introduce each attendee at the meeting if appropriate
- State the main objective of the meeting
- Suggest a realistic time to allow, if this has not been previously specified
- Briefly talk through each item on the agenda, giving clear indications of the purpose of each item
- Nominate someone to write the minutes
- Control the situation – use allies and enemies to bounce ideas off of each other and use them to your advantage; time is precious – control it!
- Encourage contribution from other members of the group – put them on the spot
- Listen to all viewpoints – use body language to be seen that you are listening and understanding
- Don’t be dismissive of others’ views; a ‘superior’ approach will alienate you from potential supporters of your later ideas
- Summarise – periodically highlight key points and review progress
- Don’t go off on tangents – a firm ‘let’s make a decision’ can snap people back from meandering around the main issues
Whether or not you are chairing the meeting, you can use subtle techniques to generate personal satisfaction and reach your goals. If your aim is to convert the meeting’s view to match your own, you need to have control of the facts and figures so that, if you are challenged on them, you can exercise your knowledge and authority. ‘If you are the organiser, you can set the agenda and have control of the topics of discussion and their duration. This also gives you the opportunity to place the main topics of information at the top of the agenda as high up as possible. Or perhaps just one part of the meeting is relevant – if so, attend just for that.’
During the meeting, refer regularly to time passing to show its importance. ‘Let’s wrap this up in ten minutes.’ ‘Moving on?’ ‘We now have half an hour to get through about an hour’s worth of discussion.’ If your timescales are tight, brief a co-operative colleague to come in with an important message for you at an agreed time. This will give you the opportunity to get out.
- Avoid meetings if at all possible or restrict them if you can
- Only agree to a meeting if the aim and purpose has been set and communicated
- Assert yourself; ask whoever invites or tells you to clarify the meeting’s purpose; people should know your time is precious
- If you are chairing a meeting, take control – encourage constructive dialogue and swift decision-making
- Give your viewpoint; there’s no point going to a meeting and saying nothing
- If you cannot see the purpose or direction of the meeting during the meeting itself, say so; bring everyone back to reason
- Manipulate the meeting to achieve your aims if you can
Any other business…
It seems the key to not getting into a state about meetings is to prioritize. When invited to a meeting that sounds vague, ask questions to find out its purpose and relevance to you. If you are chairing the meeting, preparation is the key. Set your own standards by ensuring that your attendees are well informed of the particulars prior to the meeting. This will give you the controlling element from the start. As Bernard Langley, concludes, ‘Meetings are a must – but they needn’t control your working day.’