Coaching and Mentoring : 8 Questions to Guarantee Meeting Productivity

Willy Steiner is the President of Executive Coaching Concepts, an executive coaching services firm dedicated to assisting senior executives in taking their individual and organizational performance “TO THE NEXT LEVEL”.
He has provided valuable counsel and executive coaching in Chicago to senior executives throughout his career. 

Many of the senior leaders that I serve consistently complain about the volume of meetings they are asked to attend on a regular basis. For many a day can be consumed by one meeting after the other so that there is actually very little time for their real work. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work that goes on in meetings and they do have the potential to be very valuable sources for organizational accomplishment. I often observe my clients in meeting settings to provide them some feedback on their leadership and communication styles. When I broaden my focus to what is actually going on with most participants, here are a few general observations:

  • In many status meetings people do not pay attention to what’s going on unless they are speaking or preparing to speak.
  • It is not uncommon to see other members of a management team answering email or texts on either their laptop, tablet or phone while others are speaking;
  • Meetings are usually scheduled in one hour increments one right after the other. When do people have time to go to the bathroom, check their phone for calls or email without impacting the next meeting they are attending?
  • One aspect of organizational culture has to do with the nature of what is late. It’s not unusual for people to show up anywhere from 5 to 15 to 20 minutes late. Either everyone else’s time is wasted by getting them up to speed or the people that are late just never really know what happened.
  • If there are 10 people in a meeting and you asked all 10 what was accomplished in that meeting, how many different answers do you feel you would hear.

Now I recognize that there are some people who are very skilled at the art of meeting management. People who have had executive coaching, been trained in project management or Six Sigma Total Quality systems realize that effective meeting management is a critical part of getting the work done well and efficiently. Unfortunately those skills are often not broadly used or accepted outside of those disciplines.

I have a leadership coaching program for very senior individual contributors in corporations called the Leadership Learning Lab. Participants work with me individually and as a team over a six month period of time. Last year I surveyed the 10 members of a Leadership Learning Lab team last year about their meeting management experience.  These individuals were very senior technical leaders and most had masters degrees from some of the better technical universities in the country. These were highly influential individuals in not only their organization but also within their industry. In our very first meeting after we had been together only about three hours, several key issues bubbled up in their general level of frustration was very high. A key concern they had was that their days were consumed by one meeting after the other and their time for planning, preparation, relationship building and just plain reflection was only available to them after hours. They were frustrated and burned out.  This was an organizational norm they felt powerless to challenge. The anger and frustration they exhibited early in our work together reflected that.

We were able to get that meeting back on track and on my next visit I asked each of the 10 members of the learning lab to complete a short survey about their meeting management experience in their company.  Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • People average 6.5 meetings a day and each meeting was about 50 minutes long
  • 25% of meetings had no visible or appointed leader and 40% had no clear purpose, much less an agenda
  • 60% of the time the right amount of time was not allocated to the most important topics
  • Next steps were clearly articulated based on the discussion only 34% of the time
  • When asked how much more productive they individually could be if meetings were run better, the answer was 31% more productive. They were limited to no more than 50%. This assumed that the other 50% of meeting time was reasonably productive.

As I mentioned before, each of these participants were highly skilled, well educated and very influential in their organization. Each had a compensation package of salary, bonus, long-term incentives and benefits that exceeded well over $200,000 per year, and that is a somewhat conservative figure. If you considered that a potentially 31% improvement in productivity was possible just for these 10 technical leaders, that could mean that their organization would reap a benefit of over $600,000 per year if meetings were improved. And that is only for 10 people out of over 50,000

I am sure that each of you who are reading this could supply your own horror stories about meetings that were poorly run, ineffective and a complete waste of time. The reality is that the way organizations come to cope with these very weak standards for meeting effectiveness is a reflection of organizational culture. And even very healthy organizations who are very proud of their culture will tolerate poor behavior in meetings. The reasons for that are rather complex, so let’s just zero in on a few key meeting management expectations that you should insist upon for any meeting that you either lead or can influence.

Key questions for any meeting:

  1. WHO is responsible for the effectiveness of this meeting?
  2. WHY are we here?
  3. WHAT do we need to accomplish in the time we have?
  4. WHAT would a good outcome look like?
  5. HOW will we keep ourselves on task? HOW do we avoid tangents and distractions?
  6. Are we clear about WHO does WHAT next?
  7. WHERE can we find the summary of this meeting?
  8. WHEN do we need to follow up? Or do we?

I would also suggest that you institute 25 minute and 50 minute long meetings and have someone call out when there are 10 and 5 minutes left to go in each meeting to ensure prompt wrap up times.  It is my firm belief that if the leader of any meeting stays true to ensuring that these questions – the who, what, why, where, when and how - of meeting management, you will greatly increase the productivity and satisfaction of each member of the team.

Ask yourself:

  • If I’m frustrated enough about all the time I waste in meetings, am I willing to do something about it?
  • Are you worried about what others would say if you instituted these modest changes in the meetings that you run or lead?
  • If you’re frustrated and not worried about what others might say, why don’t you start tomorrow?

I look forward to your comments.

Copyright 2014 Willy Steiner

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