The Meeting I Never Miss

There are meetings that defy work, and meetings that define how you work. From Hollywood to Madison Avenue, we meet the people whose meetings make all the difference.

Business is meetings. The only thing businesspeople do more often than go to meetings is complain about going to meetings. But like it or not, meetings are more important than ever. Meetings are the workplace equivalent of 500 channel programming - low on content, high on noise. Today, the question is not "To meet or not to meet?" but, "Which meeting can I not afford to miss?" Increasingly, The Meeting I Never Miss (MINM) is a cultural event — less a scheduled obligation than a tribal experience. It's where the "loop" begins and ends.

To find out what separates a MINM from a JAM (Just Another Meeting), Fast Company enlisted five MINM veterans, from advertising legend Laurel Cutler to 28-year-old Internet wunderkind Jerry Yang, to help demonstrate the difference.

Who: Nina Jacobson
Company: DreamWorks SKG
Title: No titles at DreamWorks
MINM: The Pitch Meeting (AKA The Dog and Pony Show)
The Players: Jacobson, a writer, an agent or producer, a junior executive
(the scribe)
Frequency: Daily
Purpose: To sell me an idea.
Why I Never Miss It: Because hope springs eternal.

As the key gatekeeper of movie ideas for Steven Spielberg's fledgling megastudio, Nina Jacobson, 31, makes multimillion-dollar bets on a regular basis. The pitch meeting is a make-or-break proposition for writers, producers, and agents alike. For Jacobson, who snagged the obscure story that became the critical hit 12 Monkeys while a senior VP at Universal, it's the difference between the next "Schindler's List" and "Bonfire of the Vanities."

Ground Rules

We start with the obligatory chat about the weather, traffic, sports or politics. Then somebody concludes the chitchat (usually me) and the writer does his or her schpiel. The 'dog and pony.' The desired outcome is for me to love the story and want to buy it. But a big part of my job is to pass. I leap only once every six to eight weeks.

Rites & Rituals

Setting: A semi-circle of comfortable overstuffed chairs in a corner of Jacobson's Santa Fe-style office.

Power Seat: I never sit behind my desk, and I always make sure the writer can't see my mesmerizing psychedelic screensaver, which makes them lose their train of thought — the last thing I want.

Dress Code: It's a free-for-all, though I often still wear suits. Writers never wear suits. In fact, if you see a writer in a suit you should get worried immediately. Producers, I find, like sweaters. The agent is wearing a powersuit back in his office waiting for me to pass.

Talking Stick

The writer has the floor, but to show that I'm paying attention, I interrupt with questions during the pitch. If I know I'm going to pass I usually lay the groundwork by bringing up my concerns. If you hear me say, "It's an interesting story but my concern is ... " it's a good indication that you're toast.

Energy Source

My assistant makes great cappuccino. Of course Diet Coke and bottled water. If I'm hungry I pass out BioZone bars.

Audio/Visual:

Every now and again I'll whip out my Newton to make notes.

Postgame

In the best case scenario I flip my nuts for the pitch and become completely obsessed with buying it. This just happened. I caught Steven [Spielberg] outside on his golf cart right after the meeting and he sparked to the idea.

Who: Laurel Cutler lcutler@truenorth.com
Company: FCB/Leber Katz Partners
Title: Vice Chairman
MINM: The Hannaford Brothers board meeting
The Players: Thirteen directors, top management team, general counsel (scribe)
Frequency: Bimonthly
Purpose: To guide the company to success and profit
Why I Never Miss It: The Mind Rub — the quality of the other minds is amazing.

Laurel Cutler's feelings on meetings are clear: "I never met a meeting I didn't dislike." Yet she wouldn't dream of skipping the meeting of the directors of the $2.6 billion Portland, Maine-based Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain. In fact, Cutler supplements her day job as a director of Foote, Cone & Belding Communications, the largest advertising agency in the United States, with posts on three other public and several nonprofit boards. Why? Because "understanding another business, another culture, and another set of problems is incredibly valuable in any leadership position."

Ground Rules

Hannaford has a split management. Management is supposed to do and the board is supposed to advise. Everyone does their homework beforehand, and the chairman runs the meetings. Any gung-ho director who starts saying how he would run the company is severely out of line.

Rites & Rituals

Setting: Le Meridien Hotel in Boston.

Power Seat: Directors sit closest to the CEO and chairman.

Dress Code: Formal.

Talking Stick

Protocols are important because you have very busy people who need to get in and out of a place very quickly - we raise our hands and wait to be recognized. Yet it's a very feisty board and we don't feel constrained. We say what we have to say.

Audio/Visual

Pen and paper. Passionate listening takes 100% of your attention.

Energy Source:

Lobster is a favorite.

Who: Jerry Yang
Company: Yahoo! http://www.yahoo.com
Title: Cofounder and Chief Yahoo
MINM: Yahoo!'s Board meeting
The Players: Founders, CEO, senior managers, directors, and corporate counsel (scribe)
Frequency: Monthly
Purpose: To plan the company's future strategy and find something to get paranoid about.
Why I Never Miss It: It's the meeting that keeps the picture clear. It's like when the 49ers win a game — they spend ten minutes talking about how great the win was and then it's on to next week.

The California-casual board meetings of the $5.5 million search
engine leader that set off the Internet IPO explosion in early 1996 are a world apart from Hannaford's formal gatherings. Yet the critical success factor is the same: the Mind Rub. In Yahoo!'s case, it's an opportunity for cofounders Jerry Yang, 28, and David Filo, 30, to mix ideas and talk technology with industry veterans like Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz; Eric Hippeau, chairman of Ziff-Davis; and Arthur Kern, CEO of American Media - all Yahoo! directors.

Ground Rules

Our CEO runs and controls the pace of the meeting. We usually try to limit discussion to three or four major issues. This board does not micromanage. They make general recommendations and strategic observations.

Rites & Rituals

Setting: Yahoo! main conference room.

Dress Code: None.

Talking Stick

It's an informal discussion. The key is to play as a team. This was critical with the IPO process, which we did in two months - really fast for any company. The whole board worked together to make some really important decisions.

Audio/Visual

We're surprisingly low-tech in regard to meetings. We all bring our PDAs (and board members bring cell-phones) but we don't really open them. It's all about trying to leave all distractions at the door.

Energy Source:

Lots of caffeine and pizza.

Who: Dr. Cheryl L. Shavers, Cheryl_Shavers@ccm.sc.intel.com
Company: Intel http://www.intel.com
Title: General Manager, Advanced Technology Operation
MINM: Strategic Long Range Planning Meeting — AKA SLURP
The Players: Intel's top management team
Frequency: Annual
Purpose: To roll out long range plans (5 to10 years) and make sure the departments are synched up with company objectives.
Why I Never Miss It: It lets you know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, or if you're even in the tunnel. If you want to know where the company is going, you go. If you want to be in on the action, you go.

True to Intel's reputation for aggressive implementation, rather than waste time on polite presentations at its annual strategy meeting, the top team launches immediately into hardheaded debate about the future of fast-evolving computer processor technology. "It leaves all the rocks uncovered," says Cheryl Shavers. A recent inductee into Women in Technology International's (WITI) Hall of Fame, Shavers is responsible for manufacturing infrastructure and strategic alliances at the chip maker.

Ground Rules

The senior executive vice president runs the meeting and various department heads give presentations. Getting on the agenda is hitting the big time - it means that what your division is working on is of strategic importance to the company.

Rites & Rituals

Setting: A small auditorium with theaterlike seating.

Power Seat: The first few rows.

Dress Code: Business casual.

Talking Stick

We have a process called "constructive confrontation." If you're giving a presentation, anything you say can be challenged by anyone, regardless of your position in the company. At other planning meetings I've attended with other companies, the senior people say, "Here's where we're going, here's what you need to know, goodbye." Here, it's "This is where we're going," and everyone in the room jumps up and says, "Why does that make sense?" It can be a feeding frenzy at times.

Audio/Visual:

Technology is key, primarily teleconferencing, because we're in a virtual community with many sites all over the world. I bring a laptop to take notes.

Who: Andy Rifkin, rifkinan@mattel.com
Company: Mattel
Title: Vice President, Technology and Design for Mattel Media
MINM: Brainstorming Session
The Players: Technographer/facilitator, executives, producers
Frequency: Monthly
Purpose: To come up with new products that take advantage of traditional play-patterns.
Why I Never Miss It: It's the source of fresh thinking.

Idea generation is a daily imperative for Andy Rifkin's group at $3.5 billion toymaker Mattel. Its mandate? To innovate a new class of technology toys and move classics like Barbie into the multimedia future. The group has turned brainstorming into a productive art to the tune of 12 new products (including the bestselling Barbie clothes-design software) last year alone.

Ground Rules

Every meeting has a single-theme agenda and is run by a facilitator who is never the person who called the meeting. The key is to have fun. We laugh constantly; everyone wants to be there.

Rites & Rituals

Setting: A collaborative environment equipped with computers and a projection system, usually off-site in a comfortable hotel room with couches.

Power Seat: We frequently make people change where they sit.

Dress Code: Casual.

Talking Stick

Everybody gets a chance to speak, but only one person speaks at a time. Nobody criticizes another person's concept. Nobody is allowed to take notes. Instead a technographer stands in the front of the room with a PC; he uses a projector with MS Word outliner to type in the main concepts as we talk. That person also acts as a facilitator: if he thinks that someone is dominating the floor then he will call them out and try to bring them home. When we feel like we're being unproductive, we play a quick game to breathe some life into the meeting.

Audio/Visual

Computer technography — this allows everyone to be creative and contribute instead of taking in-depth notes. It also brings consensus because if anybody disagrees with what's on the wall, we edit it until everyone agrees.

Energy Source

Coffee, fruit, bagels. Soda and cookies in the afternoon.

Postgame

We put together a list of who's going to do what and by when before the meeting breaks up; so everyone goes off to work on their assignments.

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