There are lots of necessary evils at work, with meetings at the top of most people’s lists. And of all of them, perhaps the greatest displeasure is reserved for the one you all suffer through together: the weekly staff meeting. Since it’s the only time your whole team meets as one on a regular basis, you’d think it would be really valuable. Instead, it’s a time-suck, and afterward people trudge back to their desks thinking, “Did I really need to be there for that?”
Why is it so damn hard to make weekly meetings consistently productive? My interest in this this question stems from my own anxiety about my staff meetings. To benchmark myself over the years, I’ve interviewed over a dozen fellow CEOs on the topic. As it turns out, virtually none of them feel great about their staff meetings, and their approaches vary quite a bit.
But there are patterns. Here are three that I’ve picked up and adapted along the way to make my own weekly meetings less painful and more productive.
You’ve got limited time and unlimited topics, so people’s feelings probably aren’t your first agenda item. But they should be, quite literally. Like it or not, each person brings their own personal emotional state to the table, so the group dynamic can shift from week to week as a result. Humans don’t check their emotions at the door–instead, emotions drive our behavior. Although western work culture often expects a robotic consistency to the way we work, even the most seasoned executive feels anger, joy, and anxiety.
To turn our emotional state into an asset, we begin each staff meeting with a simple check-in: How are you feeling? Going around the room, we share–briefly–what’s going on for us in that moment. This only takes a few minutes. Sometimes, we learn that one of us is angry after finishing a really difficult meeting. Other times, one of us is excited about a big win. Together, the group acknowledges and embraces the mood. It sets a tone of openness and trust that leads to more productive conflict during the meeting.
Weekly meetings aren’t forums for long-term strategic discussions. Those tend to require deep preparation, last longer than a weekly meeting allows, and crowd out the crucial operational discussions that drive performance week to week. Tactical execution is very important, and in a healthy organization, weekly staff meetings help keep that execution coordinated. Staff meetings are unproductive for trying to do too much, not too little.
At Inkling, we follow a modified version of the guidance outlined in Death by Meetings, Patrick Lencioni’s fantastic resource on the topic. Instead of discussing strategy at our weekly meetings, we allocate four contiguous hours each month for those discussions, and an entire day once per quarter. We do deeper preparation work for those sessions.
Our weekly staff meetings, on the other hand, focus on in-the-moment coordination. We deal with operational stuff and review the key performance indicators: pipeline growth, sales performance, R&D progress, and the like. Our less frequent strategy meetings tackle questions of market alignment, company culture, and long-range planning. Those topics don’t need weekly focus and attention. Tactical execution does.
By default, teams follow agendas that have been set a day or two in advance by leaders. But for weekly meetings, this is folly. By gathering items a day in advance, at least 20% of the week has elapsed between the time when you set the agenda and when you meet!
Instead, we identify items right at the beginning of our weekly meeting and prioritize them on the spot–this way we can focus on areas of disagreement or resource contention. The more painful, the more important. When debates start spinning into strategic, long-term conversations, we park them and move them over to a strategy meeting. (If they’re urgent, we set aside separate time sooner.) Debates and discussion stay focused on what needs to get done this week. That keeps the group operationally focused, and frees everyone to go execute independently for the rest of the week.
These three tips won’t work if you can’t stick with them consistently, though. To stay on track, we use the same printed sheet of paper each week to walks us through our emotional check-in, our updates, our KPIs, our agenda suggestions, and the decisions we’ve made that need to be communicated. It’s old-school, but it keeps us honest, and the hard-copy approach minimizes distractions from laptops and phones. The flow of our meeting is very consistent week to week.
Every team finds a unique rhythm–there’s no right answer–but finding one that works and sticking with it over time is critical. With a little consistency, people are trained to contribute in the right ways each week, instead of just sitting there passively until it’s over. Embracing the emotion in the room can help unlock vulnerability and trust, staying tactical helps you focus on operational coordination, and dealing with in-the-moment needs ensures your agenda is fresh.
But without a rhythm like this, and if you mix up strategic and tactical conversations, your teams won’t accomplish either very effectively. A dysfunctional leadership team breeds lackluster execution. Thankfully for your entire company, the opposite is also true.