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Seven CEOs’ Secrets For Running More Productive Meetings

From VR tools to choosing the right snacks, here’s how these execs keep meetings quick and effective.

Seven CEOs’ Secrets For Running More Productive Meetings
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

How often do your meetings go on for way too long? Actually, don’t answer that–here’s a better question. How often do your meetings end exactly when they need to? Yeah, thought so.

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“Walking into any meeting, it’s important to remember that everyone in the room is sacrificing part of his or her day to be there,” says Shivani Siroya, CEO of fintech startup Tala. “And when you treat people’s time with the reverence it deserves, suddenly meetings become a force for good in your day, rather than the thing you had to do.”

It’s easier said than done. Many workplaces struggle to trim down their meeting time to the bare minimum that’s needed to be effective. But some execs have figured out some ways to do just that. Here’s how these seven CEOs keep their meetings short and sweet while making sure their team members–include remote ones–aren’t left in the dark.


Related: How These 12 Companies Make Meetings Memorable, Effective, And Short


Set The Agenda In Advance

Eugene Chung, CEO of the virtual reality (VR) company Penrose Studios, says “the best meetings are the ones where there was more preparation going into it than the length of the meeting itself.” This sounds obvious, but it’s often one of the first things to lapse when work gets busy. Some CEOs ask team members to do some pre-reading prior to a meeting; others outline some action items themselves, then share those around the day before.

For Marcela Sapone, CEO of the butler service Hello Alfred, agenda setting is much simpler. She just asks a single question at the start of every meeting: What is the goal? “You’ll also find that question at the top of all our documents, Slack channels, and calendar invites,” she says.

Too many meetings are spent plodding through slide decks that could just as easily be reviewed by employees individually beforehand–if at all, points out Michael Hansen, CEO of the edtech company Cengage. “The meeting should be a discussion on the topic, not a roll-through of slides,” he says. Hansen often gives employees a short reading assignment so they can skip the slide decks when it’s time to meet.

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On-demand child care startup Trusted creates a designated list for each meeting on its internal Trello board. (Many organizations, Fast Company included, use the productivity tool for task management.) Prior to the meeting, employees are then invited to add cards to the Trello list, which alerts CEO Anand Iyer to agenda items they want to address.

“The person adding the card is responsible for adding information about what they want to discuss, and how long they think the agenda item will run,” he says. “During the meeting, I usually play time cop. Cards that are added first on the list get addressed first.”


Related: How Trello Employees Use Trello


Warby Parker also shares meeting agendas with its teams ahead of time, but opts for Google Docs to do that instead of Trello. Employees are welcome to comment on anything in the agenda document–including people who may be less inclined to speak up during a meeting.

This approach isn’t just for big all-hands meetings, either. According to Morgan DeBaun, CEO of media startup Blavity, it works great for more intimate ones, too. DeBaun asks employees to send her an agenda in advance of even one-on-one meetings, giving her time to prepare to field simple questions beforehand. This way, says DeBaun, “We can spend time actually working through issues as opposed to them giving me a status update.”

Cap Your Meeting Time

“People have the tendency to schedule meetings for exactly one hour,” Hansen points out, even though “in reality, very few meetings actually need an hour.” He now limits meetings to 30-45 minutes, as do many managers at Cengage. “Meetings that were once 30 minutes are now 25; 60-minute meetings are now 45,” he says.

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Hansen isn’t the only CEO who’s started allocating less time for meetings overall. “By default, we are no longer scheduling meetings for more than 30 minutes and hoping that they end even earlier,” says Lance Neuhauser, CEO of adtech company 4C.

DeBaun follows much the same rule, albeit with a few exceptions. “If something is going to take longer than 30 minutes, then it’s really a working session or about relationship building,” she adds.

But sometimes, meeting at all just isn’t necessary, and the best course of action is to cancel altogether. This is where setting an agenda in advance comes in handy: Iyer says that “if there are zero cards” on Trusted’s Trello board prior to a meeting, it gets canceled.

Use Video To Meet With Far-Flung Employees . . .

In today’s workplaces, productive meetings also depend on the participation of remote employees–a necessity that too many crappy conference-call systems seem hellbent on frustrating. That’s why many CEOs agree that it’s crucial to invest in a decent platform for screen sharing and making video calls. Iyer uses Screenhero, a collaboration tool that integrates with Slack, to bring Trusted’s remote employees into a team meeting or conversation.

But even small gestures can help remote employees feel more present. Sapone’s team at Hello Alfred holds weekly all-hands meetings in Google Hangouts; the team working out of the company’s New York headquarters gathers around a big table in the kitchen where there’s a TV at the end of the room, and remote workers in San Francisco and Boston join the session through Hangouts. “We coordinate the snacks so we are having a similar experience, and swap the order of who presents first all the time to make it fair,” she says.

Chung uses (what else?) Penrose’s own VR collaboration tool, called Maestro, during meetings with remote employees. “Whenever our team wants to collaborate on things, we all hop into VR and collaborate inside of a fully virtual space,” he says.

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. . . But Don’t Use It As A Substitute For Face Time

Still, anyone who leads team meetings via video knows they can devolve into a maelstrom of technical issues. And even when tech meltdowns aren’t a factor, remote employees may opt out of participating in a call because they aren’t present and being held accountable.

“Have you tried to do a brainstorm via conference call?” Hansen says. “You’re guaranteed that people will put you on mute and multitask.” Since Cengage has a lot of remote employees, Hansen says it’s crucial to choose a meeting format–in-person, video, or conference call–depending on the topic of discussion. Neuhauser agrees it’s hard to host a robust brainstorm over the airwaves. “There’s nothing comparable to being in the room where it happens, so when important meetings and brainstorms take place we try to do them in-person,” he says.

Of course, that isn’t always possible. Because he knows some remote employees will inevitably miss out on certain meetings, Neuhauser regularly checks in with them individually “to make sure they have a chance to make their voices heard.” A number of companies host the real-life equivalent of an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, in an effort to be transparent and give all employees a chance to chat with company leaders.

Slack and other group chat platforms can also help democratize brainstorms and keep remote employees in the loop. Both Sapone and DeBaun cite Slack as a crucial tool for bridging the gap. “We use Slack for most team communication, and many of our content producers are remote, so we have a #collaborate channel where people are constantly asking for feedback or ideas,” DeBaun says. “Some of our best articles are from people asking questions in Slack and everyone pitching in.”

Sometimes, though, it’s worth going the extra mile to have all your employees in the room. Tala has offices in Santa Monica, Nairobi, and Manila; usually, the team holds video meetings, and employees alternate between staying up late and waking up early to account for the time difference. But as Siroya points out, real face time is still critical. “Earlier this year, we brought our entire Kenyan engineering team to Santa Monica for a month,” she says.

Seen one way, that’s one really long meeting. But it helps cut back on the need for countless, less effective, smaller ones.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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