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Leadership: Are You in Meeting Hell?

Have you been in meeting hell lately? I love observing my clients in meetings. Way too often I see the glaze of boredom come over their eyes, or one of puzzlement as they sit through a meeting they have absolutely no idea why they’re at in the first place. That’s a great indication of how quickly a group moves forward …or not. An organization that can’t get their meetings right won’t have a decision-making body they need either in order to get the job done.

Have you been in meeting hell lately? I love observing my clients in meetings. Way too often I see the glaze of boredom come over their eyes, or one of puzzlement as they sit through a meeting they have absolutely no idea why they’re at in the first place. That’s a great indication of how quickly a group moves forward …or not. An organization that can’t get their meetings right won’t have a decision-making body they need either in order to get the job done. With the wrong people at the table and lack of direction within the meetings themselves, there is a fundamental roadblock to moving forward.

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When I poll staff in organizations at all levels and ask them what their biggest time waster is, the answer is always “meetings”. Not sometimes. Always. We look at the dynamics of the meetings, the players, the content and how often (way too often) there is no agenda whatsoever, so the attendees even know what information or documents to bring to the table. When I even bring up this topic my clients will often throw their hands up in the air and say “I don’t even know where to start!” Their days are spoken for before they walk through the door and yet they’re still expected to get all their work done. When? After hours? Does leadership of any organization think this will be sustainable and actually think they’ll retain their staff? Obviously the answer must be yes because this is the status quo of way too many organizations. Or is the answer yes?

I believe this happens because leaders aren’t paying attention and aren’t informed as to the time pressures that exist for their staff. More and more, priorities are heaped onto groups but the question “What can I drop so I can get this done?” is rarely asked. The subject of time, meeting hell etc must be discussed. It won’t go away and in the days of conference call meetings and multiple time zones for global organizations, the pressures are even tighter.

Years ago, when I first started with a client and had our initial fact-finding conversation he lamented to me that he had no time to get his work done so went home at the end of each day with the feeling that he hadn’t accomplished much of anything. The frustration was mounting and he needed to figure out if he needed more staff or had to re-group and re-think. He needed to know the core dynamics of what was going on as this wasn’t sustainable.

I asked his assistant to give me a two month forecast of his meetings only, not his work load. I wanted to see all meetings he had to lead, bilateral meetings with staff, those he absolutely had to attend and those he chose to attend because the subject matter was of great interest to him. I took it back to my office and analyzed what she had given me. This was strictly what was in place for regularly scheduled meetings, no hot issues or fires. When I plugged it into a detailed scheduler the picture that came out was grim.

I walked into his office first thing in the morning and said “OK, here’s the reality of the situation. You have an hour and a half free time” to which he replied “Well that’s not too bad. It’s not as bad as I thought it was”. And then I continued “….a week, in ten minute increments!”

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He was flabbergasted. This was his reality check. We now had a starting point, figuring out when and how to say “No.” How is anyone supposed to get anything done in those circumstances? It was time to figure out what needed to happen, what he didn’t have to go to, what he wanted to play at and who could attend in his place on a regular basis at right level who could provide continuity to the group and be high enough up to make relevant decisions. Then we could work with work load, delegation issues etc. One can’t achieve any level of excellence if they’re always playing catch-up.

So what’s the answer?

Meetings really can be the best use of time if handled wisely. Some tips to think about:

Ask yourself, do you have to be at this meeting? And if so, do you have to stay for the entire meeting? Often you can ask the Chair to cover your subject at the beginning so you can share the information you need to share and if no decision is required and the rest of the meeting isn’t relevant, gracefully leave after your segment is over.

Rotate the Chairs of the meeting. Chairing a meeting isn’t easy. Once you sit in that seat you’ll realize just how difficult reigning people in and keeping to topic can be! You’ll also be more respectful of others when it’s their turn to Chair.

Have a reality checker and rotate that position as well. A reality checker has a dual role in the meeting: The first role to be a time watcher with regards to divvying up time to cover all points of the agenda. If there’s a hot issue that needs more time, the time checker takes a moment to call a vote around the table as to whether to park it for another meeting or for the group to determine what will be dropped to cover the issue. That other topic will be tabled for another meeting. Second role is to stop now and then and ask the group whether or not the meeting itself is meeting their expectations with regards to any decisions or information they need to move forward. If the answer is no, the focus has to change to meet those needs and expectations of outcome.

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Most important, work with leadership to set the rules of the meeting game and constantly revisit, rethink and revamp as needs change. If you set the meeting ground rules together with your staff and consistently do a reality check as to needs and results of meetings, you’ll see how your respect quotient will increase exponentially.

It’s not about managing time. It’s about how you respect you and others in relation to time.

Donna Karlin • Executive and Political Shadow Coach™ • Ottawa, Canada • •www.abetterperspective.com

About the author

Donna Karlin CEC, Diplomate IABMCP and founder and principal of A Better Perspective® & The School of Shadow Coaching, has pioneered the specialized practice of Shadow Coaching® with global political, government, business and senior organizational leaders in the public and private sectors. Donna capitalizes on almost 30 years of experience in coaching, consulting and training to help clients and their organizations evolve into their level of excellence.

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