Opinion: 7 ways to lead more effective meetings

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There’s nothing worse than being stuck in an unproductive meeting. The leader starts the meeting late. Stragglers interrupt the flow. The purpose or the agenda is unclear, and the leader chases disjointed topics.

When the session ends, you feel like an hour of your time was wasted.

Over the past 40 years, I have learned how to run an effective meeting from leading and observing thousands of client meetings. Here are seven ways to facilitate highly productive meetings.

  1. Consider whether you need to have a group meeting. Maybe it’s better to meet with specific individuals and not involve everyone. Or if it’s a standing meeting, cancel it and determine if it was really needed after all.

Time is money, obviously, and a one-hour group meeting with six people costs your organization six hours, not one as some might think.

  1. Provide a clear agenda. People appreciate a clear agenda so they know what their participation should accomplish. The scheduled discussion items also provide everyone with a boundary for conversation. When the meeting wanders off purpose, an agenda helps people get refocused again on the main task.
  2. Always start and end on time. When leaders start meetings late, it sends the wrong message – that time isn’t valuable enough. Managers mimic what upper leaders do, and they’ll hold meetings on schedule if their leaders do. It’s also critical to end on time because it motivates people to accomplish the agenda within the time frame, and it gets them back to their jobs without delay.
  3. Use meeting guidelines and outcomes. I use guidelines and outcomes when I facilitate strategic planning or problem-solving client meetings for two reasons. First, it steers the discussion to your meeting’s purpose. For example, do you want people to brainstorm ideas, solve a specific issue, decide something together or map out a game plan for a new initiative? If people know your intentions, most will adjust accordingly.

Using guidelines and expected outcomes also helps reduce meeting fatigue. A recent Stanford University study claims that hundreds of millions of virtual meetings occur daily, millions more if you add in-person meetings. With so many meetings to attend, a poorly run meeting intensifies participant fatigue, while effective facilitation motivates people to engage and enjoy the process.

  1. Don’t over-control the conversation. It’s possible to overuse guidelines and unintentionally discourage participation. I’ve watched leaders make common mistakes such as stating their opinion first, dominating the conversation, making callous remarks that shut people down or reaching negative conclusions too quickly. One CEO had a bad habit of interrupting people and not really listening to what they were trying to say. A leader’s job is to stimulate balanced participation and perspectives that achieve the agenda’s outcomes. You can’t do that if you’re controlling meetings too tightly.
  2. Manage difficult personalities. There are three challenging personalities you’ll likely encounter, and you should handle them effectively. Chatterboxes may not intend to dominate, but when they do, it delays your meeting, and it drains the energy out of the room. Take them aside and ask them to give others the chance to contribute. Or make a 2-minute rule that applies to everyone. If they go over, politely ask for other insights and keep the meeting moving. Stragglers repeatedly come late. Avoid pausing your discussion to update stragglers on what they’ve missed. One client has fun with stragglers by requiring them to pay a dollar, and when enough money is collected, they buy pizza. Ramblers wander off the agenda entirely or they get too deep into the details and create frustration. Politely refocus their remarks on the meeting’s purpose.
  3. Create an action plan. At your meeting’s conclusion, make responsibilities, assignments and deadlines clear. Your session will be productive and make people feel good about the use of their time if it produces a follow-up plan.

Meetings can be the best – or worst – use of everyone’s time. It comes down to who’s leading the meeting and how effectively it’s facilitated. 

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.