Great Meetings have Great Chairs

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No, not the kind you sit on. What does it take to do a spectacular job running a meeting? What are some examples which spring to mind? We’ve helped a lot of companies think about their meeting culture. In the process, we’ve noticed some trends we’d like to share with you. For other useful tips on creating great meetings, you can check out our previous two blogs on disrupting toxic meeting culture. For now, let’s focus on why great meetings have great chairs, and how you can be one.

Common Mistakes

Everyone loves a list. Here’s ours. They’re numbered but not by importance.

  1. Talking too much. Just because you’ve called the meeting doesn’t mean you have to be the meeting. This is especially true if you are the most senior person in the room. Your job is to pull out everyone else’s best thinking. Otherwise, I question why you brought them all together. Was it just to show how brilliant you are?
  2. Putting people on the spot without warning. Some leaders seem to think this is edgy and fresh. Really, you’re just pissing people off and making them feel embarrassed. It can set a team on edge in all the wrong ways.
  3. Asking for updates. This is probably the number one complaint I hear. Meetings are the time when you’ve brought together all these people and their amazing brains. Why is that the right time to give updates? Asking for an update in order to have discussion of next steps, make decisions, or take action? Totally different.
  4. Letting others take over the meeting. This usually looks like people going down rabbit holes, off topic, and getting lost in the weeds. As a chair of a meeting, it’s your job to get them gently but firmly back on track. When you don’t do this well, you come across as rude. When you don’t do this consistently, your meetings get the reputation of being time-wasters.

Simple (not necessarily easy) Fixes

Let’s go back through the same list and make some suggestions. While these are simple things, they may be difficult to actually do in practice. That’s okay. That’s why it’s called “practice”. You try it out, see how it goes, evaluate how you did, find ways to do better next time, and then try again.

  1. Make it a habit to speak last. I recently saw a short video of Simon Sinek recounting a story Nelson Mandela told. Mandela said he remembered two things from his childhood. One was that his father was the tribal leader and because of that, they went to a lot of meetings. The other was that his father always tried to be the last one to speak. The closer you are to the top of the ranks compared to others in the meeting, the later in the process you should contribute. Your job is to draw out the ideas and input of others. Your expertise and experience come in handy when it’s time to make the final decision.
  2. Give a heads up about participation expectations. You can easily do this when you send out the agenda in advance. Put a note where you want robust discussion. Let people know you may use a round robin technique to invite everyone’s participation. When you set that expectation, no one will be surprised when you ask someone directly to give their input.
  3. Send info by email. Save the meetings for discussion and action. In just about every meeting, there’s an opportunity to cut down on the information sharing. It will give more time for the interesting stuff, which is what the brains gathered together think should be done next. It will give new life to your meetings.
  4. Be the captain of the ship. Under no circumstances should you give up control of a meeting that you’ve called. You can generously invite robust participation from anyone you like, including those higher up in the food chain than you. But retain control. Watch the clock. Keep the ship sailing in the right direction.

What do you think? What tips do you have for disrupting toxic meeting culture?

Share your favorite meeting practice. Give feedback on what you read. Let’s help each other get better at the most central business practice out there—meetings.

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