When I launched my early businesses, I avoided meetings like the plague. To me, business meetings were a hallmark of bloated corporations and bureaucratic government entities, neither of which I was trying to emulate. However, I eventually learned that I was wrong. Well-run meetings can boost the performance of businesses of all sizes.
As Henry Ford said: “If everyone is moving forward together, success takes care of itself.”
Nonetheless, many business meetings are a waste of time. If you’re not bringing people together in a way that’s productive, lively, and collaborative, much of what you’re trying to do will be lost on your employees.
Here is my basic playbook of dos and don’ts for how to run a business meeting.
Don’t Allow Phones in Your Meetings
Don’t give your employees an excuse to not listen to what is being said in a meeting. At the start of every meeting, insist phones and computers are put to the side or shut off completely. Consider having basic notes/bullet points prepared for every meeting – if people want to take notes on their computers, tell them that they can peruse yours after the meeting or they take their own via pen and paper.
People are way too distracted by their devices these days, and a meeting should be a place where we can all turn off our devices and focus on the conversation. Even when people are focused, a notification for a text or an email can easily derail their train of thought. Also, you should teach your employees that ignoring someone because of a phone or a computer is rude and obnoxious, and will be off-putting in any future business situation.
Don’t Invite Everyone to Your Meeting
A major reason that people may be distracted in meetings is that their presence isn’t necessary. When you’re scheduling a meeting, don’t invite people solely for the purpose of inclusion. If it’s a meeting that’s going to discuss a major company change, then invite everyone. Otherwise, include only the most necessary employees.
If you’re holding a meeting to discuss marketing strategy, invite anyone who could add value to the meeting or the overall plan. An employee who may have some great conceptual ideas, but may lack any marketing expertise, could provide value in the overall strategy meetings – they don’t need to come to the meetings that are specific to marketing. As long as the meetings have a defined purpose and structure, you can easily determine the attendee list.
Do Determine the Type of Meeting
Once you make that determination, you need to decide which type of meeting you will be holding. There are a few options, so let’s examine these meeting types below:
• Brainstorming – This is one of the least structured types of meetings. Basically, you need to have several bullet points (categories/themes) that you want to address, and then you simply need to let people bounce ideas off of one another within those parameters. While it’s important to not stifle creativity, try to keep people focused on the main talking points – it’s easy for these sessions to get out of hand. If you want people to come up with some great ideas, ask a couple questions in the email/calendar invite that may prompt pre-meeting thinking.
• Information-sharing – In terms of commonality, these meetings would be what most people associate with the term “meeting.” For these gatherings, you are simply trying to relay information, either from you or from someone who has been charged to lead the meeting, to your staff. There should be a clear purpose for the meeting, and the reason for it should be addressed in a brief introductory phase. Then, get right to the point and focus on the content.
• Winning-team, spirit-boosting – Not all meetings need to be rigidly structured – these are meant to be fun and loose, as you’re telling your employees about the accomplishments of an individual or a specific team. These meetings aren’t just celebratory, however, as you should prepare bullet points that congratulate the employees, tell of exactly how their accomplishment benefited the company, and what lessons can be taken from their success.
• Coordination – These tend to be short meetings that serve as a way to get everyone on the same page. I would tend to email out the basics prior to the meeting, and then go over them as a group and see if there are any questions. These tend to have a broad purpose, with the goal being organizational more than conceptual.
• Problem solving – These meetings can be done on a much more ad-hoc basis with much less notice. If you see a major problem or trend, identify it, schedule a meeting, and then assemble the troops.
• Direction-setting – Sometimes, you need to really set the tone for your week, month, or quarter. These meetings should be scheduled somewhat far in advance and should occur with some regularity. Employees should know what to expect when they have one of these meetings, as it should be similar each time. Basically, these serve as a “this is where we are, this is where I want us to go, and this is how we are going to get there together” discussion. This type of meeting would be led by an executive and would be informative and inspirational for employees.
• Integration – These meetings would occur when you are trying to integrate a new program, process, or person. The structure to these would be pretty simple, as you address what the change is, who/what it will impact, and the reason for the change.
Do Have an Agenda for Your Meeting
Once you’ve chosen the type of meeting, set a basic agenda and have some talking points with which to begin. You don’t want to over-structure your meeting, but you also don’t want to have long periods of silence where you are contemplating your next move. Employees like to think that the person who is running the meeting has a plan – nothing is more awkward when it seems like the proverbial ship has no one at the helm.
Always leave some time for questions or concerns, regardless of how long your meeting is going. If a meeting is running over the scheduled time, it’s your fault and not your employees’ fault. Their questions and input shouldn’t be sacrificed because you failed to rein in your own agenda.
Do End Your Meetings Early
When you have a set agenda, try to stick to the points and limit the number of tangential conversations that occur. If people are enjoying themselves and throwing out good ideas, let the discourse flow. However, if someone hijacks the meeting to promote their own line of reasoning, try to get them back on track.
Long meetings are rarely productive – an Atlassian study found that the average employee surveyed spent 31 hours a month in unproductive meetings, with half of that time considered “wasted.” In my opinion, if you can wrap up a productive meeting in 20 minutes or less, do it. It’s better to hold 5 productive meetings once a day over the course of a week than to hold several long and unproductive meetings within that same period. This obviously depends on your employees’ schedules, but it’s a good rule of thumb to have.
Abruptly ending a meeting at the point of a brief reprieve will seem strange to your employees at first, but they will see how motivated you are and will follow suit. By closing your laptop, standing up, and walking out, you’ll signal to your employees that it’s time to get back to work.
Don’t Ambush Productive Employees
One of the reasons that we schedule meetings in advance is so that employees don’t feel ambushed. By surprising employees with a meeting, you not only have a less collaborative meeting, but also limit the productivity of each member of your team. If your employees are always on the lookout for a popup meeting, they aren’t going to be able to focus as much as they should on their daily tasks.
Employees function better when they have a somewhat rigid schedule. In most industries/jobs, having a set routine allows for increased levels of productivity, as distractions are limited and people can allot time for each project/task. Employees prefer to have a calendar that’s somewhat concrete and not likely to change. This doesn’t mean that you can’t hold an important ad-hoc meeting once in a while, but this type of disruption should be as limited as possible.
Do Think About Sending an Email Instead
One way to limit the number of times you ambush an employee is to determine if the content of your meeting could be sent as an email. As a general rule, I think that emails should be used for relaying factual information or specific process-based points that are detailed and lengthy in nature. Emails allow people to access information over and over – this should be your mode of correspondence for anything that you think people will need to reference after the fact.
For most other things, I believe that verbal communication trumps digital correspondence. You should ABSOLUTELY never email emotions or big ideas – these need to be relayed in person. Plus, no one wants to get 100 emails on a thread when a simple, 10-minute meeting could resolve the given issue.
Do Let People Have Some Fun
Finally, don’t allow your meetings to become emotionless gatherings. Try and be as personable as possible – people are more attentive when they see that you are engaged and excited. If you’re not the most thrilling speaker, then prepare a short anecdote, witty quip related to the business, or inspirational story to start things off. Don’t go overboard with this, as you’re just trying to lighten the mood and open people up for discussion.
If your employees are actively engaged and contributing to a lively discussion without some witty and personable banter, then don’t rock the boat. But, most companies have employees who aren’t robotic. I’d try and set a mental ratio for meetings: be on task 90-95 percent of the time and allow for 5-10 percent of the meeting to be devoted to tangential discussions or personal anecdotes.
Let the conversation flow when there’s a short break in the agenda of the meeting, but it’s your job as the leader to reel it in when people are getting too off-topic. Try to think like a standup comedian – get a feeling for what the audience is thinking. Stick to your material, but be cognizant of the attention-level of your employees. Never be afraid to improvise if your points aren’t landing, but don’t go too overboard.
No one loves meetings, but your employees shouldn’t hate them. Be personable, professional, and make sure that there are concrete takeaways for everyone. Also, don’t worry if your first couple of gatherings are subpar – like many things in business, you’ll get better at meetings over time.
Bob Adams is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of BusinessTown.com.