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Meetings, bloody meetings!

Sometimes, I am a silent observer. Mind you: I am not talking about theater, but about board meetings! Nevertheless, there are many similarities between both: some meetings are boring and rather inefficient while other last much too long.

How can you make your meeting efficient and who should attend it? How can you orchestrate meetings and what is their impact in the overall decision process? These are obvious questions which are - strangely enough - seldom explicitly asked.

Ground rules
In fact, a set of ground rules is essential for successful meetings; it’s a kind of blueprint with predetermined rules everyone should take into consideration.

Without these basic rules, you have chaos. Recently, I have experienced this when the managing director of a company asked me to participate as a silent observer in their board meetings. He considered these meetings as anything but efficient.

And he was completely right! The agenda took up an entire A4 page, starting with the minutes of the previous meeting. This is not so uncommon, but the introductory ‘item’ soon resulted into a debate lasting more than one hour. I frowned, but I resigned myself to my role as a silent observer. Actions and decisions which had already been agreed upon, have suddenly been questioned again. It seemed like the procession of Echternach (two steps forward, one step back)!

It was a false start, but after a long detour, we eventually came to the order of the day. I was lost in amazement when I saw that all members were talking across in small groups, during the debate. Participants constantly started to talk to their neighbors. Were they so frustrated because they couldn’t share their comments with the group? Or didn’t they want to share views with their colleagues?

Conclusion: the agenda was not taken into account and the timing went completely wrong. Decisions were difficult to make and a general agreement was only obtained after numerous attempts by the managing director. Many times, he had to ask the members for discipline and he even had to frankly overrule them.

Moreover, the overloaded agenda itself was not a model of efficiency either. Because too many strategic issues and details - whether relevant or not - were being discussed, a lot of time was unnecessarily wasted. After all, you don’t gather to find an immediate solution to every problem! Otherwise, you might as well do without the extended management team. What would be its function in this situation? Merely executing the decisions?

And the minutes ticked away… The scheduled time was up and plenty of important items had not been discussed or had just quickly been dealt with. Should we meet again? This would only lead to more ‘agenda stress’!

In a one-man business, everything revolves around one single person who decides and controls everything. But when large groups of people want to collaborate in an efficient way, they need a discussion platform in order to exchange information and take decisions. The meeting itself is thus beyond dispute.

But how can you make this concept useful? I give you a few tips:

1. Set priorities. Screen the agenda thoroughly in advance and remove less important items. You are not a restaurant owner who should offer his/her customers an extensive menu!

2. Ask for discipline. The timing has to be taken into account; for instance, important documents need to be sent to the board at least two days before the meeting and everybody should be prepared when attending the meeting. A meeting is not a pleasant informal gathering during which you can spend your time chatting!

3. Delegate leadership. Everyone waits his/her turn to take the lead and introduces the item he/she is in charge of. As a moderator, the chairman shouldn’t play solo. After all, meetings are also an excellent opportunity for all participants to train their own leadership skills.

4. Coach your team in real time. The chairman has, amongst other things, to make sure that everybody can contribute to the meeting. Make sure that assertive persons do not continuously run the show. You can apply the ‘round table’ method, for instance.

5. Make sure everyone is actively listening. A meeting is not a farmyard in which everyone is just chatting around. Apply the following steps in a consistent way:
  • Listening
  • Questions for clarification
  • Discussion
  • Decision (not earlier!)

6. Feed forward. Insert a brief evaluation at the end of the meeting. Make, all together, a productive evaluation of the meeting and keep improving your meeting skills.

Meetings have become a necessary evil but with a good set of basic rules, they can evolve towards efficient decision-making platforms which can be interesting for all participants. Use meetings as training sessions in order to sharpen your leadership skills!

Good luck!


By Herman van Herterijck

"my ambition is to put the importance of pragmatic and continuous self-coaching on the agenda of current business leaders"

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