A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reported on an international study by the Center for Creative Leadership titled, Always On, Never Done?, which shows that professionals, executives and business owners in the U.S. and 36 other countries now work a whopping 72-hour week.
The study went into depth explaining that one of the biggest sources for frustration of the business leaders surveyed was unnecessary or poorly planned meetings wasting their time.
When you think of the real cost of unnecessary or poorly run meetings that drone on endlessly it becomes clear that we've got to maximize the time better. I'll speak from personal experience. At my company, Maui Mastermind, every two weeks my executive team and I meet via conference call for 90 minutes. When I take the hard hourly cost of each of the participants that meeting costs over $1,000 per hour.
Can you imagine sitting down with a high priced $1,000 an hour attorney and allowing him to waste your time in a poorly run client meeting for which he hadn't properly prepared or organized for? Of course not. Yet how many meetings in your company have no agenda? Or unprepared participants?
Here are five meeting best practices to make meetings more valuable in your company and less of an irritant.
1. Only meet to create value.
Meetings are for creating value, not playing politics, covering your backside, or simply because "that's how we've always done things."
If the meeting doesn't create value, cancel the meeting. You'll reap an instant savings from the freed up staff time, not to mention the opportunity for them to do other more valuable work.
I'm not anti-meeting; I'm anti-wasted meetings.
Meetings are a great place to brainstorm ideas, to reach a key decision, to gain full buy-in from your staff, or to coordinate execution. Just make sure the area you're brainstorming on, or the decision you're making, or the project you're coordinating on creates enough value for your company to make it yield a healthy return on your meeting investment.
2. Plan the meeting in advance.
Make it a cultural "must have" to have a leader (or at least facilitator) for every meeting who has actually given the meeting thought. Ideally this means a written agenda which gets in the hands of all participants well in advance of the meeting so they can come prepared themselves.
If there is specific information, or other preparation work that participants need to have ready, make that explicit on the agenda.
Again, this isn't just about creating a "policy" (which in many organizations will simply be ignored) but rather, about making it a cultural must have in your company that this is how we do meetings - we plan them in advance; we have written agendas; we come fully prepared.
3. Hold your participants accountable to start the meeting strong
This means starting the meeting on time and expecting all meeting participants to come prepared. If Tim comes in late or unprepared, privately hold him back after the meeting to have an adult conversation:
"Tim, I noticed that you came in 12 minutes late today, and that you didn't have the Calloway numbers that we needed ready to share. Did something happen that got in the way of that? It really had an impact on the meeting and your peers."
All of us will have times when things come up, but if Tim has a repeated pattern of things coming up that is something that you need to lay out as unacceptable. Frame it in terms of the impact of that behavior on the other participants and the company. Ask for his full agreement to change that behavior. This kind of immediate and direct communication, respectful and done in private after the meeting, usually will clean up Tim's behavior.
4. Follow your meeting plan
It's one thing to have an agenda, but altogether another thing to actually follow it.
Make sure whoever is leading the meeting guides the conversation, giving all participants a voice, and pushing past unproductive moments when the meeting is on the verge of going down a dead-end spur.
Of course, there are times when that tangent which Sarah brings up is brilliant, and sparks a whole new way of seeing the situation and the best course of action. Experienced leaders know when to let spontaneity and creativity have a free reign. There are times when ditching your pre-conceived agenda is the right move for the company.
5. Clarify and follow up on action items
It's one thing to have a productive meeting, but to reap the value of that meeting, stuff has to get done. At the end of the meeting, go back and explicitly clarify action commitments out of the meeting. It might sound like this:
"Let's recap what we agreed to do. Tim you own two action steps from today, X and Y, both of which are to be done by this Friday close of business. You agreed to mark them complete on the project board when done. Sarah, you own item Z, which is due by the 15th, and which you'll give a summary of the outcome in your next weekly report..."
Clarifying who owns which tasks, by when, and how they'll "close the loop" by reporting back its completion is half the battle for accountability. The other half is ongoing follow up to make sure all assigned tasks got done. As a default, the meeting leader should be responsible to check in with all the task holders on status, and to hold them accountable if not done as agreed. Of course, he or she could delegate this follow up responsibility, but as a default this works well.
One final comment on execution--as the leader in your company you must role model the behavior you want others to emulate. Are you clear at the end of meetings as to who owns which next steps and by when? Do you follow up with them and hold them accountable for their assigned tasks? Do you consistently execute on your action assignments out of meetings? A culture of accountability is built in great part by leaders consistently doing the behaviors they want their teams to absorb.
If you enjoyed the ideas I shared, then I encourage you to download a free copy of my newest book, Build a Business, Not a Job. Click here for full details and to get your complimentary copy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the organization that authored the international workplace study cited in the piece. It is the Center for Creative Leadership.