"Let's set up a meeting."

The statement itself seems harmless enough, but for the majority of us, the mere mention of yet another meeting is enough to send you off the deep end. It has been estimated that executives can be in meetings for up to 23 hours per week on average. And business owners can spend more than that in a given week! So while it may seem like just another meeting, it can really add up quickly and take away your ability to focus on your business

So today I wanted to share with you seven tips from my latest bestseller The Freedom Formula about how to make the most out of your meetings (or how to eliminate them all together.) 

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 for them to do other, more valuable work. Meetings are a great place to brainstorm ideas, reach a key decision, gain full buy-in from your staff, or coordinate execution. Just make sure the area you're brainstorming on, the decision you're making, or the project you're coordinating creates enough value for your company to yield a healthy return on your meeting investment. Otherwise, don't hold the meeting. 

2.     Conduct a "standing meeting audit." 

Review every standing meeting that your team participates in. Are these recurring meetings still relevant? Could you reduce the number of people participating and just circulate notes afterwards to the people who no longer have to attend? Could you shorten the meeting from an hour to thirty minutes? How about fifteen minutes? Could you reduce the frequency of these meetings? Perhaps you could combine two or more meetings into one? Slash out as many of the wasted employee hours as you can from these meetings; your company and staff will thank you.

3.     Plan the meeting in advance. 

All meetings must have a purpose and an agenda. Someone must own the meeting and have planned out how best to accomplish the intended purpose. Ideally, this means a written agenda that gets in the hands of all participants well in advance of the meeting so they can come prepared themselves. At the very least, the meeting owner has invested the time to make the meeting valuable (or to cancel it). If there is specific information, or other preparation work that participants need to have ready, make that explicit on the agenda. 

4.     Engage your team right from the start. 

Think of opening your meeting like a blockbuster James Bond film: start with an action sequence. This can mean that you go around the room and ask team members to share a quick victory, insight, or relevant challenge. Or it could mean you ask them a provocative question and get each participant to share their initial thoughts. These openings will root your meeting participants in the meeting and get their attention.

5.     Start and end your meetings strong. 

This means starting the meeting on time and expecting all meeting participants to come prepared. Make sure you end with clear lines of action and a clear "meeting is over." Don't let your meeting end by the slow leak of air.

6.     Follow your meeting plan. 

It's one thing to have an agenda, but altogether another thing to 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 one of your team members brings up is brilliant and sparks a whole new way of seeing the situation and a better course of action. Experienced leaders know when to let spontaneity and creativity have free rein. There are times when ditching your preconceived agenda is the right move.

7.     Clarify and follow up on action items. 

It's one thing to have a productive meeting, but to reap its value, stuff has to get done. At the end of the meeting, go back and explicitly clarify action commitments. Clarify who owns which tasks, when they'll complete them, and how they'll "close the loop" by reporting its completion. This is half the accountability battle. The other half is ongoing follow-up to make sure all assigned tasks got done. As a default, the meeting leader should be responsible for holding all participants accountable on assigned action items. Of course, he or she could delegate this follow-up responsibility, but as a default this works well. Send a meeting recap email that lists data points, decisions, and next steps (Who? What? When? How to close the loop?).

Published on: Oct 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.