Most leaders believe they were born knowing how to run a successful meeting, and that the skills one needs to meet with aplomb are innate. For hundreds of thousands of years, they were right. 

When we lived in small communities bound by the struggle to survive, in a world that barely changed for generations, all you needed to meet well is some authority and the ability to communicate. Observe any playground full of small children and you can spot the little dictators among them. This kind of leadership is indeed innate. 

Authority plus communication skills suffice in a command-and-control system too. The titans of the industrial revolution didn't need to find a way to unlock the voice and brilliance of their employees to get the railroads built, and the generals didn't need every soldier to have a personally meaningful experience to win the war. Inclusion, voice, relevance, and meaning have been nice-to-haves for success for most of human history.

Not anymore. 

Today's world changes too fast and is far too complex for a centralized decision-maker to succeed; if you want your business to do well, you must engage the energy and innovation of your team. Today's employees are not bound by blood, or even the promise of a pension, making them more likely than ever to leave a job where they have no voice, nor personal connection with the work in a meaningful way. 

The meeting skills you need to lead a meeting that engages everyone present and gets work done are not innate. These skills must be learned and practiced. Just like you can ask if someone knows how to write HTML or use Excel or do double-entry accounting, you can interview for meeting skills too. 

There are two important success criteria for every modern meeting. The way a candidate answers these two questions will tell you whether they have the skills needed to get that success.

Success Criterion One: Meeting participants feel the meeting is a good use of their time.

People invited to a meeting feel like it was a quality meeting when:

  • The meeting is relevant to them, 
  • The meeting respects their time, and
  • They actively participate.

The Question to Ask
To see if a candidate has the skills needed to make a meeting feel good, ask:
"How do you like to begin your meetings?"

Why? Because as a meeting leader, you have five minutes or less to get everyone involved and make it clear why the meeting will be a good use of their time before you've lost them.

The answer you hear should reveal how this leader clarifies the purpose and desired outcomes for the meeting, and then how they get everyone actively contributing within that first five minutes. 

Success Criterion Two: The meeting creates business value.

Julia Child once said, "A party without cake is just a meeting." Similarly, a meeting without business value is just a social hour. Without cake. Ultra bogus.

A successful meeting moves work forward. The people involved make decisions, find answers, and agree to next steps. All of which fails to provide any value to the business unless they are clear about what these outcomes were and then remember them later. 

The Question to Ask
To learn if your candidate has the skills needed to ensure every meeting returns value to your business, ask:
"How do you end your meetings?"

Why? Because properly closing a meeting is the only way to know if those present came to the same conclusions and have the same expectations about what happens next. Without a clear recap and confirmation of these results, the meeting leader is assuming everyone thinks the way he or she does. And we all know what happens when we assume...

The answer you hear should reveal how this leader confirms decisions and action items, or next steps, at a minimum. Give bonus points to any candidate that likes to end meetings with appreciations, because that's the kind of leader who knows how to take care of the people you all need to make your business succeed.

Published on: Mar 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.