Much of the past ten years of my career as a chief marketing officer has been consumed in meetings. I can safely estimate that 90 percent of my days were spent in in-person meetings with other members of the executive team or debriefing these meetings with any combination of the 30 some members of the company's marketing team.
But they began to exhaust me and looking back I don't think I handled that fatigue very well. Instead of being part of the solution (offering to create tighter agendas, co-lead or even lead them myself, or show courage and call out meandering or tangential discussions that dishonored start and finish times), I still showed up physically, but increasingly checked out mentally, and worse, emotionally.
I thought I hid it pretty well. I would bring my laptop and manage all my email, under the guise of taking notes (I know, I know. But you've probably done it too). I'd delegate tasks to my team via text and when that bored me, quickly check my five social media accounts to feel validated. That would easily devolve into surfing news sites and even worse, TMZ. I know I'm not the only one who's been down that slippery slope.
One day, it came to a head. The Chairman and CEO called me out. We have a generally superb relationship, but he'd had enough. And, to his surprise, so had I. He politely shared his frustration that I was often distracted and not engaged in every discussion.
I accepted his feedback and also politely shared my own irritation at too many meetings in general, and too many that I felt weren't the best use of my time.
We quickly came to an agreement. I committed to checking back in during all his meetings, and he agreed to tighten them up and only invite me to those that required my contribution.
So to prevent you from a similar CEO intervention, here are five tips to keep your meetings moving and attendees, including yourself, focused:
1. Establish group agreed-upon rules regarding distractions.
If you're using a laptop or tablet, use it for things that are related to the meeting. Only use your phone to check for emergencies-- things like looking up your blood type because your child needs an immediate transfusion. Bring your best energy, focus, and discipline to every conversation.
2. Know when employees will perform their best.
If you're in meetings all day long, you can't possibly remain alert and upright for all of them. Have a conversation about when the members are at their best-- meaning talk openly about their peaks and troughs and schedule meetings to maximize people's attention and stamina, physically and mentally.
Perhaps schedule the highest value conversations when the majority are at their peaks and let the routine, but necessary meetings happen later when "Apollo 13" level focus isn't mandated.
3. Respect people's time.
I know of a major retailer that has two simple, clear, and non-negotiable meeting rules: First, all meetings start and end on time, no exceptions, and second, no meeting ever lasts longer than one hour. This isn't just a nice-to-quote idea; the CEO herself enforces it and models it by honoring it.
4. Cut down the invite list.
Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos has a rule that no meeting has more attendees than two pizzas can feed. He doesn't mandate actual pizzas be served, but even that seems too big to me. Unless you're planning a global product launch or announcing a major acquisition, keep the invite list short. Allow those present to update those absent.
5. Be organized and efficient.
You've most likely seen and read the famous Netflix Culture Deck. In it, former chief talent officer Patty McCord writes about two types of meeting leaders. Condensed and loosely translated, the first is the charismatic one who's entertaining and engaging but wings everything, and the other is one who thoughtfully prepares for each meeting with a conviction to stay on agenda (by creating one) and ensures every key item is addressed with clear outcomes and assignments. The second makes for more efficient meetings. Which are you?
Above all, avoid being the non-meeting leader. This is someone who never schedules any meetings and conducts all their work, or gathers all of their information, solutions, and approvals by calling you, texting, or dropping in your office unannounced.
They ambush you on your way to your scheduled meeting, known as the "fly-by," and want to walk and talk while you're often still mentally and emotionally debriefing the last meeting as you're simultaneously prepping for the coming meeting. Don't become or accommodate this leader.
If you want to avoid a management mess, keep these lessons in mind when running a meeting. And by all means, start and end it on time.