Transform Your Meeting Culture The Secret to Masterful Meetings

“That was an awful meeting. What a waste of my time!”
Does that sound familiar? Consider the last meeting you attended that was run by someone else. How many of these pitfalls were evident?

  • Didn’t start on time
  • Missing key people
  • Lacked a clear purpose and/or agenda
  • The discussion wandered and people weren’t engaged
  • Key issues weren’t addressed and no decisions were made
  • No follow-up actions were assigned

Bad meetings waste time, consume resources, and wear down people’s energy and passion. Worse, bad meetings often result in bad decisions — decisions that are poorly thought through, void of innovation, and missing the necessary buy-in for success.

In contrast, masterful meetings are well-prepared, skillfully executed and results-oriented with a timely start, a decisive close, and a clear follow-up plan. In masterful meetings:

  • The purpose is clear
  • The right people are present
  • All the information needed is available
  • The agenda is carefully planned and executed
  • The discussion is passionate
  • People are engaged and decisions are made
  • People leave with a clear understanding of what was done and will be done next

Unfortunately, as business leaders, we have lowered the bar so far that bad meetings have become the norm rather than the exception. We have accepted them as a necessary evil and, therefore, so have our people.

The result is an organizational culture that makes it acceptable to waste valuable time and resources in poorly prepared and poorly executed meetings. To conduct better meetings, we need to transform the meeting cultures of our organizations.

Establishing Meeting Rights

A fundamental vehicle for transforming meetings is establishing and granting to every employee a set of meeting rights. The goal of the meeting rights is to empower everyone in the organization to be a catalyst for raising the bar on meetings and for making bad meetings unacceptable.

The following is an abbreviated version of the 10 rights:

  1. Meeting notice. You have the right to be informed about the purpose, expected products, and proposed agenda for a meeting — verbally or in writing — at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
  2. Timely start. You have the right to attend meetings that start on time.
  3. Right people. You have the right to have all major viewpoints critical to decision-making represented at the meeting.
  4. Right information. You have the right to have the information necessary to facilitate decision-making available at the meeting.
  5. Ground rules. You have the right to have agreed upon ground rules respected in the meeting.
  6. Focused discussion. You have the right for meetings to stay focused on the topic of the meeting.
  7. Input opportunity. You have the right to have the opportunity to provide input and alternative views before decision-making occurs in the meeting.
  8. Meeting recap. You have the right to hear a recap of (a) decisions made during the meeting, (b) actions to be taken, when and by whom, following the meeting, and (c) any outstanding issues to be discussed at a future meeting.
  9. Timely completion. You have the right to have your time respected by having meetings finish at or before the scheduled end time.
  10. No retribution. You have the right to exercise your meeting rights without fear of retribution or other consequences.

Every meeting right should also include an action that people are empowered to take if the right is violated. For example:

You have the right to be informed about the purpose, expected products, and proposed agenda for a meeting, verbally or in writing, at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. You have the right to decline to attend a meeting if your repeated request for this information is not honored without a reasonable cause, unless the meeting is an emergency session or a regular, ongoing meeting for which all attendees know the above information.

Six Keys to Transformation

Transforming the meetings culture of an organization requires a process based on leadership buy-in, a vision of something better, skill building around the behaviors, effective rewards and accountability.

  1. Gain support from your leadership team before taking any action. Every member of your leadership team must understand that bad meetings hurt the organization and that a focused effort is needed to bring about change. They must understand that their role as leaders is to ignite a fire within their direct reports and to have their direct reports ignite a fire within their direct reports, and so on.
  2. Establish a baseline to demonstrate the need for improvement. Use a meeting survey to provide a baseline of the current state of meetings in the organization. The survey answers questions such as:
    • How much time are we spending in meetings?
    • What percentage of our meetings do we consider productive and effective?
    • What are the common problems in our meetings?
    • What strategies we should consider for improving meetings?
    • Overall, how satisfied are we with our meetings?
  3. Communicate a vision of what a masterful meeting looks and feels like. The vision defines how meetings in general should be planned, started, executed, and closed. It describes the role of meeting leaders and participants. It also provides good examples of ground rules, meeting notices, and meeting minutes.
  4. Empower every individual to actively participate in eliminating bad meetings. By establishing meeting rights and encouraging people to exercise them, you put in place a mechanism for a grass-roots revolution that will serve as a driver for making bad meetings unacceptable.
  5. Provide vehicles for improving skills of meeting leaders and participants. Granting a provocative list of meeting rights could result in anarchy if you don’t also provide the skills to honor those rights. For some, a meetings manual that includes best practices and a blueprint for preparing and running masterful meetings will be sufficient. For most, especially those who frequently lead meetings, it will be more helpful to provide training, along with practice and feedback opportunities, so they can build proficiency in running masterful meetings in a safe, classroom environment.
  6. Sustain momentum. Sustaining a meetings transformation requires a focused effort on monitoring performance, communicating progress, rewarding successes, and taking corrective action when needed. Establish a small transformation team that takes responsibility for continuing to raise the bar on meetings.

Declare War on Bad Meetings

The next time you find yourself saying, “This is an awful meeting!” remember that we get what we tolerate. Then look around the room and think about how much of your organization’s precious time and resources are being wasted every single business day. When you have had enough, take action.

You can begin raising the bar in a number of ways. First, consider enlightening your leadership team by providing them information on masterful meetings. Second, consider developing and distributing a set of meeting rights. Finally, provide training in how to lead and participate in masterful meetings.

Declare war on bad meetings. Your organization will thank you for it!

Michael Wilkinson is the managing director of Leadership Strategies and author of The Secrets to Masterful Meetings and The Secrets of Facilitation.

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