This is another of my pieces on the world of work. I have long since departed the comfy bosom of corporate life and instead hold onto the skinny shanks of the freelance world, but I still have an opinion and it’s here if you want it. You can find it originally on Brodard.
There are a few sentences that strike fear into my heart as much as ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ (the others are, if you’re interested: ‘I’m afraid an internal examination is necessary’ and ‘this will hurt and there may be a burning smell.’).
My attitude to meetings has always be the rule of half: half of meetings are pointless, half the people in the meeting shouldn’t be there and the duration of the meeting should be half as long as scheduled. I think that if you stick to this quick rule of thumb you can’t go far wrong.
I’m a pussy cat, really, but I used to have a bit of a fearsome reputation in corporate life. When I left said corporation and had my exit interview (‘with your leaving we can improve the work-place environment…for everybody – like I am an organ donor or something) they revealed that one of the reasons I had this so-called reputation was when I hosted meetings they were remembered as being ‘brutal.’ How can you possibly have a brutal meeting?
Well, I’ll tell you how (cue drum roll).
- Know why you’re there I can’t recall the number of meetings I was in where the attendees were like Iowa dairy farmers recently abducted by aliens: ‘D’ya know why we’re here?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘D’yau know what they want with us?’ ‘Nope, but I reckon it ain’t good…’ If you’re sitting in a meeting and you have no idea why you’re there then you are in an awful meeting, which is bad. Or the wrong one, which is worse.
- Attendees Do a quick headcount and assess whether any random people have wandered in, like errant sheep, because they felt they ought to be there or more likely they came for the free Danish pastries and coffee. Get rid of the stragglers straight away. I ruffled a few feathers doing this, unsurprisingly. I found the direct approach worked for me: ‘why are you here?’ normally sorted the wheat from the chaff.
- Food Get rid of the Danish pastries and coffee. This is not a soccer-mom meet up about bake sales, this is meeting to decide upon an important course of action. I know it seems inhospitable – but if you want pastries and coffee? Go to Starbucks.
- Stay on subject. As tempting as it may be to talk about what was on Television last night, if Barbara from accounts was previously a man or how bad the coffee is in the cafeteria: stay on subject. Everyone is busy and it can be a rare opportunity to get everyone involved in a project to iron out gremlins, so wasting everyone’s time is self-defeating. Unless it is – actually – about how bad the coffee is in the cafeteria, in which case: blue-sky think that problem out of the stadium with some solution seeking dialogue.
- Have a strong Chair No, I am not grossly overweight. What I mean is that whoever hosts the meeting should keep it tight, on schedule and on subject. Accept no back-chat, gossiping, monologues, bitching, treatises, moaning, joking, soliloquies, whispering or flirting. I have seen all of these in meetings at one time or another.
- Keep it short If people are nodding off or fidgeting in their chairs, much like children at a family dinner, then your meeting has gone on for too long. I had a boss who insisted on stand-up meetings and they sure do focus the mind. I always felt that half an hour (remember the rule of half) was about the length of time before people started looking out the window or drawing intricate war scenes on their legal pads. Normally with you as the central combatant.
- Be Punctual If you start a meeting late it will over run and then knock on to the next meeting and before you know it the corridor outside the conference room will look like a doctor’s waiting room. Over run even further and people will end up with saucepans stuck on their heads. FACT.
- Be Spontaneous Sometimes, if the opportunity presents itself, it can be great to organise an impromptu meeting in a cafe or at someone’s desk. It can often be the case that when you take the formality out of it, previously reticent colleagues will contribute towards the process in valuable and unforseen ways. Don’t, however, organise a meeting in the toilets – that is just weird.
So, if you follow these eight simple steps then you too can become a fearsome chair of meetings.
Or you could call a meeting to discuss it.