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How to manage meetings from the boardroom to the bar

By Michael Crump | 30 June 2016

They’re up there with teething infants on a plane. Impotent and inept meetings are the time vampires of the business world.

But there is a flipside. If you learn how to manage meetings effectively you can earn a significant amount of respect from colleagues and superiors (hello, promotion). In this article we’ll provide you with a few simple tactics to come out of a meeting purring like a future CEO. 

Foster an environment that favours collaboration rather than one-sided advice

collaboration concept

Michael Wilkinson is a meeting master. In his lengthy tome, The Secrets of Facilitation: The Smart Guide to Getting Results with Groups, Wilkinson reveals what he describes as the fundamental secret of facilitation.

“You can achieve more effective results when solutions are created, understood, and accepted by the people impacted,” he writes.

In the book’s first chapter he refers to his experience at a prestigious consulting firm. Initially his department would analyse their client’s issue, tailor a solution, and then present this solution back to the client. But it was rarely undertaken. Wilkinson claims they started to find success when they focused less on presenting to the client and instead started facilitating for the client, whereby key stakeholders contributed to the problem solving process.

Next time you manage a meeting adopt a collaborative approach. Ensure the parties implementing the related directives are not only represented at the meeting, but they’re encouraged to contribute towards devising solutions. You’ll get a better sense of buy-in and ownership in terms of the adopted directives.

You need the right people at the meeting. If the decision makers aren’t there, postpone

People who make a lot of decisions in organisations tend to be hard to lure into meetings. That can be an issue if they send proxies who have zero accountability for what is being discussed. Rather than an empowered representative, you end up with an information relay.

If we accept the aforementioned point that meetings are best used as forums for collaborative problem solving, not having the correct parties in the room is a significant obstacle. It results in back-and-forth communication, disappointment, and usually more meetings.

As a meeting manager, part of your responsibility is to get the right people in the right place to have a productive information session. Find out how decisions flow through your organisation and the client, and then work out who’s accountable for making the decisions. Make sure both they, and those in charge of implementing what is decided, attend the meeting in person or via a phone or video call. If they can’t be there, postpone the meeting until they’re available.

Be prepared and provide the attendees with the means to come prepared, too

asian woman preparing for meeting

Make sure any crucial documentation and – at least – a rough agenda has been distributed to meeting attendees prior to the meeting. Ideally you should provide a couple of days of reading time.

Handing out brand new information in a meeting is poor form. If the information is complex attendees may require a few days to work through it, rendering the meeting moot.

Distributing information early also provides attendees the opportunity to start discussing issues and ideas between themselves immediately, and that can contribute significantly towards a more productive meeting.

Create a detailed but flexible agenda

There’s a certain skill involved in constructing and moving through a meeting agenda. On one hand, you want to address all the issues, but on the other, when a constructive conversation is leading to the resolution of a difficult dilemma you don’t want to kill it off because – well – agenda says ‘no’.

Construct your agenda so that it features some flexibility. It should note specific minute-to-minute time frames for each topic, but the topics should be listed in order of importance. If you’re getting too far off track, ask the attendees if they are happy to spend a little longer discussing the current point at the expense of a less important agenda issue. It will demonstrate you can think on your feet. And if there is no consensus, stick with the agenda.

Another important tip is to note on the agenda which meeting attendees are required for each topic. Once their issues have been dealt with they are free to mosey off back to their desks and get on with it.

Use body language

men talking and shaking hands

Conciliator, arbitrator, mediator – you are all of the above when managing a meeting. But the description I love most is ‘traffic controller’. Not only is it your job to keep the meeting to time (leave your watch or phone out in front of you) and on topic, you’re also there to prevent any nasty collisions.

One of the best techniques I’ve seen is to use your arms to direct the meeting ‘traffic’. When you believe an attendee is talking too much and another person would like to comment, slightly raise one hand to signal the speaker to pause (while agreeing that what they’ve said is valuable), and then use the other to direct the reply. Be sure not to silence a senior member of your own organisation, though. After all, you need to stay copacetic with your management.

When time is running down on a particular topic, again, use your hand to get the group’s attention and let them know the allotted time is almost up.

You don’t want to look like an auctioneer, so keep the movements slow and measured. Less is more.

On a serious note, what are your favourite tips for managing meetings effectively?

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