Do I Have To Go?
In every corporation and social enterprise, we find ourselves in meetings. We dread going to them. We love to complain about them. We poke ourselves to stay awake in them.
Have you ever thought about how important meetings really are?
Ever consider that how you behave in a meeting may have more of an impact on your career?
What if there was a way to turn meetings into “remarkable conversations”?
Paul Axtell’s new book, Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, was a surprise. Why a surprise? Because I admit I have groaned about too many meetings, so the thought of reading a book about them was supposed to be my cure for insomnia. Instead, I found myself reading and re-reading it. If your calendar has you stuck in too many ineffective meetings, you will find numerous solutions to changing the game in Paul’s new book.
Paul Axtell has been a personal effectiveness consultant and corporate trainer for 35 years. All of that experience is put too good use in a book packed with advice to be more effective. Note: this book goes far, far beyond the meeting.
Everyone loves to complain about meetings. Too many, too long, too boring. But your new book says meetings matter. Why are meetings such an easy target?
First, the complaints are usually justified. Our time in ineffective meetings far outweighs our time in powerful meetings. People are genuinely concerned about being more productive and taking less work home, so time not well spent is galling. Finally, no one is standing up for the value and leverage that meetings can provide to a project or organization. We’ve drifted into this place where we complain and don’t even hear ourselves complaining. Poorly run meetings also start at the top, and from below it can seem like an impossible problem to confront.
Paul, you raise the stakes to say, “Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization.”
Yes, if we include one-on-ones, meetings compromise most of a supervisor’s or manager’s day. Meetings are a place and situation where clarity can be achieved, decisions made, alignment garnered and actions identified – all of which work to help forward the work of any organization. Therefore, meeting skills are a core competency for employees.
“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” –Seneca
Choose Your Perspective
Your new book outlines eight strategies for more effective meetings. Let me ask about just a few. Number one “Choose the perspective.” It’s about being intentional, mindful, and catching yourself if you fall into negativity about a meeting. Why is perspective the starting point?
I believe two things change behavior: perspective and awareness. Perspective might be the more important of the two because with a disempowering perspective, strategies and tactics have less impact. We’ve drifted into three perspectives that set us up for failure—meetings don’t matter, it’s not my meeting, and I don’t have to fully engage if I don’t want to. Very difficult to run a good meeting when people walk in with these points of view. Just imagine how it would be to lead a meeting where everyone walked in with an attitude that was shaped instead by these perspectives: meetings are leverage and I’m responsible for making this meeting turn out?
“It is indispensable to have a habit of observation and reflection.” –Abraham Lincoln
The 4 C’s of An Effective Conversation
Number two is “Conversations matter.” Would you share the 4 C’s of a Conversation?
“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” –Sigmund Freud
The four C’s are clarity, candor, commitment, and completion. If we think of a meeting as a series of conversations, then having an awareness for the four keys to effective conversation gives people something to pay attention to and put into a conversation when one of the pieces is missing.
Clarity means that everyone understands what is being said in the same way. This requires a back-and-forth conversation in which people have permission and feel safe to question what is being said. Clarity is more apt to be missing if a senior manager is in the meeting because people will push back on colleagues but not on managers.
Candor means that everyone is willing to say what they think. It means being authentic, honest, and straightforward. It’s about knowing where everyone stands on an issue. Without candor, you sacrifice ideas and alignment.
Commitment means you agree on who will take what actions and in what time frame after the meeting. Without specific commitments in time, you should not expect anything to happen. This is not micromanaging or not trusting. This is simply good project management.
Completion means that everything that needs to be said or asked has been expressed before you move on to the next topic. If you leave with things unsaid, you can’t expect people to be clear or aligned.
“Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization.” -Paul Axtell
Meeting Behavior Can Promote Your Career
Moving to strategy number six. You say, “Leading meetings is a core competency for managers.” It seems to be an untaught skill, yet you are absolutely right. As a CEO, I can absolutely say that I have promoted more than one person based on leadership behavior during meetings. Why isn’t this taught as a key managerial skill?
I have no idea why organizations have not emphasized this aspect of being a manager. They certainly have training classes on effective meetings. And if we ask the people who lead meetings and the people participating in them what they would love to be true in their meetings, the answers are the same—focused agenda, balanced participation, rigorous leading, clear actions, etc. Perhaps meetings are too commonplace, too ordinary to capture the attention—or we’ve become too enamored with cute ideas rather than do the work associated with designing and leading good solid meetings. As with many other skills in life, knowing the right way to lead or participate is not sufficient to actually change the way you do it. Changing how you act in meetings takes awareness, attention to key variables, reflection, insight, and practice. Getting better at meetings takes deliberate practice—it takes work.
One leadership skill that is required if we are to change the pattern is confronting. All players in a meeting must be willing to speak up when something is missing in a meeting. Consider the two primary factors that will reduce the time spent in meetings: staying on track and each person speaking in a way that is focused—clear, concise, and relevant. How many times do we notice that a conversation has strayed and we don’t say anything? How many times does someone go on and on and we never give them feedback? Confronting doesn’t mean being nasty, but it does take a willingness to state what is so.
3 Objectives for an Effective Meeting
Would you share the three objectives for leading an effective meeting?
For me, the most important objective is to accomplish the agenda: Have the right things on the agenda, and then address each topic thoroughly so you end up with clearly defined action, commitments to deadlines, and a plan for follow-up.
Second, manage the conversation in a way such that everyone’s experience of being in the meeting is positive. Balance the participation levels. Ensure that each person is heard. Remove all distractions.
Third, always be working on getting better at running meetings—have some process idea or skill you are working on—perhaps for a week or two. It might be calling on people. It might be getting specific commitments. It might be devoting your attention to people when they speak. Improving individual and group competency at meetings is a long-term process.
“If I’m not happy in this time and place, I’m not paying attention.” –Jodi Hills
Career Rocket Fuel
Have you seen careers derailed based on behaviors in a meeting?
I’m not sure if I’ve seen careers derailed, but clearly the reverse occurs—careers moving up on the basis of how people participate and communicate. I’ve seen individuals whose stock and reputation have risen dramatically because of their ability to summarize a group conversation and suggest a way forward when individuals seem to be at odds. Leaders also appreciate people who can find the language to capture a moment in a way that others can use when they leave the room. For instance, I heard someone express the notion that one of the loneliest places in the world is to have no voice, and therefore we need to be talking to employees and truly listening to them. You could tell the entire group left more aware of inviting people into conversations. Lastly, individuals who have the ability to both represent their own department and look out for the organization as a whole are noticed.
I’ve also seen people who made dramatic shifts in how they came across once they were given feedback. For example, one person whose posture gave the impression that he didn’t care. Another person who did not participate if the conversation didn’t impact his college. And another who spoke far longer than necessary to make her points. Each of these behaviors might have been derailers if not confronted. Each person willingly and quickly changed once they were told. This is another area where supervisors need to step up and be responsible for how their people participate in meetings.
Speakers learn what to do about hecklers. That same behavior can crop up in a meeting. How do you handle someone who is constantly disrupting a meeting?
The first thought that comes to mind is the group is too big. You are less likely to have disruptive behavior in groups of five or eight, and if you do, it’s easy to deal with. In larger meetings, the intimacy is gone and disruption is more likely. Four things are important:
- Slow down and hear them out fully.
- Respond in a way that everyone in the room will appreciate.
- Reflect their points back to them and ask them what they want.
- Do not justify or explain anything—it will look defensive.
- Remember this is a human being and look past how he or she is speaking.
- If you cannot immediately address the issue, invite the disruptor to meet with you afterward for coffee.