How To Lead Meetings That Work

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“To make our meetings more effective, we need to have multiple types of meetings, and clearly distinguish between the various purposes, formats, and timing of those meetings.”

Patrick Lencioni, Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business

One of the things we hear a lot from the leaders we work with is that they are overwhelmed, or at least struggling, with the demands on their time, which are significant. Work/life balance seems like an unattainable goal, and leading others can be seen as “one more thing” versus THE thing. If leveraging other people is the work that allows a leader to scale and deliver critical results, success can’t be random – it requires a disciplined approach and a regular cadence of communication. Meetings remain the most practical way of accomplishing this. Yes, meetings. I can hear the collective sigh – not more meetings! You don’t need to look far to discover that a prevailing belief with many leaders is that the majority of meetings are a waste of time. If the mindset of leaders (and their teams) is that meetings are a waste of time, then how does that translate into action? Not surprisingly, failing to prepare, canceled meetings, lack of focus and energy in meetings, absence of decisions or outcomes, and lack of participation by attendees are common – an enormous waste of resources. No wonder we resist meetings.

What would change if every leader’s mindset was that meetings represented their most significant opportunity to lead others and produce results?

Designed strategically, well-structured meetings allow a leader to set direction, clear obstacles, make decisions, and develop people. If a meeting isn’t producing tangible results – the collaboration that leads to problem-solving, decision making, direct feedback, progress towards goals – then it should stop or be redesigned. Here are some things to do:

First is assessment. Think about all of the meetings that you lead or attend.

  • On a scale of 1 to 5, how useful is each meeting?
  • Can you describe the intended outcome or deliverables from the meeting? Could your team?
  • How often does the group achieve those outcomes?
  • Are the right people in attendance?
  • What could change to make these meetings a good use of everyone’s time?

Next – step back and, in essence, start over. If you were creating the perfect cadence of meetings that are highly productive and drive work momentum, what type of meetings do you need and how often should they occur? Typically, these are one-on-one meetings, team progress meetings, project review meetings, and leadership meetings. Each meeting should have a name that clearly describes its core purpose. A weekly team meeting may be more aptly named a “Focus and Momentum” meeting. A leadership meeting could be renamed to be a “Connection and Decision-Making” meeting.

What “scheduled as needed” meetings are required? Rather than regularly scheduled, these include things like idea generation, strategic/project planning, decision-making, and problem-solving meetings that are held on an as-needed basis or perhaps yearly.

For each meeting that you’ve identified, design the individual meeting structure. Communicate the meeting purpose and intended outcomes – what will happen as a result of this meeting? Have a clear agenda. Invite the right people and send pre-meeting materials so they can be prepared. Take visible notes and publish them after the meeting. At the end of each meeting, save 10 minutes to summarize decisions and decide due dates. Who needs to know about these decisions, and who will tell them?

Finally, practice effective meeting skills. Focus people’s attention, keep the discussion on track, make sure that you hear from everyone versus the extroverts only.

Creating an infrastructure and cadence of clear, focused, and purposeful communication can be the best opportunity that a leader has to build relationships and deliver results. What could you start, stop, or keep doing during meetings to create the best chance for you to lead?

If you’d like to read more about this topic, here are some suggestions:

Where the Action is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, by J. Elise Keith, 2018

Powerfully Simple Meetings: Your Guide for Fewer, Faster, More Focused Meetings, by Peter Kidd and Bryan Field, 2014

Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, by Paul Axtell, 2015

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business, by Patrick Lencioni, 2004

Cindy Jackson

Cindy Jackson, Chief Learning Officer, has the ability to seek out the core of unique leadership challenges, making her a sought-after coach, speaker, and master facilitator. A corporate executive for over 25 years, she uses communication, compassion, and skill to transform reactive tendencies into creative competencies. She lives in Minneapolis.