It's All about the Agenda
Every meeting should have an agenda. Start with the meeting's location, start time, and finish time. Cover no more than five topics. If you have more to discuss, schedule another meeting. Express each agenda item briefly, in no more than two sentences. If there is more to say, attach a separate discussion page or backgrounder that provides the detail you want people to know coming into the meeting. Keep the agenda items tangible and goal-oriented. Identify the amount of time you intend to spend on each agenda item. Put the agenda in writing. Distribute copies of the agenda to the employees who will be attending, and ask them to arrive at the meeting prepared to participate. Include the names of all participants, so everyone attending knows who else will be there.
Most of the time, the meeting will be one you're running. Just make sure you know what this means and how you're going to utilize your position. When the person running a meeting becomes too controlling — even with the best of intentions — things can go awry, as they did for Paul.
Paul was a nice-guy manager who liked for all of his employees to feel that their contributions mattered — in meetings, to the department, and to the company. At one meeting, the discussion turned to the new comp time guidelines. Paul knew this was a done deal that upper management would simply implement once the finishing touches were in place. Believing it was better to let his group feel they had a role in shaping the guidelines (though they in fact did not), he let them follow a path he knew was a dead-end.
Two months later, when the company implemented the guidelines, Paul's employees were angry that the new policy incorporated none of their suggestions. Paul could have averted problems had he handled the meeting differently. He could have said the policy was in its final development stages and any discussion would be more appropriate when it was finished. Or he could have said that although he didn't have any authority to offer suggestions, he was interested in knowing what his employees thought.
When you are leading the meeting, it's your role to establish clear boundaries and expectations. If you have decision-making authority, let employees know what they might influence and what is set in stone. Let employees know what kinds of information and feedback you want to hear. Don't set expectations that you can't meet; it damages your credibility. Some managers don't like to give any appearance that their power has any limits. Don't delude yourself. Your employees know exactly where the boundaries of your authority are, even if you're not sure yourself. Meetings give you an opportunity to establish your leadership role, and following the rules for leading an effective meeting can help establish your leadership image.
Companies devote considerable resources to meetings. The typical manager spends at least eight hours a week in meetings — one full workday. Studies suggest companies may spend 10 percent or more of their budgets on meetings. With all these resources on the line, it only makes sense to ensure your meetings are effective and worthwhile.
It's equally important to start the meeting on time. This sounds so simple. Yet in many organizations, starting meetings late is so much the norm that no one even shows up at the scheduled time. Sometimes this practice becomes a part of the corporate culture to the degree that it spills over into other functions. Employees arrive late for meetings with other departments, vendors, and even customers. The resulting hard feelings generate indifference and eventually lost business. No matter what your agenda, you diminish its value when you fail to start the meeting at the scheduled time.
A meeting is a showcase for a manager's behavior and leadership skills — and employees watch the performance very closely. Seeing is believing, and perception is reality. When you act like a manager and leader, your employees perceive you as a manager and a leader.
In addition to starting the meeting promptly at the scheduled time, keep it on track with its agenda, and end it at the scheduled time. If the discussion strays during the meeting, as it inevitably will, firmly but politely redirect it to the topics on the agenda. This is sometimes easier said than done, and there are many techniques to handle the task smoothly and professionally. (There are numerous workshops and books about conducting effective meetings that present these techniques; Appendix B provides more information.)
Finally, always show respect for the opinions of the employees in attendance even if the meeting is not the appropriate forum for expressing them. Sometimes you can offer to set up another meeting or to meet with smaller groups of employees to discuss their concerns. Sometimes further discussion would be fruitless, as it was with Paul and the comp time guidelines, in which case you need to just say so.