Fronting up back-to-back meetings

by Linda Feerick

“I really don’t mind when a meeting overruns and we don’t get much done” said no one. Ever. At a recent Alliance meeting we were reviewing some key themes from our coaching portfolio, mining for insights that may be gold dust for our clients. Said clients include law firms, financial services, media, public sector, charities, retail, telecoms and more. The theme of too many and poor meetings came up for all of us and sadly, it has been around for ages. It doesn’t seem to matter which profession you are in, what level you work at, or how you harness technology there is a depressing familiarity that it is hard to get meetings right, either in quantity or quality. Even giving it a different name (fancy attending a “huddle” anyone?) doesn’t help. In times of financial pressure, meetings are very expensive. Indeed, one of us had pointed out to our client that their meetings cost the business £000s and the return was negligible.

At first, we started to ponder what was going on. We too had our own war stories about meetings and began to curate a list of tools/techniques/anecdotes that we thought might be useful for our conversations with our clients. Our list included:

  • Don’t assume every meeting should fill the time slot allocated
  • Check at the start that you are discussing what matters
  • Ensure everyone contributes proportionately, so that one or two voices don’t dominate the conversation
  • Get every attendee to say why they need to be there
  • Rotate the chair
  • Using Nancy Kline’s Thinking Rounds to give everyone space to contribute
  • Encourage silence

And so it went. Each idea having clear potential to make a difference. Each idea having been used successfully in one organisation or another (including our own). As we continued our conversation something began to happen. We started to ask ourselves a different question. It was something like “What makes successful senior people, well qualified, well paid, with a lot of responsibility, turn up to a meeting that they know will be a partial waste of time?” That generated a whole different conversation. As we stripped away the layers of organisational culture we began to speculate that there must be a compelling reason for people to do this. A reason that outweighs the cost of working late into the night to make up for lost time. This time a different list emerged:

  • Maybe a meeting is a metaphor for your value to the organisation
  • Perhaps a meeting fills a gap of poor communication
  • Is it possible that there is a low level of trust between functions so we need to have a meeting to check that out?
  • It’s a way of colluding with our long hours culture
  • It is an antidote to the loneliness of leadership
  • A meeting may be the best way of getting in front of my boss to get my points across (even if they are not on the agenda)
  • Perhaps we are just expected to have meetings as senior managers of this business

If anything on this list starts to resonate perhaps it is not the meeting process that needs your attention but a review of the cultural norms in your business. This is harder to address. Much harder. But it will make a transformational difference to your business, your working life and to your family. And we all want that don’t we?

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