How to Ensure That Every Meeting You Lead Matters

Ever leave a meeting wondering, “Did we actually accomplish anything?” Or, saying to yourself, “Was that a waste of time?.” Or maybe even positing, “There has to be a better way!”

Chances are, if you’re leading a team of people, you have since meetings are a way of life for leaders (and rarely have we been taught how to lead them well). In fact, if you’re not meeting regularly, you’re not doing your job as a leader. Even worse, the larger your business, the more meetings you have.

Back in my former career as the senior pastor of a large church whenever someone would ask me what I did, my tongue in cheek answer was always, “I meet and I kill trees.”

Now, while it is possible to do something over and over again and never get good at it (i.e. “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”), I did learn a few things about how to lead meetings that matter that I think you’ll appreciate.

So, if you’re tired of leading meetings that don’t produce great results or feel like they’re a waste of time, make sure you read and apply the ideas behind each of the following five questions.

Note: to make these principles more powerful and applicable, I’ve put them in a question format so you can use them to evaluate the last meeting you led (be honest with your answers). At the end I’ll summarize the five principles so you’ll know exactly how to ensure that every meeting you lead is one that matters.

I. Did Everyone Come Prepared To Engage?

There are a number of reasons why meetings fail, but this is the first one in a long line and it’s that most leaders don’t put out a meaningful agenda ahead of time (or any agenda at all), which means that no one comes prepared to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue and debate.

If you or your people are simply showing up, then the best you can get out of your people are their “top-of-the head” ideas. And since most people aren’t that great on their feet (i.e. not great at coming up with creative ideas on the spot), you’ll always have a sub-optimal meeting if your people don’t come fully prepared for a meaningful discussion.

In another post, I’ll talk about what a great agenda looks like, but for today, you simply need to own the idea that a great agenda should be sent to your people several days ahead of time and, this is key, it should tell them what they should come prepared for.

For example, let’s say that you need to discuss entering a new market. Don’t just write on your agenda, “New Market,” because that won’t tell anyone anything. Instead, write something like, “New Market Discussion – Bring your three best ideas for the next new markets you think we should pursue. Come prepared to defend each of your ideas.” That asks your team for something completely different than a typical agenda item, doesn’t it?

In addition, instead of being forced to ask a wide open question (since people didn’t come prepared), “Does anyone have some ideas of what new markets we should pursue?” (which usually elicits a non-response …. other than several people looking down), you now can go around the room and ask each person, “Joe (then Sally, then Frank, then Anik, etc.), what are the top three markets you picked and why?” Again, that leads to an entirely different kind of meeting, doesn’t it?

So, as you look back at your last meeting, did everyone come prepared to engage? Did you have an agenda that everyone received several days ahead of time? And did that agenda tell them exactly how to come prepared for that meeting?

II. Was There Energy In The Room?

For me, this is usually the easiest and quickest way to gauge whether a meeting was a great one or not, ”Was there energy in the room?” Most meetings are boring and they’re usually boring because they’re primarily information based with discussion being minimized. But why have meetings if they’re primarily informational? Emails and reports can take care of that. No, the reason to have a meeting is to have a discussion about things that really matter.

Several years ago I sat on the board of a global organization. In my first meeting, I quickly figured out that the culture of this board was designed to primarily listen to executives read reports. Ugh! What a waste of time (and I knew I didn’t want to waste two days of my life every quarter flying somewhere to listen to reports). So, I decided to change things up by doing what I normally do, ask questions. I challenged ideas. I asked about opportunities and threats. I questioned assumptions. Etc. In other words, I decided to make the meeting a conversation.

At first, several board members weren’t happy with me. Why? Not only was I the “new guy” but now, every session took a lot longer to complete. However, after a while, other people started chiming in and asking questions too because, in general, most leaders are bored with monologues, they want dialogues. They want to engage. They want a chance to influence a decision. They want to know that their time investment matters. They want their brains tapped. And when that happens, energy soars. Discussion and debate and yes, even a few heated moments occur, but that’s what should happen in a good meeting.

Unfortunately, after I left that board, six months later I was talking with someone who was still on the board and he said, “I miss not having you on the board anymore. Things have reverted back to the way they were without you. They’ve become boring again.”

So, as you look back on your last meeting, how would you rate the energy in the room on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being high? If it was less than a 9, you know you have some work to do.

III. Did We Make Any Important Decisions?

As you read above, meetings shouldn’t primarily be about information sharing, they should be about dialogue and debate. But how many times have you been in a meeting where people talked for an hour (or longer) and then nothing happened or was decided? How did you feel? Probably like you just wasted an hour or more of your life!

On the other hand, how often have you finished a meeting and “lots of decisions” were made, but they were all about little tactical things that should have been decided outside your meeting? Probably more times than you care to admit. And again, you probably left feeling like no progress had been made.

The point of having a discussion is to make a decision—even if the decision is that more research or data is required.

For example, going back to our discussion about new markets. If, after hearing everyone share their top three markets and debating and discussing them—and you’re still not sure if you should go with A or B, you could decide as a group that Bill will come back next week with specific research about A and Sally will come back with specific research about B and after hearing their presentations you’ll make a final decision. That fine … it’s still a decision that moves a question forward to its final decision.

Small tactical issues should usually be taken care of outside a meeting, unless the issue involves everyone in the meeting and it’s a time saver. However, for the most part, you want to make sure that the discussions and decisions you’re engaging in with your team are all about issues that matter to the advancement of your business or organization.

So, when you look back on your last meeting, did you make any decisions? And were they about important issues that really matter?

IV. Was Everyone Clear on What They Were Responsible For After They Left the Meeting?

How many times have you left a meeting thinking that, “everyone knows” what they’re responsible for, only to find out later that wasn’t true? Again, probably more times than you care to admit to. It’s downright frustrating.

The solution, of course, is pretty simple. Make sure you end your meeting discussions five to ten minutes before the end of your time and review the following items.

1. What decisions did we make?
2. Who is responsible for what actions?
3. When do those actions need to be completed by?

If the point of a meeting is to have meaningful discussions about things that matter that lead to decisions, those decisions should then lead to some actions. Or to put it another way, if a meeting ends and there are no clear actions that need to be taken, that meeting was a waste of time.

So, when you look back on your last meeting, did you stop early and review the decisions and actions that were made so that everyone was clear on who was responsible for what and by when?

V. Did We Discuss What Information To Cascade Out (and By Whom)?

Finally, if you’re having a meeting about issues that matter, chances are there will information from that meeting that needs to be communicated to someone or some group of someones who weren’t present at that meeting.

Note: A rookie leadership mistake is to believe that everyone knows what you know. Because you have access to all the inside knowledge, it’s easy to think that “everyone else” knows what you know (they don’t).

That’s why, at the end of your meeting, you should do a quick wrap up and see if there’s anything that needs to get communicated out to others who weren’t part of your conversation.

  • Other executives
  • Project members
  • Employees
  • Board members
  • Vendors
  • Customers/Clients/Members/Patients
  • Outsourced services (for example, a marketing company or web company or attorney or accountant)

Again, if you complete a meeting and no one needs to know anything about what you discussed or decided in that meeting, chances are it wasn’t a great meeting.

So, as you look back on your last meeting, did you discuss what information should be cascaded out (and by whom)?

Well, there you go. If you want to make sure that every meeting you lead is worth having, make sure you follow each of these five principles

1. Send out agendas with specific questions for people to answer several days before the meeting
2. Engage everyone present in discussions about things that matter and get them engaged in vigorous debate
3. Make sure your discussions lead to decisions that require action on those issues that matter
4. Finish your meetings by reviewing what decisions were made and who’s responsible for what
5. Lastly, ask, “What do other people need to know about what we discussed and decided here in this meeting?”

If you regularly do those five things, I’m absolutely confident that you’ll see the productivity and effectiveness of your meetings soar, as well as the results your business derives from them. So, don’t waste any more time. Put an end to unproductive meetings this week—once and for all!

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some other ideas about how to lead more productive meetings, make sure you add them below in the comments section (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email).