Making Meetings Work

ALL OF US have attended team meetings that turn out to be a waste of time and money. This often happens even when considerable effort has been made to organise things and fix an agenda.

The goals may be lofty – redefining human resources policies, brainstorming about a marketing plan or reviewing budgets and forecasts – and getting people together may seem the best way forward. However, many business meetings are unable to achieve any results and even end up creating more problems than they resolve.

As a leader, you can expect to chair various meetings, including team briefings, conferences, management committees and client reviews. The objective will differ depending on the occasion. It could be to reach a decision, advance the strategic plan or to update, inform and inspire those taking part.

The style and structure of the meeting will also depend on the time available, the degree of participation and feedback expected.

Whatever the variables, the crucial first step is to avoid two big misconceptions: that inviting more people to attend a meeting will get better inputs; and that getting a group of experts together in the same room will automatically produce results.

Generally, two minds are better than one, but only if they know how to co-operate and make the most of their combined talents. In the context of meetings, the trick is to make sure everyone understands the primary goal and how each person is expected to contribute.

The leader’s responsibility is to make this clear, keep people focused and ensure that everyone works constructively towards the desired outcome. To do this, the leader needs to wear two hats – that of a chairman and also that of a facilitator. 

As a facilitator, you must foster participation from everyone. Each person should be encouraged to speak, thereby ensuring the group is involved and has a sense of ownership about the decision. Working with others does not come easily to some people. Therefore, the facilitator should help participants by structuring the discussion and preventing distractions. Having clearly defined processes will help in this regard. 

A good facilitator will also provide leadership without dominating a meeting. The secret is to understand how your approach influences participants respond and behave. Listen carefully, guide the discussion and be ready to summarise key points before any decision. To keep things on track, you may also need to remind people about the objective and keep an eye on the time.

The best facilitators recognise that everyone’s participation is critical. They believe that employees are intelligent, capable and want to do the right thing. They also understand that people are naturally more committed to ideas and plans that they have helped to create. Therefore, the best facilitators encourage all individuals to be a part of the process and take on ownership. If you run the meeting according to these principles, your team is much more likely to achieve the desire results.

Complementing the role of the facilitator is that of the chairman. In this guise, the leader’s initial task is to focus attention. This may involve stating the purpose of the meeting and saying a few words to introduce or acknowledge those present. For regular meetings, the next step may be to review previous minutes and get updates. In other cases, the chairman may go straight into explaining the meeting format and process to be followed. 

All meetings need rules. These do not need to be rigid or “parliamentary”, with participants requesting permission to speak and directing their comments via “the chair”. However, it helps when there is some degree of formality.

As chairman, you should always follow the agreed procedure. In doing so, always ensure a fair hearing for every participant. Remaining neutral can be a challenge, especially for more driven, outspoken and opinionated leaders. In such cases, it is essential to resist the urge to impose a decision.

In this dual role of facilitator and chairman, you should make suggestions, raise points for consideration and prompt the discussion.

Naturally, the leader still has the final say in any decision. However, teams will see the best outcomes when the individual members together to take full ownership of their role in the process and decision.

A common and recommended practice is to switch hats during the meeting. This involves acting as chairman to start proceedings and set out the agenda before changing to facilitation mode once things are underway.

After getting inputs on specific issues and ensuring the involvement of the group, you can switch back to being the chairman to summarise, confirm any decision and outline the next steps.

Team meetings are an integral part of corporate life. They are necessary for sharing information, working through problems and plans, and for reaching a broad consensus.

As the leader, it is your responsibility to identify the objectives and ensure that they are achieved. To do this, you must minimise distractions and know when to take control as the chairman, and when to be a facilitator. 


The nine steps
Every meeting must have a beginning middle and end. Planning is a critical part of the process and, depending on the circumstances,  may take anything from a few minutes to a few months. Here are nine recognised steps for making meetings work:

  • Audience analysis – understand who will be present and who is critical to the meeting’s success.
  • Set an objective – be sure about the desired outcome.
  • Research – understand the issues to be discussed, decided, and delivered.
  • Create a structure – establish the agenda and the order of tackling issues in the time available. 
  • Get attention – start the meeting by focusing attention and explaining the relevance of the meeting.
  • Follow guidelines – conduct and control the meeting to keep things on track.
  • Summarise and confirm – make sure everyone understands the outcome and what they are supposed to deliver.
  • Document and distribute results – ensure other interested parties know about the critical decisions.
  • Review the process – after the meeting, ask yourself what went well and what could be done better next time.

Opening the meeting
A simple but effective way of opening a meeting is to address what is going through the minds of the participants. They are probably wondering what it is all about, why they are there, and how long it will take. As the team leader, you need to have an answer ready for these inevitable, and often unspoken, questions. You can get everyone on the same page by starting with a simple 30-second opener. This should answer the following five questions:

  • What is the meeting for?
  • Why is it beneficial, urgent or of consequence for those present?
  • How will the meeting be run?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who will participate and why?

The introduction can be informal. For example, you might say: “OK, let’s get started. I have invited Bob from the finance department to talk about the implementation of the new CRM system. It should take about 30 minutes. I hope we can learn more about the cost overruns for the project, so we can then decide which departments should absorb them.” The meeting now has a clear purpose, which helps you achieve your objectives.