#425  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 9          September 1999

So You’re Leading a Meeting?
by Dianna Booher

Ms. Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a communications consulting firm in Dallas (phone 800-342-6621) which offers training in effective writing, oral presentations, interpersonal skills, and customer service communications.  She has written 35 books, including Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994). http://www.booherconsultants.com

You have attended scores of them.  Probably even a few this week.  And for some reason, the thought of sitting in on another one leaves you nauseated.  They're called meetings and they're an integral part of business life.

Actually, they are a pretty good idea.  Gather a group of talented people, pool their resources and expertise, hash out some issues, devise a game plan, and everyone is the better for it. Unfortunately, not all meetings follow that agenda.  Instead, busy people with complicated schedules reluctantly congregate to vent their frustrations, complicate matters, and pontificate pet peeves.  And everyone ends up with more work. 

Meetings are here to stay, and sooner or later, you'll likely be asked to lead one some day.  Understand the basics of how to conduct a meeting and you'll be known as one who gets things done; neglect these basics and you'll only waste everyone's time.

Meeting Basics

Meet for the right reason.  When you call a meeting, know the reason. Skip the meeting if you have nothing special to discuss, if you don't need others' input, if you have already made up your mind about a course of action, or if getting others involved would only complicate your plan.

Do call a meeting if you need to present information to a lot of people quickly and you don't want to write it, if you want input from others on your idea, if you want to gain "buy in" from the team, or if you want to motivate and energize the team about an idea.

Purposeful meetings resolve issues, galvanize support, and prepare others for action. Set an agenda.  Some people think that agendas lend too much structure to a meeting, that people can't be spontaneous, or that the atmosphere will be too formal.  That's like saying if you plan for a vacation by packing the right clothes, arranging for transportation, and deciding on a destination that you can't relax and be spontaneous along the way.

Agendas are merely roadmaps that lead you to your destination.  Use them or get lost. When leading a meeting, set an agenda and stick to it.  Use active verbs, summarize in a sentence the issue at hand, and let the group know what you expect on each issue--"for discussion only," "to collect data," or "for decision."

Whether you follow the agenda or take an occasional detour, having an agenda will give others the peace of mind that the meeting is going somewhere. 

Stay out in front if you intend to lead.  Nothing frustrates and turns off meeting attendees more than having a leader who doesn't take control.  State your role at the beginning and what authority the group will have.

Do you intend simply to facilitate the discussion or tell them how you will discuss each idea and come to decisions?  Are you going to keep the discussion moving or abdicate that responsibility to others randomly?

Are you going to be a silent observer or do you plan to throw in your two cents worth? You don't have to have all the answers, do all the talking, or make all the decisions, but you should be out in front.  Either lead or give the responsibility to someone else and get out of the way. Someone is always in charge of a meeting.  If it's your meeting, make sure it's you. 

Select attendees carefully.  Selecting your list of attendees is as important as the issues you discuss.  Ask the right people and you have a good chance of a lively, informed, useful exchange of ideas.  Ask the wrong people and you establish a war zone.

Use the following checklist:  Who can provide necessary expert advice? Who has experience with this issue?  Who will support your cause?  Who will oppose your cause?  Whose commitment do you need to "make it happen"? 

Don't seek popular people, persuasive people, or positioned people--seek the right people for your purpose. Own the setting.  Just as an athlete has a distinct advantage when competing on his home field, so can a meeting facilitator.  Know the turf and you control the meeting.

If you want authority and a no-nonsense atmosphere, schedule the boardroom.  If you want an energized group, go for a well-lit conference room.  For an informal chitchat session, try someone's office.  If you want to play host, provide coffee or snacks in a parlor or schedule the meeting for a nice restaurant.  Your guests will feel obligated to be civil and even compliant.

Ask yourself what atmosphere you'd like to create in your meeting and plan accordingly.  Whatever your choice, be comfortable with it and "own" the surroundings.

Meetings don't have to be another "necessary evil."  They can be the most efficient and effective way of getting quality work done quickly, completely, and on time--without merely giving everyone more work.  

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