Make meetings work

It’s universal: people are mired in meetings. In some organizations, meetings have replaced work as a primary daily activity.

Being in meetings all day

Some leaders are so back-to-back with meetings they aren’t available for anything else. In some cases, they are double or even triple booked; they decide at the last minute which one to attend.

They complain about it but don’t do anything about it.

Meeting software now allows colleagues from across the organization to put a meeting on a leader’s calendar, which is efficient but oh, so ineffective. Some simple questions could reduce the number of meetings: “What is the meeting about?” “Could someone attend in my place?” “Could you just send me the minutes?” “Couldn’t we discuss this by phone instead?” And what’s wrong with simply saying “No, sorry I’m too busy this week.”

Coming to a meeting late and leaving early

With schedules packed tight, it’s easy to see why this happens. However, the beginning and ending of a meeting are usually the most critical parts. The start establishes the purpose and sets up the entire meeting process; the end is where conclusions are drawn and assignments made.

Some simple changes could resolve some of this: Instead of each meeting starting and ending on the hour, reduce meeting times by five minutes, so they end five minutes before the hour, to allow for travel time to the next meeting. Better yet, establish a 30-minute and 45-minute timeframe for some meetings – especially the ones that are routine or hopelessly wandering. With less time, people will speed up and be more focused.

Attendees need to take ownership, too. Coming late to a meeting is disrespectful. I know leaders who won’t start until everyone is there and won’t allow anyone to “go find Pete and tell him the meeting is starting” – latecomers quickly learn to avoid the embarrassment of walking into a room filled with silent, irritated colleagues.

Working on emails during a meeting

This isn’t “multi-tasking,” it’s just plain rude. Sometimes you see them doing the “Blackberry prayer” under the table, or feigning note taking on their laptop, but everyone knows what they are doing: not participating.

The purpose of a meeting is to be part of the discussion – not to have your rear end in one of the chairs.

Talking more than 60%

Some leaders use meetings for their personal pulpits. That may have been the way meetings were run in the distant past but it’s ineffective today. People want to weigh in and provide input and ideas.

Some leaders complain that they try to get participation but it’s like pulling teeth. If this is happening, clearly something else is very wrong. For example: Does the leader criticize or resist their ideas? Are there conflicts among the team? Is there a feeling that no matter what they say, the leader will do what he wants anyway?

Not summarizing or tying up action plans

The point of a meeting isn’t to get in a room and talk; it’s to accomplish something. If a meeting doesn’t end with an outcome, why have a meeting at all? Try starting each meeting with this question: “What is our desired outcome for this meeting?” People will likely stare at you like you have just asked the most bizarre question. But if you continue to begin and end each meeting with a focus on outcomes you will see the quality of your meetings go up; while the number of meetings goes down.

Joan Lloyd is an executive coach, organizational & leadership development strategist. She helps leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Email your question to Joan at, visit to search an archive of more than 1,500 of Joan’s articles.

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