By Marc Hequet
Rob Bellmar sprinted for home, glancing over his shoulder to check for the throw. That’s when he stepped on the bat in the base path and blew out his right quadriceps leg muscle.
He learned something, though. About meetings.
The softball injury last June meant that Bellmar, senior vice president at InterCall, had to phone in for a meeting a few days later, rather than attend in person.
So what? Virtual meetings are business as usual for the Chicago-based West Corp. subsidiary. InterCall helps clients conduct meetings via audio, video, and Web. But Bellmar’s injury gave him a fresh insight. Calling in on the phone, he missed all the body language. If everybody’s remote, that’s one thing, but if some are present physically and one or more are virtual, meeting leaders must adjust.
For example: Were people paying attention? In person, stern looks from the senior VP matter. “In virtual meetings,” says Bellmar, “you’re not there to give them the peer-pressure stare, the one that says, ‘Are you in this meeting or not?’”
In short, when it comes to meetings, even the pros are still learning and fine-tuning. And that’s where training professionals can help—most organizations could benefit from a few training sessions on how to run, and participate in, an effective meeting.
Just ask Matthew Ferrara, an Andover, MA, sales and marketing trainer, who thinks too many meetings “suffer from bad planning and no focus—too many attendees and not enough participants.” In fact, Ferrara is fond of paraphrasing the late management guru, Peter Drucker: You can be in a meeting or you can be working—but you can’t be doing both.
In addition, meetings often end up being just data dumps. If so, Ferrara says, you might consider just sending an e-mail instead. After all, meetings can be expensive, even for front-line workers. As Ferrara notes, “How much does it cost to take those people away from helping customers?” Put five of your top executives in a room, he adds, “and that’s a $10,000 meeting.”
Plain Talk and Tangible Goals
In some ways, meetings can be a form of training, so should meeting leaders expect measurable outcomes from meetings? Yes, says Yoon Cannon, a consultant in Doylestown, PA. But she often sees meeting leaders just “chasing their tails.”
Consultant Cannon can speak up when employees dare not. If a client CEO pontificates, she can retort, “I have no idea what you mean by that.” Sometimes, Cannon adds, CEOs agree that they don’t know, either. So she tries to guide clients toward plain talk, tangible goals for meetings, and measuring outcomes.
It’s not easy. Cannon offers an example:
A client’s president wanted to meet with managers, says Cannon, to ask them to stop being friends with direct reports.
Too vague, Cannon advised. What were the undesired behaviors? Well, going out to lunch only with certain people, and stopping by to chat only with certain people. And then there’s the employee who calls her male boss “babe”—though, actually, she calls everybody “babe.”
Are these the issues that should be burning $10,000 in executive time? Probably not. Time for that training session on effective meetings.
Do We Really Need Meetings?
Stephen Balzac postponed his interview for this story. The Stow, MA, consultant had—you guessed it—a meeting. “Sadly, not one that I get to facilitate,” he e-mailed.
Balzac thinks the root problem with meetings is that organizations are poor time managers. “In companies where everyone always is juggling multiple tasks, where everyone always feels rushed, meeting behavior is going to reflect that,” he says. “Conversely, in organizations where things are not quite so crazy, meetings will be calmer, as well.”
Think of time not as a scarce resource, Balzac advises, but as “a framework for activity. It’s a way of organizing and structuring our projects so the right people and resources are in the right places at the right time.”
Yes, we need meetings. “Every organization has something to talk about,” Balzac added in his e-mail. “It’s a question of setting the right priorities so we talk about the things that matter.”
Back in Chicago, Bellmar has healed from his softball injury and remembers the lesson: Facilitating good meetings—like good base running—requires focusing on your goal, on whom you will encounter, and on obstacles in the way. It’s time to step up to the plate now and make meetings matter.
- Set a goal for the meeting. Can’t do it? Then do you really need to meet?
- If it’s only about disseminating information, why not just send an e-mail?
- Start on time. If you don’t, people will get accustomed to showing up late.
- End when you say you’re going to end.
- If you’re convening people who don’t regularly see each other, allow 15 minutes for chat. “They’re going to do it anyway,” says consultant Stephen Balzac of Stow, MA.
- Cover the important material first, when people are fresh.
- Just one person talking? Dull. “Break people into groups of twos and threes,” suggests consultant Robert Wright of Chicago. Then let a spokesperson report from each discussion. Executives might object, Wright acknowledges. “Most leaders are control freaks,” he says, who “really don’t understand facilitating emergence of the highest intelligence of their groups.”
- Are you meeting about improving performance? Pick two or three top performers. Post their names and images where attendees can see them for the whole meeting. Ask your top performers to explain how they do what they do. Set a time limit on their brief presentations.
- Brainstorming? Take breaks. Consultant Balzac runs half-day brainstorming sessions. “People’s attention span,” he says, “is about an hour.”