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31. Meetings

There is more to this than meets the eye.


"He's in a meeting" is either a very good excuse for not taking calls or most businesspeople do spend their entire work lives in meetings. I suspect a little of both.

In fact, it's estimated that out of an average eight-hour day, two to five hours of a mid-level manager's time is devoted entirely to meetings. Research shows that among top executives, a whopping six and a half hours of every eight is devoted solely to meetings.

Bad enough if they were judged to be profitable, but surveyed professionals indicate that more than half the time spent in meetings is wasted. "We just meet and meet and meet and never seem to do anything," complained the senior manager of network operations at Federal Express with exasperation in an article for Fast Company titled "The Seven Sins of Deadly Meetings."

Equate that to dollars and lost time by otherwise productive employees, whose own work usually suffers from lack of attention or requires overtime. Companies are losing loads of money to unnecessary meetings, an estimated $90 billion dollars according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And with no individual accountability, whatever progress is made in meetings is often not managed effectively anyway.

The next time you are bored in a meeting, do the math by adding up the hourly pay of who's there. And it's not just the hours spent in the meeting, but also those spent on the meeting. It is estimated that a one-hour meeting of four people will probably take another 16 hours of salaried, support time. The indirect costs of a failed meeting in terms of loss of momentum, motivation, clarity, direction, delegation, persuasion, time, leadership, accomplishment, teamwork, and reputations is incalculable.

George David Kieffer, a partner in the national law firm of Manatt Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles and author of the book The Strategy of Meetings interviewed more than 50 of America's most successful and respected leaders in business, labor, industry, education, and government many of whom are viewed as masters in the art of conducting meetings. Two central points emerged from his interviews. Number one, most professionals do not recognize the enormous impact their meetings have on their organizations and the resulting corporate cultures. And two, according to Kieffer and his band of renowned experts, the skill to manage a meeting to develop ideas, to motivate people, and to move people and ideas to positive action is perhaps the most critical asset in any career.

Before we get to making rather than breaking your career over meetings, let's focus on why meetings matter to your corporate culture. In a business world that is faster, meaner, and more downsized than ever before, there should be more indi vidual initiative, more e-mails, and fewer meetings, right? Wrong. Apparently, more and more companies with fewer and fewer people are increasingly depending on more and more meetings for team-based decision-making. And, obviously, bad meetings that waste everyone's time, talent, and sense of accomplishment create a source of negative energy about our companies and ourselves.

Good meeting protocol should not be proprietary information. Everyone should know and practice it. Teaching everyone in your organization the skills of good meetings is somewhat like the savvy marketing move made by the authors of The One Minute Manager, Dr. Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard.

"Give everyone to whom you report and who reports to you, a copy of the book," they advised. Not only did this advice sell a lot of books, it made One-Minute Management a good business practice embraced at all levels.

In the Fast Company article, author Eric Matson wrote that most people sin by not taking meetings seriously. "They arrive late, leave early and spend most of their time doodling, then follow the mantra that the meeting is over, let's get back to work."

What should you ask to know if the meeting in question is necessary?

  1. What is the goal or what do we want to accomplish. In other words, a win from this meeting would be...?
  2. Is it the right time and right atmosphere? Are all the facts, the right leader, and needed participants available?
  3. Could this be accomplished as well in a phone conversation between two or a conference call among three?
  4. Do we have more immediate deadlines?

So, why don't mindless meetings stop? The reasons are as endless and boring as the meetings themselves. But basically, according to Kieffer, it's Newton's First Law: The Law of Inertia. Every object persists in its state of rest, or uniform motion; unless, it is compelled to change that state, by forces impressed upon it.

Similarly, meetings go on and on forever and in the same manner unless you act upon them with an equal or greater force.

You could "Just say, 'No.'" In No Longer Human, Japanese novelist Dazai Osamu wrote, "My unhappiness was the unhappiness of a person who could not say no." Eleanor Roosevelt said "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Likewise, no one can make a meeting without people who are willing to meet. In an article for Mc Call 's magazine, Charlotte Keyes titled her words, "Suppose They Gave a War, and No One Came."

Before we discuss a passive-aggressive approach of what meetings to attend or conduct, we must explore what objectives are best accomplished by a meeting.

Successful Meeting Objectives


Meetings devoted exclusively to brainstorming are a great way to tap the creative energy of a group. Hollywood producer Ken Atchity describes the process of vision to revision by stressing how important it is to let your right brain write before your left brain edits. The same is true in a brainstorming meeting. Every idea should be encouraged because it may lead to the idea or solution you need. Only after the right brains have created with joyous abandon should the left brains weed through for the "right" answer.

It is interesting to note that since predominately male-oriented meetings are a linear affair, where b follows a, etc., if your process is a more creative or circular approach, wait to interject your solution until the meeting is ready for it.

A Vote

When a decision calls for a democratic rather than autocratic conclusion, a meeting can be a means to that end. To satisfy everyone's desire to make an informed decision, it's important that all the participants have all the necessary information ahead of time. The information-gathering, the lobbying, and the personal decision-making should be done before everyone gets there.

If the boss has convened a meeting to share a decision that has already been reached, don't be the staff member who persists in debating it. You're in the wrong meeting and not impressing anyone!

As a general rule, subordinates should be gathering information. Superiors should be creating policy.


"Who's on first?" was a tireless joke between Abbott and Costello. It also speaks to the challenge of a committee chair not knowing what he or she wants. And therefore, one who cannot delegate effectively or even lead a meeting in which the group as a whole delegates assignments. Before leaving a delegating meeting, be sure to ask what is expected of you and when.


Even though every meeting must inspire the group to commit to the objective, some meetings are all about inspiration.

The two greatest mistakes made in meetings are not knowing what you want to accomplish and trying to accomplish everything at once.

But what do you do if your boss or her boss is an overmeeter? The best advice is to offer your boss the choice of having you finish a more pressing assignment rather than attend this meeting. Focusing the boss on priorities may get everyone off an unnecessary hook. Even she probably knows management expert Peter Drucker's warning that we either work or we meet, we can't do both at the same time.

The meeting is only a means to an end. As the quarterback in your job, career, and meeting, the boss calls the plays. He brings everyone together with a specific plan. Once that's accomplished, the play begins. But until everyone gets out of the huddle, there is no game!

Just as in the football huddle, no extraneous players should be allowed. You don't empty the bench just so everyone can feel included. Be more selective about your meeting partners, then give everyone you need everything they need to execute the play.

The 8-P Approach

The Point. Before you define the purpose, ask yourself or whoever is calling you away from your life's work, "What's the point?" Even before you define the purpose, you have to consider whether there's a worthwhile point to having a meeting.

The Purpose. What key objective needs to be accomplished? The fewer the objectives, the more likely that they will be accomplished.

The Power. Who is quarterbacking this meeting? What do you need from your players?

The People. For many years my parents gave the best parties around. When asked the one secret of their success, they always say, "The people make the party." That's true, but I always suspect that it is also their way of complimenting their guests by making them feel important and worthy of being there. It certainly wasn't empty praise. Their people were the best guests. There was no "B" list. Outgoing, ingratiating guests who came to have a good time and make it a good time for everyone else as well. In short, they contributed.

The Plan. If you've ever done a new business proposal, you know that it's all done on paper first. When you finally win the business, all that's left is executing. That's why many companies charge for the proposal because that's where the creative work happens. In theory, the client could shop your proposal and hand the plan to anyone for any price. The only thing that needs to be accomplished in the presentation is buy off or agreement.

The quality time you spend deciding what you want your meeting to accomplish and sharing the goal with your attendees will greatly affect how the meeting plays. As a player, don't run with the ball until your quarterback spells out where you are to go.

The Promotion. How are you going to sell your meeting? Figure out what's in it for each of the team members and tell them, before expecting them to show up.

The Progress. At the end of every workshop, we ask participants to fill out a questionnaire on what was accomplished. "What was the most valuable thing you learned? What was the least?" In short, what they've heard is much more important than what we've said.

The Payoff. How do you judge a meeting? Was the group and cause worthy of the participants' time? Did each have an opportunity to influence the outcome?

A Powerful meeting is one in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There should be a synergistic effect of bringing those people together with that plan for that purpose. It's not enough for a meeting to just keep the participants informed. There's e-mail for that. It is estimated that our ability to comprehend what we read is three to four times greater than our ability to comprehend what we are told.

After a meeting, ask yourself what more, better, or different happened as a result. Before the next one, ask yourself the same question. Specifically, what has been or still needs to be accomplished?

Following the business principle of spending money before you make it, spending time that you don't have to plan meetings you don't want to go to may seem somewhat counterproductive. With fewer employees in the workforce, many feel there's hardly enough time in a day to complete basic tasks. Who has the time or energy to plan meetings so strenuously? Was or will it be a win or a loss? How do you know? Why should you care? Remember Kieffer's belief that the skill to manage a meeting is the most critical asset in any career.

Not a Dirty Word

Control. Another "C" word. Charles de Gaulle was of the belief that men (and presumably women, too) can no more get along without direction than they can without eating, drinking, and sleeping. And George David Kieffer is of the opinion that you will achieve the goals of benefiting yourself and your career, your cause and your company to the extent that you are willing and able to exert positive control over every meeting you attend.

First, declining a meeting until conditions are favorable: the homework is done, the environment and timing seem ideal, and the necessary people are available is both your right and your responsibility.

Before you can reject or accept a meeting, you need to consider the smokescreens that meetings provide: a substitute for work, commiserating, networking, grandstanding, or gossiping. Remember, meetings multiply.

Power vs. Productivity

Routine meetings are the power monger's playground. He or she can boss people around, control their time, and reinforce the pecking order. If, on the other hand, you seek to be productive, eliminate regularly scheduled meetings.

As a manager, I was once told by a Harvard MBA, "Get good people, then get out of the way."

To be successful, "calling it in" killing time in a meeting, drifting to and through them, is not good enough. You must demand from others and contribute more yourself.

Has experience proven that no matter what you are trying to do, it usually gets down to a meeting? Consider the alternative that technology makes possible: an e-mail with copies to all concerned.

How do you know when to write, phone, or meet? Written communication takes time, but people do pay attention and concisely written e-mails are read. Talking it out seems easier, but talking can be a greater time-waster, unless you know whom to talk to and what to say.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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