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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

21A Managing Meetings


Communications are required in all organizations and the old truism that you can’t communicate too much is indeed true but sometimes communications are ineffective and become time wasters. Remember, managers communicate by what they:
·       Say
·       Don’t say
·       Do
·       And don’t do.
Make sure your actions are consistent with what you say because you can’t explain away behavior inconsistent with what you say. It’s also important to remember that you cannot satisfy all communication desires and it’s not effective to try. In this lecture I address how meetings can be effective communication tools and how to keep meetings from becoming time wasters. This is a long lecture and there are a lot of concepts presented. I recommend that you read through it a couple of times to make sure you capture all the concepts. I have divided the lecture into two halves, 21A and 21B, with exercises at the end at the end of each.
Too Many Meetings
In large complex enterprises many meetings are necessary to ensure effective communications. If managers aren’t cautious unnecessary meetings creep into everyday use and become time wasters. Typically what happens is there are too many meetings within a functional area and too few meetings across functions. If you observe yourself or your subordinate managers holding daily meetings with most of your/their direct reports you should suspect that many of these meetings are unnecessary. Typical causes of too many meetings include:
·       poor meeting discipline,
·       poor information systems,
·       insecure or incompetent managers.
If a subordinate manager is holding too many meetings you must investigate and take action quickly. The manager holding too many meetings must change or be changed to avoid the organization becoming ineffective due to the workers not having enough time free of meetings to do productive work.
The first step is to determine the reason the manager is holding so many meetings. If the reason given for too many meetings is due to meetings being so long that additional meetings are called to complete agendas from previous meetings then the problem is meeting discipline. Solve the problem of poor meeting discipline by teaching the manager better methods and insist that the better methods be followed to reduce the number of meetings and the time per meeting.  Methods for effective meetings are described in the last section of this lecture.
If the reason is poor information systems then work with the manager and others responsible to fix the problems. Sometimes poor information systems can be fixed within the organization using quality improvement techniques discussed in later lectures and sometimes professional help is needed to augment the group’s efforts, particularly if the system is software based. Changing software based information systems can become a costly quagmire. There are always those that argue that available information systems don’t fit the organization’s requirements and therefore a new system must be developed that is tailored directly to the organization’s special needs. Be wary of such arguments. In my experience such thinking leads to long and costly efforts to develop systems that still aren’t effective for the organization. Whenever possible it is advisable to use or adapt an existing commercial system.
Insecure managers should be mentored or coached carefully until they are secure in their job or you determine that they are not ever going to be secure with limited meeting time with their staff. Everyone isn’t suited for management and the sooner you replace someone found not to be suited to the job the better for your organization.
Managers that lack understanding of their organization’s work, lack effective interpersonal skills or insist on excessive meetings in order to micromanage their staff are incompetent managers and must be replaced as rapidly as possible. In some cases sending them to special training, assuming it is available, may work but in most cases it’s better to replace them. You do not have enough time to train, or retrain them yourself, (and some are not trainable) and perform well in the rest of your management responsibilities.
Electronic Communications in Lieu of Meetings
Today electronic communications are used effectively by top management to communicate training, policies and plans directly to all employees. This removes most of the need to pass down communications from top management and therefore reduces the time needed for staff meetings. However, it is important for you to acknowledge communications from top managers and give your staff an opportunity to ask any questions they have. Don’t assume that just because senior management has explained new ideas, policies or plans in emails that everyone understands what is expected of them and how to respond. Remember, it’s your job to ensure your staff understands and is correctly supporting the policies and plans of your superiors; otherwise you are creating an ineffective environment.
If your superiors are pursuing what you and/or your staff believes is a dumb policy or plan it’s your job to work with your staff to figure out how to make the policy or plan effective in your organization. This topic was discussed in an earlier lecture. If you are still unsure how to handle bad policies or plans of superiors please review the earlier lecture again.
Whereas electronic communications do reduce the time needed for meetings and even the need for some meetings don’t let email or an equivalent replace all face to face meetings. As an extreme example, a college dean that I know found that one of his department chairs was using email to conduct annual performance reviews of the professors in the department. Remember this case when you are communicating electronically to your staff and ask yourself; is this topic suitable for an electronic communication or is it so personal or so important that it should be handled face to face?
An important function of an effective leader is informally walking around the organization’s work area and having brief personal interactions with workers. Don’t let electronic communications replace walking around and talking with workers. The primary reasons are to gather information and to demonstrate that you care about the workers, their work and their work issues. Often it is easier for a worker to bring up a problem with the boss when the boss drops by just to say hello or to ask a question. You learn important things by walking around that you do not learn in formal meetings or via email. If you find yourself sitting for long periods at your desk doing email or some other tedious task break up the task by taking time out to walk around for 15 minutes. It not only clears your mind and gets your circulation going it helps keep your workers motivated.

Types of Effective Meetings

I can’t give you an exact list of what meetings are needed or not needed in your organization. You have to use your experience and judgment to determine the cost/benefit of each meeting that you control. Here are some meetings that are useful in most organizations:
        Staff Meetings
        Vertical Staff Meetings
        All Hands Meetings
        Crisis Meetings
        Work Meetings
        Problem Solving or Brainstorming Meetings
Staff Meetings
The one meeting that managers control is their staff meetings. The cost/benefit analysis of staff meetings is subtle because the meetings are rituals and deeply wound up in an organization’s culture. Some of your direct reports expect a staff meeting and feel cheated somehow if you don’t hold regular meetings. Others feel they are a waste of time and only attend begrudgingly. I believe staff meetings are necessary for the staff to feel involved and therefore committed. In my experience it is best to discuss candidly with your direct reports what you intend to include in staff meetings and why. Ask them what they want to include regularly on the agenda. Hold staff meeting regularly; weekly or biweekly. Have an agenda and commit to limiting staff meetings to an hour or even 15 minutes if you can complete your communications in no more than 5 minutes.
Limit your comments to items not suitable for e-mail or personal conversations. This can include explaining new policies, new directions, etc. It is also wise to fully explain new things you or your boss wants. Take time to celebrate successes and give credit to those contributing to successes (remembering what was said earlier about the dangers of rewarding individuals). The rest of the agenda can be what your staff wants. Always leave 5 to 10 minutes at the end to let each person comment on anything they think the group needs to hear. This helps some feel involved and contributing.

Vertical Staff Meetings

Vertical staff meetings are a manager’s way of finding information that is not in regular communications channels; particular information that subordinate managers neglect to report. These meetings also help ensure that the manager’s views are flowed down and understood.  A vertical staff meeting includes the manager plus 5 to 12 workers and subordinate managers with no direct supervisor of any attendee present. The reason for excluding direct supervisors of other attendees is to enable workers to speak freely about things that they see as problems but their supervisor is ignoring. 
The manager uses a third to half the time to explain the ground rules for the meeting and to communicate his vision, near terms goals or other relevant information that the group needs to hear directly from the manager without it being filtered by subordinate managers. The remainder of the time is for questions by the group and answers by the manager. All questions are fair and the manager must commit to answer all questions in the meeting or in a follow-up communication within a day if possible. No question or comment by members of the group is to leave the room without consent of the person asking or commenting. The group should be encouraged to share everything the manager says with the rest of the organization.
Hold vertical staff meetings regularly so that everyone in the organization attends once every year or at least every two years. Hold over lunch if lunch can be provided for the attendees. Keep the time limited to one hour and encourage workers to share their concerns. You find out problems exist that you haven’t heard about any other way. If these meetings aren’t successful at first keep holding them. If the ground rules are followed over time trust develops and workers begin to communicate freely. Problems due to a subordinate manager that are disclosed in a vertical staff meeting without the subordinate manger being present must be handled discreetly without embarrassing the subordinate manager. Otherwise you will lose the trust of the subordinate manager.

All Hands Meetings

Hold one hour all hands meetings monthly if possible. These meetings are to build the trust of employees in their management and the organization, which in turn builds commitment by the employees and effectiveness for the organization. All hands meetings can be held at lunch time if lunch is provided or before work if coffee, juice and donuts are provided.  This is because many organizations do not like to see the overhead expenses associated with all hands meetings during working hours. I am convinced that these meetings are cost effective but proving it is difficult as the numbers are “unknowable”. These meetings are primarily downward communications. A sample agenda includes:
·       Status of the organization’s annual plan
·       Status of any special projects
·       Introduction of new employees with time for the new employees to tell about their background
·       Celebration of successes and acknowledgement of defeats
·       Brief Q & A period
It is important to share real information, including financial data, in order to build trust. Employees are trusted to keep trade secrets and other proprietary information that is more valuable than financial data so there should be no hesitation to share financial data. Withholding such data implies that management does not trust workers and therefore the workers reason that if they aren’t trusted they shouldn’t trust management.
1.     Jot down a list of all the meetings you led over the past week. Then think about each one and answer the following questions:
·       What would the regrets be if the meeting was not held?
·       Did the meeting accomplish your objectives for it?
·       Was the meeting efficient and effective or was time wasted with off the track discussions?
·       Do you think the other attendees left the meeting believing it was efficient and effective?
2.     Are you communicating with your organization via effective staff meetings? Vertical staff meetings? All hands meetings?
3.     Is your use of electronic communications sound or are you using emails where face to face meetings should be used?
If you find that the pace of blog posts isn’t compatible with the pace you  would like to maintain in studying this material you can buy the book “The Manager’s Guide for Effective Leadership” at:
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