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Hold More Productive Meetings, Starting Today

Jenny Love
Published:  01/17/2020

empty meeting table

Meetings that could have been an email. Meetings you go to every week, whether they are needed or not. We've all seen ways meetings can go wrong. And wasting time in meetings is particularly costly in the philanthropy world, since every minute tied up in internal meetings is a minute your gift officers can't spend with potential donors.

That doesn't mean that we should never meet. Done right, meetings enable ideas, push projects forward, and build team camaraderie. Before you book your next conference room, check out the ideas below to make this necessary evil of office life worth everyone's time.

Assess the Need

Before you schedule a meeting, the first question to ask yourself is if you really need a meeting at all. In particular, if you are assembling people to share information, an email or other written document can be more effective. Just make sure your written document is easy to scan with short paragraphs and subheadings, since most people speed read electronic documents. And don't be afraid to send the email out twice to catch people who missed your message the first time.

Not sure which of your standing meetings are really necessary? A drastic but effective way to find out is to cancel all the meetings on your calendar and reschedule them only when you start missing them. At the very least, you should audit your standing meetings regularly and cancel those that are no longer serving their intended purpose.

Be Selective about Your Invite List

If the topic is too complex for email, or you need input or feedback from a group, a meeting may be the way to go. But meetings aren't elementary school birthday parties: you don't need to invite the whole class. In fact, Harvard Business Review research suggests that the largest effective meeting size is 12 people, and the sweet spot is four to seven.

Only invite people to meetings who have a specific purpose, and use other communication vehicles to keep others in the loop about decisions and next steps. Can't limit yourself to 12? Consider creating two smaller meetings instead, or asking a group of potential attendees to make some of the decisions in advance and send a representative to the meeting itself.

Stick to an Agenda

How many times have you gotten a meeting invitation with a vague title like "Goals Discussion" out of the blue with no further explanation? As an attendee, it's hard to prepare for a meeting without any context.

Self-improvement lecturer Dale Carnegie once said, "Tell the audience what you're going to say, say it; then tell them what you've said." He was talking about making a presentation, but the same advice holds true for discussion topics at meetings, and the easiest way to tell your attendees what they should expect is to send an agenda in advance. Your agenda should set out the purpose of the meeting (to give instructions, brainstorm, come to consensus, etc.) and give a rough estimate of the time to be spent discussing each topic. It's not rocket science, but it's a critical step a lot of people skip.

Start and End Your Meetings on Time

Arriving on time for meetings you have scheduled shows your staff that you respect their time and sets a good example for others on your team. One manager I had put all of the most important items at the beginning of the meeting to discourage stragglers. If you were late, you might miss the best news or weighing in on an important decision. Like canceling all of the meetings on your calendar at once, this tactic is not for the faint of heart. But it can be an effective way to encourage punctuality.

Similarly, respect your staff's time by ending your meetings on time, or preferably, five minutes early to allow attendees to be on time for their next appointment. To set yourself up to break on time, be sure not to introduce new topics in the last 10 minutes of your scheduled time. Instead, that time should be used for "telling them what you said," i.e., summarizing decisions and assigning accountability for next steps.

Give Everyone a Voice

Meeting attendees naturally defer to the more senior people in the room. Once the boss has weighed in, junior staff tend to agree with whatever the boss has said. If you are the most senior person in a meeting and you want honest input, let others speak first. To get the most ideas, work your way up the pecking order, starting with the most junior person in the room.

Any group has talkers and observers, and in meetings the naturally chatty will dominate the discussion. As the meeting leader, it's your job to keep the talkers in check and draw out those who remain quiet. If the discussion strays to issues not on the agenda, use a "parking lot" to bring the group back to the matter at hand.

Assign Accountability for Follow-Up

The nebulous declaration "we should do that" has stalled many a good-intentioned effort. It's not enough to come to consensus. Someone has to make it happen. When you decide on a course of action, be sure to make it clear who will do it, and by when. 

To further clarify the next steps coming out of a meeting, send a written summary of decisions and action items after the meeting is over. A summary is also a helpful tool for sharing information with people who missed the meeting or who were not invited initially to keep the meeting at a manageable size.

No one has ever said, "I wish I had more meetings in my day." But if you follow these guidelines, you may find that your colleagues wish that more of their meetings were like yours. 

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Adapted from a 2017 AHP Annual International Conference presentation by Lori Counts, Principal Consultant, Accordant Philanthropy and Julie Cox, FAHP, VP of Development, LifeBridge Health

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Jenny Love

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