5 Rules for Running Better Meetings

Why are staff meetings always so horrifically long and unproductive? Here are some basic rules for running shorter, more effective meetings that won’t make people want to tear their hair out.

Is there anything more painful than having to suffer through a meeting at work? You know the kind of meetings I’m talking about — the ones that seem to drag on for hours, with you and your colleagues talking in circles, even as the mountain of work waiting for you continues to pile up on your desk, and the logjam of unanswered e-mails in your inbox grows apace. And of course, by the meeting’s end, very little has actually been accomplished. These are the meetings we all loathe and dread. As the humorist Dave Barry once put it, business meetings are a lot like funerals: gatherings of people in uncomfortable clothes, who’d all much rather be elsewhere (though, unlike at a funeral, nothing is ever really buried in a meeting). The only thing worse than having to sit through a long, meandering meeting is knowing that you’re going to have to do it all again next month!

Many of us resent having to regularly attend staff meetings, because we feel that more often than not, they’re a waste of time — far from helping us with our jobs, it seems that they only keep us from getting our work done. But your meetings don’t have to be pointless, time-consuming, soul-crushing exercises that test everyone’s stamina and patience. The onus for making meetings actually useful, however, falls squarely on the managers who convene them. I’ve organized and overseen my fair share of meetings — both good and bad — in my time as an accounting and finance recruiter in Toronto, and in my experience, it’s up to the manager to ensure that everyone there gets something out of attending the meeting. To make sure that your next meeting is a productive and efficient one, follow these simple rules.

1. Don’t schedule a meeting if you don’t have to

One of the biggest complaints people have about meetings is that there are too many of them. The first step towards making your meetings more effective is to simply limit how many of them you have. The overwhelming majority of meetings probably never need to happen. Before you make a cattle-call to all of your staff and colleagues, ask yourself whether you need to meet at all. Don’t call for a meeting just because you haven’t had one in a while, or because it’s the third Thursday of the month again. Only organize one if it’s absolutely necessary — if there’s something that needs to be done that can’t be taken care of through a phone call, e-mail exchange, or a chat in your office with the relevant personnel. For example, you don’t need to hold a meeting in order to have people deliver progress reports; these can be submitted just as easily by e-mail. 

Anthony K. Tjan, of the Harvard Business Review, suggests that there are really only three good reasons to hold a meeting: 1) to inform and bring people up to speed; 2) to seek their input; or 3) to request their approval. But whether you want to brainstorm ideas for a marketing campaign, or plan out a short-term strategy to attract new clients, you should always think hard as to whether or not you really need to drag everyone out to another meeting. If it’s unavoidable, make sure to only invite people whose presence is required. Don’t invite folks just to be polite or politically correct (believe me, they will appreciate having one fewer meeting to attend). Ask yourself: can you get away with having just one representative from operations sit in on the meeting and report back to their peers? “The more, the merrier” doesn’t apply here. On the contrary, too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth: the more personalities you have to manage and deal with in the meeting, the more likely there is to be conflict and discord among them.

The only thing worse than having to sit through a long, meandering meeting is knowing that you’re going to have to do it all again next month!

2. Set and share an agenda — and then stick to it

Great meetings don’t just happen, but are prepared. Jazz musicians and comedians can afford to improvise — managers can’t. Under no circumstances should you try to wing it through a meeting without a clearly defined agenda. It’s just far too easy for an agenda-less meeting to go off rails, as people split hairs over irrelevant or minor details, losing sight of the endgame. The last thing you want to do is show up to a meeting without an agenda, like the character from the Dilbert cartoon, who announced to his fellow staffers: “There’s no specific agenda for this meeting…as usual, we’ll just make unrelated emotional statements about things which bother us.”

Meetings, like children, crave structure. Before the meeting, publish an agenda that identifies not only all of the items to be discussed and the length of time allotted to each, but also the practical outcomes you expect. For example, rather than including an open item on “sales targets” — which will be an invitation for delegates to sound off on the subject — describe it in precise, solution- or action-oriented terms, such as “strategize how to meet sales targets.” That way, the item has a very specific bottom line, and everyone can be reminded that a concrete result has to be arrived at.

Whenever possible, circulate copies of your agenda in advance, so that attendees have a chance to suggest potential additions or revisions beforehand. After all, you don’t want to get sidetracked at the meeting by having to update the agenda (I’ve been in meetings where anywhere from twenty minutes to a half-hour were spent just trying to finalize the agenda). At the meeting’s start, go over the agenda with everyone, so that they knows exactly how things are going to proceed.

3. Start and end on time

Time management is key to having good, productive meetings. It begins with scheduling. Pick a definite start and ending time, e.g., 10AM-11AM. Don’t fudge these numbers. If you expect it to take two hours to complete the tasks at hand, then schedule the meeting for two hours — not a minute more, not a minute less. There’s nothing people resent more than being misled about how long a meeting is going to run. Assign someone as timekeeper, to watch the clock and ensure that each topic stays within its allotted time. You can get creative with this, if you like: former Google vice-president and current Yahoo! president and CEO Marissa Mayer once revealed to Bloomberg Businessweek that Google meetings had a giant digital timer projected onto a wall, counting down the time left for a particular meeting or topic, to encourage participants to keep their comments short and succinct.

But the burden for managing time shouldn’t be the timekeeper’s alone. It’s important that everyone observes and respects your schedule, from the very get-go. Show up to the room well in advance so that you can prepare adequately for the meeting — for example, by ensuring that technology and equipment like projectors and laptops are in working order. No matter what, begin on time, even if there’s only one other person in the room with you. Don’t wait for people who are tardy. If you start the meeting late, you’re all but guaranteed to finish late. Plus, if people see that your meetings generally begin late, they’ll conclude that there’s no reason to be on time, and will get in the habit of showing up late. Starting on schedule not only conveys that you value people’s time, but will encourage punctuality among latecomers: since it’s always a little embarrassing to walk into a meeting that’s already underway, they’ll be much more likely to be on time for the next meeting.

Unless there is urgent business that requires you all keep at it till completion, end the meeting on time. People will be much less resistant to attending meetings if they know their time is respected and the meeting will end as scheduled, allowing them to organize the rest of their day around it.

Don’t call for a meeting just because you haven’t had one in a while, or because it’s the third Thursday of the month again.

4. Establish ground rules

As manager, you should probably be the one leading and chairing your meetings, though eventually you might find it useful to have different members of your team facilitate each gathering, as a way of developing or evaluating their leadership and communication skills. In any case, you should establish a general code of conduct, which can be included in the agenda or explained at the outset, to ensure that everyone stays on task. For example, announce your preferences regarding the use of mobile technologies during meetings. I, for one, would consider asking people to refrain from using their laptops or smartphones for the greater part of the meeting. If everyone is constantly checking their e-mails on their phones and tablets, they will inevitably be distracted and lose track of what’s going on. You and others will end up having to repeat yourselves, which, in turn, will only extend the length of the meeting. If you don’t feel like banning mobile devices outright, you can always allow people to check their e-mail and messages during breaks.

You should also specify beforehand how long individuals have to speak on an issue. The key, however, is to rigorously enforce that time limit. Don’t give long-winded colleagues too wide a berth, since their grandstanding comes at the expense of everyone else’s time and patience. You should never publicly shame anyone, but as chair, you are well within your rights to politely interrupt someone whenever they’ve exceeded their allotted time, are unfairly dominating the discussion, or are otherwise pursuing an unrelated tangent. For example, if someone’s veering wildly off-topic, you can politely suggest tabling their point until next time or discussing it with them after the meeting. It definitely takes a bit of practice, as well as some tact and fortitude, to be able to reel in bloviators, but everyone else will appreciate your efforts to prevent the meeting from being hijacked.

5. Take notes

In addition to a timekeeper, you should assign someone to take notes or minutes during the meeting, and to share them afterwards with all of the delegates. Taking notes is definitely not a skill to be underestimated, but keep in mind that the minute-taker doesn’t need to provide a play-by-play recounting of everything said in the meeting — just a record of the big deadlines and deliverables agreed upon by the meeting’s end, along with the individuals to whom they’ve been assigned. Having a written document is vitally important for bottom-lining items and following up with people after the meeting; otherwise, they are very likely to forget, or perhaps just be unclear about, what tasks and responsibilities they agreed to take on. Minutes help keep everyone accountable.

You can also use the minutes to review, at the beginning of each meeting, all of the business you successfully took care of at the previous one. Likewise, before adjourning, take stock of what was accomplished, what remains outstanding, and who needs to do what before the next time. Doing this will help to combat the misperception that meetings are pointless and unproductive, as your team will be able to see that things are in fact getting done.

Simply put, staff meetings are the bane of the business world. Yet they remain a necessary evil: it’s still valuable to get everyone on your team in the same room every now and then, whether to bounce ideas off one another or touch base. There’s no reason, however, that your meetings have to be demoralizing time-sinks — indeed, it’s incumbent upon you, as a manager, to ensure that they’re not. Poorly run meetings can, after all, lower both your team’s morale and productivity. Having people sit around, bored and distracted, is costly for business, so it’s in everyone’s interests to have you run shorter, more effective meetings that help, rather than hinder, your team in their work.

For even more advice and strategies to help out managers in the daily travails, be sure to check out our guides, “Everyone IS Watching You, Pt. 1: 12 Must-Know Strategies for New Managers” and “Everyone IS Watching You, Pt. 2: A Finance Manager’s Guide to Driving Performance.”

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!