How to Run Effective Meetings, Part 1

Has anyone ever said, “I wish I could go to more meetings today”? 

—Matt Mullenweg

How to run effetive meetings

If you do an Internet search for “this meeting should have been an e-mail meme,” you’ll see thousands of images that convey frustration about being in meetings that are poorly run, waste your time, and are irritatingly ineffective. If that’s something you can’t relate to at all, congratulations: you’re in the 0.1 percent of the population that has never attended a terrible meeting! But if you find yourself thinking, “Been there, done that,” then here’s a chance for you to do something about those awful experiences. And you find yourself nodding in agreement and you are a leader or meeting facilitator, then pay attention, because it is absolutely imperative that you learn how to run effective meetings.


Why Leaders Should Care About Meetings


When leaders know how to lead great meetings, there's less time wasted and less frustration. We have more energy to do the work that matters, realize our full potential, and do great things.

— Justin Rosenstein


Given how much time people spend in meetings and how much money those meetings cost their organizations, you definitely want your managers and employees to be using their time (and company resources) well. Heck, you want to use your time in a productive manner too!


With that in mind, remember that “a company’s leaders set the tone that will be emulated throughout the organization.” When you’re a leader (either in title or in influence) within your organization, everyone will watch what you do and will follow suit. Rather than just tell people what you want to do, you get better results when you show them: “by modeling a few key behaviors, you can inspire your team to adopt those behaviors for themselves.” 


Second, remember that good communication is critical for strong leadership. Leadership involves many responsibilities, and nearly all of them require the ability to exchange information with others. If you’re sharing news about the organization, assigning and delegating tasks, providing feedback, working to resolve problems, coaching and mentoring employees, or doing pretty much anything that involves interacting with other people, you are communicating.


Whether they are in-person or virtual (or a How to run effective meetings mix!), meetings are one of the key communication arenas of the contemporary workplace. If you want to lead, you need to understand how to leverage this communication tool. E-mail, virtual collaboration tools (e.g., Slack, Teams), phone calls, and other forms of communication all have their uses. But meetings are unique in their ability to convey information to and draw together groups of people in synchronous activity.


Preparing to Run Effective Meetings


Always go into meetings or negotiations with a positive attitude. Tell yourself you're going to make this the best deal for all parties. 

—Natalie Massenet

Establishing ground rules


Now, if you’re organizing a standing meeting that will meet with some regularity (say, weekly, biweekly, or monthly), you’ll have more success at running an effective meeting if you get participants’ agreement up front on several issues, including:

  • Ground rules for participation (including what it means to be a “good” meeting participant)
  • The goals (both long-term and short-term) of the meeting 
  • How discussions will be conducted
  • How decisions will be made 
  • Agendas (e.g., how to create them, when and how to distribute them, how much time to spend on each item)
  • How to rotate notetaking and timekeeping responsibilities in order to create shared responsibility
  • How the participants will hold each other accountable for following the meeting guidelines


Even for one-off meetings, though, I seek agreement on ground rules before everyone shows up in a Zoom room. I ask everyone to:


  • Prioritize attendance.
  • Maintain confidentiality (if applicable).
  • Turn on their camera (don’t just participate via audio).
  • Close down e-mail, IM, and other apps that send alerts.
  • Shut off their phone(s).
  • Come prepared.
  • Listen to understand, not just to talk. 
  • Offer ideas.
  • Think in terms of “how to” rather than “why not.”
  • Give their full and undivided attention. 
  • Commit to being a good meeting attendee!


By sharing these expectations ahead of time, I’m setting the stage for an efficient use of everyone’s time (which at this point, is our most precious commodity!).


Identify the decision maker(s)


Meetings should have as few people as possible, but all the right people. 

—Charles W. Scharf


Many meetings are ineffective, because too much time is spent on trying to figure out who can or should make a decision. Assigning this critical role beforehand (and getting decision makers to agree to it) will result in a much more effective meeting, because you’ll actually get something done. 


To determine who the decision makers are, use the DAI model, which identifies three key roles in the decision-making process:

How to run effective meetings

  • Decision makers make the decision and are accountable for its impact on the business.
  • Advice givers provide input, data, and advice based on their functional expertise and experience. They highlight issues and raise alternatives to help the decision maker do just that: make a decision.
  • Informed stakeholders are notified after the decision has been made. They are either affected by the decision or expected to support the execution of the decision. 


Following this model, include only the Ds and the As in the meeting; don’t include the Is (even if they want to be invited). Keeping attendee numbers low helps with efficiency, because then you don’t have parties whose input is irrelevant (or not really being taken into consideration) weighing in.


How do we figure out who the Ds are in a meeting? Evaluate risk. Consider how much organizational risk is involved in the decision and align the process with the level of risk. The greater the risk, the higher up in the organization the decision maker should sit. As the risk increases, so should the title on the line.

I’m working with a client now who is striving to change their meeting culture. At present, they have meetings stacked on top of meetings (often three deep!). One of their regular invitation lists includes 50+ attendees, and they have one standing monthly meeting with an astounding 250+ invitees! Unsurprisingly, nothing gets done in those meetings, because there are just too many people in attendance. Critical advisors don’t speak up, because the meeting is too crowded (we all know how clunky Zoom can be when trying to share viewpoints or facilitate a discussion). And when someone does speak up, it’s typically the wrong person offering advice.

Create an agenda


No agenda, no attenda. 

Cameron Herold


It always floors me when someone calls a meeting and then doesn’t send an agenda. How can attendees be prepared to fully contribute when the only thing they have to go on is the verbiage in the subject line of the invitation? Are we merely discussing the topic or are we making decisions? Are we brainstorming or should we be prepared to discuss some aspect in more detail? In short, without an agenda, attendees cannot be prepared—which already means we’re wasting time. 


A well-crafted agenda:


  • Defines (in writing) the purpose and goals of the meeting.
  • Presents the outline, which includes discussion points and brainstorming opportunities for on-the-spot creative thinking and innovation.
  • Specifies what decisions need to be made and who’s going to make them (i.e., who are the Ds or decision makers).
  • Indicates who’s going to do all (or most) of the talking (i.e., who are the As or advice givers). 
  • Keeps everyone on track (which can be especially handy if an attendee is exhibiting “bad” behavior).


Sample Meeting Agenda - Decision Makers


In short, the agenda serves as the road map for your conversation—and the necessary framework for effective meetings. 


To help everyone stay on topic (and get through the agenda items), add a “New business” item to the very end: if a participant brings up a separate topic or goes on a tangential rant, tell them to save it for the “New business” period. If there’s time at the end of the meeting, you can revisit that topic; if the meeting has used up its allotted time, say, “We’ve run out of time, so let’s put this on our next agenda” (or, if you want to get to it sooner or you think it might not connect to the next agenda, you and the participant could discuss that topic together separately, outside of group meeting time). 


Assign pre-meeting homework


Be more ambitious. Do your homework. There's no easy way around this. 

—Anthony McCarten


Save in-meeting time (and attention) by requiring everyone to read important documents (e.g., previous meeting minutes, background information, reports) and watch relevant videos before the meeting. They can do all of that independently, so reserve your valuable and limited meeting time for stuff that can happen only when everyone is together. 


If people come to the meeting and are unprepared, don’t backpedal (unless it’s your boss or a very senior person!). Instead, plow forward with your agenda.


Assign roles (and get agreement beforehand)


Responsibilities gravitate to the person who can shoulder them. 

—Tom Stoppard


Figure out who needs to be involved in this meeting and what form their participation will take, as well as what decisions will be made. (Use the DAI Model as your guide here.), I also like to assign the following tasks to others (and rotate them among different people each time) so I can focus on facilitating the meeting:


  • Who will take meeting notes (and distribute them afterward)?
  • Who will keep track of time (and let people know when it’stime to move on to the next agenda item)?
  • Who will be the “Yoda” (ie., the person who calls out any bad behavior)?
  • Who will be the spokesperson at offsite locations with more than one attendee?


Scheduling the meeting


The best meetings get real work done. When your people learn that your meetings actually accomplish something, they will stop making excuses to be elsewhere.

Larry Constantine



Try to avoid scheduling 60-minute meetings. As human beings, we tend to expand our efforts to meet the allotted time—which means more people will be inclined to talk when there is excess time on the agenda. Go shorter and force attendees to be clear and concise in their contributions. (This also motivates people to do the pre-meeting homework, because they know they’re going into a fast and furious meeting designed to get them to their next appointment.)  


The ideal meeting duration is 30 minutes. If possible, though, schedule meetings for 20-minute increments. This enables participants to carve out some “extra” time to write up notes (and reflect on them) afterward (or prepare for their next meeting). 


I know that short meetings aren’t always possible, because sometimes you truly do need a full hour to get through all the topics on an agenda. The more ruthless you are about keeping meetings short and lean, though, the more inclined invitees are to attend them and to be prepared, because they know you’ll make good use of their time. 


Lights, Camera, Action!


Meetings, clearly, can take place anywhere, and wouldn't it be nice to see your coworkers lounging on the grass with their shoes off? 

—Tom Hodgkinson


Once you’ve put all the pieces in place, it’s time to actually have the meeting. The agenda and the ground rules will help guide everyone through your time together. But having those tools in place doesn’t mean you can just coast along. Check back for my next post to find out what steps to take during and after your meeting to ensure that everyone gets the most out of it!

5 thoughts on “How to Run Effective Meetings, Part 1”

  1. Yes! Yes! Yess!!
    No, I’m not Meg Ryan reenacting her famous scene from When Harry Met Sally. I am high-fiving you for this!
    Wish all the meetings i attend ran this way!
    Love you, Val!
    Hope to see you soon.

    1. Seriously you made me BURST OUT LAUGHING Christy with the Meg Ryan comment! One of the best scenes EVER in film! Glad it was helpful! And definitely forward on to anyone whose meetings may need a little tune-up! Part II coming next week! Love you right back Baby and hope to see you soon! Val

    1. Thanks Maria! SO glad it’s helpful! I have clients that I’m trying to book a time with and they are in 2 and 3 deep meetings at any given hour. Something NOT right about that! And agreed – Meg Ryan scene is a CLASSIC! 🙂 Thanks for reading my blog! Hugs, Val

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