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Five Steps to Managing Successful Meetings

5Stepstomanageing1The Challenge

Three years ago, and with a new engineering degree, Xiao immigrated to Canada from China. Xiao took her job seriously. She didn’t spend a lot of time socialising with co-workers and stayed focused on her work. In a short time, Xiao was made project manager. As project manager in a matrix environment, Xiao had to run meetings-and she was failing miserably.

First, the wrong people showed up for her meetings-people who didn’t really need to be present-while the people Xiao needed (decision makers or people with pertinent information) didn’t show up or came unprepared. Xiao also felt that attendees did not respect or pay attention to her. They would use their PDAs or have side conversations with each other. Xiao felt that this was because she was shy and spoke with a quiet voice. She was also younger than many of the people on the project and felt this was another reason for the lack of respect she was given in the meetings she chaired.

In addition, there were two regular attendees who constantly interrupted her and steered the conversation in different directions. One attendee was an “ideas” person who could not seem to stay focused. The other person, a woman a couple of years older than Xiao, was resentful that Xiao was the project manager. That woman seemed to be deliberately sabotaging Xiao’s meetings. In the end, nothing seemed to get accomplished in the meetings, though they seemed to drag on forever.

Mimicking Success

Xiao noticed that one of the other project managers, Lak, had a reputation for running successful meetings. Lak’s meetings stayed on track and were regarded as very productive. Too shy to ask Lak what his secrets were, Xiao would drop in on his meetings to determine how she could mimic Lak’s success. It didn’t take long for Xiao to build a list of five rules that summarized Lak’s successful meeting strategies.

Xiao began applying these rules to facilitate her meetings. By sending out a strategic agenda in advance, Xiao got the right people to attend her meetings, while those who didn’t have to be there were appropriately grateful. Xiao established new ground rules for her meetings, such as no PDAs and no side conversations, and got compliance by offering to cut meeting times in half (from 60 minutes to 30) if people agreed to follow her rules for a one-month trial period.

Xiao also started managing her emotions. For instance, when the ideas person or the saboteur tried to take over, Xiao calmed herself, maintained her confidence, and used the agenda to keep the meeting moving forward as planned. Almost overnight, Xiao’s meetings become more effective. The change was so miraculous that, when she passed her rules on to Paul, another project manager struggling to hold effective meetings, she called them the “five magic steps.”

The Five Steps for Successful Meetings

1. E-mail a Strategic Agenda Well in Advance
A strategic agenda has four key ingredients:

  • It has a specific subject line. If the e-mail subject line says “Project X”, everybody who is involved in Project X will come. Specifying what aspect of Project X the meeting addresses limits attendees to those actually needed.
  • It is sent only to those people who need to be there, not to everyone involved in the project.
  • It contains a list of the action items for the meeting.
  • It contains the name of the person responsible for each item so that they can come prepared.

If a senior decision maker is required at the meeting, sending them a personal e-mail and following it up with telephone call is a good idea.

2. Establish Ground Rules
No matter what the norms are for your organisation, if your meetings are effective you can establish additional ground rules. You can, for instance, forbid PDAs in the room (but allow urgent calls or e-mails to be taken outside of the room); ban side conversations while others are speaking; expect attendees to come prepared; and start and finish at the scheduled time. Once you establish these rules, and your meetings become more effective, the value of the new rules is reinforced.

3. Practice Self- Awareness
Before the meeting begins (and during, if necessary), take command of your emotional state:

  • Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself.
  • Engage in positive self-talk and visualisation, as professional athletes do-see yourself, confident and in control of the meeting.
  • Stand when making important points to give yourself the feeling of more height and power.
  • If people have trouble understanding you, speak slower, summarise often, and check frequently if attendees understand the agenda.

4. Be Authoritative
Too many meeting facilitators are afraid to drive the bus and, instead, let the passengers drive. Treat your meetings like a bus route with a schedule and agreed-upon stops. Set the time allotted for each topic in advance and keep the meeting moving forward on that schedule. If people are reluctant to move off a topic, then agree to cover the topic outside of the meeting or at a separate meeting.

5. Use a Meeting Agenda Template
Do not use the strategic agenda you mailed out to manage the meeting. Instead, use a one-page, landscape sheet:

  • At the top, have the meeting objective(s), date and time.
  • Down the left-hand side, list the agenda items.
  • Across the top have these five headings, which should all be filled in before the meeting starts:
    • Objective
    • Person Responsible (Filled in, unless the purpose of the meeting is to assign a person.)
    • Time
    • Result
    • Due Date/Follow-Up (Filled in, unless the purpose of the meeting is to assign a due date or follow-up date.)

As the meeting progresses, fill in any empty cells and update cells that require change. The agenda allows you to track both your time and accomplishments. This serves as evidence to yourself and others that your meetings are productive and worthwhile. Remember that the agenda is separate from the minutes, which are taken by someone else so that you can concentrate on managing the meeting.

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Serena Williamson, PhD, is a speaker, author, seminar leader and coach specialising in people skills. She teaches several Learning Tree Courses, including Course 292 “Communication Skills: Results Through Collaboration”, Course 244, “Assertiveness Skills: Communicating with Authority and Impact”, and Course 344, “Effective Time Management”.Since 1974, over 13,000 public and private organizations have trusted Learning Tree to enhance the professional skills of more than 1.9 million employees. For more information, call 1-800-843-8733 or visit