Running a Meeting: Ten Rookie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

By Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates

Running a good meeting is really an art. Remember all the places you’ve worked, or the times you’ve been on a client’s site, when a meeting failed to get the job done? In countless organizations, meetings are scheduled back-to-back, start late, lose focus, erupt in personal conflict, accomplish little, leave no one accountable, and make people miserable.

It is up to you, as the leader in a consulting engagement, to learn the art of the effective meeting. Run lousy meetings and you will be judged accordingly. Step up to the meeting leadership role and you will have enormous influence and a more productive consulting experience. This article highlights the ten most common “rookie mistakes” leaders make in meetings—and how to avoid them.

Successful meetings start before the meeting. You must decide whether to have a meeting at all. You also must be strategic about whom to invite, what to put on the agenda, and how to win support or uncover objections in advance.

Some meetings are unnecessary. Ask yourself what issues could be handled without a meeting, or could a meeting be postponed or avoided? As for who should attend the meeting, I know one smart CEO, a client of mine, who invites only those who actually will contribute to the meeting; he believes the only way to streamline the meeting culture is to make sure that people attend meetings for a reason.

Mistake #1: Winging It without an Agenda

A simple agenda can help set expectations, keep a meeting on track, and create accountability. Without an agenda, meeting missions fall by the wayside. Participants cannot prepare, so time is lost while people read or catch up during the meeting. People will hijack an agenda-less meeting, while impatient participants whisper in side conversations. The meeting ends before decisions are made, or after key people have left. It all adds up to low morale and high frustration.

Mistake #2: Skipping Advance Communication

Productive meetings start with pre-meeting communication. You may need to ask questions, get feedback or buy-in ahead of time. Talking beforehand with influential people who will attend uncovers issues and helps you plan. Before the meeting, contact stakeholders and influencers to discuss options and reach agreement about an approach or action.

Mistake #3: Not Encouraging Participation

Top leaders place a high value on discussion because it taps employees’ collective knowledge. One consultant colleague of mine encourages people to raise objections by noticing who is quiet, and then asking their opinions. “You have to confront the silence. You don’t want those who disagree to walk out and undermine you later.”

Participation is essential to harness your organization’s creative power, so you cannot afford to let a few individuals dominate the conversation. Make it safe and easy for everyone—even the quiet ones—to get involved. To stimulate discussion, ask open-ended questions like: “What’s your reaction…?” or “How could we…?” One CEO always asks: “What do I need to know that I do not know?” Not only does he hear what he might not otherwise hear, people know they can say what needs to be said, without fear of retribution.

Mistake #4: Mismanaging Time

A big complaint about meetings is that they start late, end late, and waste time in between. You can radically change your organization’s meeting culture simply by starting and ending on time. People will be much happier going to a meeting and will participate more fully if they know their time will be respected and they will accomplish what they came to do. Insist on good practices across the board, beginning with starting on time.

Mistake #5: Mishandling Conflict

While positive, healthy conflict helps promote discussion before decision-making, meeting leaders must beware of negative, personal attacks that poison the atmosphere and impede progress. Make it safe to disagree so participants debate issues on their merits. Allowing the discussion to get personal or issues to go unresolved can damage the whole organization. To manage negative conflict, identify common goals, build on agreements, avoid placing blame, and have zero tolerance for personal attacks.

Mistake #6: Not Reaching Consensus

Your goal in most meetings is to gather enough information to either make a decision on your own, get a consensus on a course of action, or to take a vote. Consensus builds in accountability and helps ensure that people act on decisions. Consensus does not imply an absence of conflict, but the resolution of conflict in a manner acceptable to a majority. A leader’s role here is to define the issue, encourage brainstorming, synthesize the conversation, and narrow the options, then call for a decision or make one.

Mistake #7: Failing to Control Difficult People

People who argue with you or talk amongst themselves can take a meeting off track in a hurry. While debate is usually healthy, some people will test the limits by arguing miniscule points or refusing to see others’ views.

The trick here is direct intervention. Have a one-on-one conversation with the disruptive person, acknowledging a known issue and allowing that person to vent or discuss. Point out the behavior you appreciate, and the behavior that does not work. During meetings, allow disruptors to speak their piece, but enforce time limits and move on. Ask other leaders to do the same.

Mistake #8: Tolerating Side Meetings

Side meetings, another problem in many meeting cultures, happen because they are tolerated or because meetings get sidetracked and/or run too long. If people are bored or restless, they start whispering, unaware of or not caring about being rude or how others see them.

Handle disruptive side meetings by gradually escalating your intervention. First, look at the side-talkers until you catch their eyes. If they don’t get the message, walk over to them or call on them. If your meeting rules prohibit side talking, remind the group of that. If people don’t get the message, pull them aside afterward, and make it clear that such behavior cannot help them or the team.

Mistake #9: Not Motivating Everyone

In one TV newsroom where I worked, the boss held a meeting first thing every morning, asking each of the reporters and producers for an “idea for the day.” Knowing you would always be called upon was highly motivating. You didn’t come without an idea. When the boss doled out the day’s news assignments, those who contributed received the big assignments.

Even people who are happy to participate in meetings may not always come to the table with a new idea or insight unless they’re asked to do so. As the meeting leader, you can spark creativity just by putting people on notice that they must come prepared to do more than discuss what other people offer.

Mistake #10: Not Summarizing Effectively

Leaders must have the ability to summarize meeting points, which means they have the ability to listen well and provide a brief but accurate review of what has been said. You must listen to everything, including what’s unspoken. You must also have a command of language and the ability to clarify concepts so you can sum up the discussion’s main points.

In many ways, leading a meeting is like juggling. A good leader keeps the balls in the air, stays focused, makes it a little entertaining, and ends with a big finish. Taking responsibility for this role is half the battle in leading good meetings. Remember, everyone wants somebody to lead. Take up the role, accept it, grow with it, and soon you’ll have others asking, “How is it you run such good meetings?”

Suzanne Bates is President and CEO of Bates Communications, and author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results. She is a former television news anchor who is now an executive coach, speaker and consultant. Her firm specializes in helping executives and professionals become stars in their industries. Information on workshops, seminars and executive coaching is available at www.bates-communications.com.

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