Management Debt Series: Learn How To Run a @#$#@ Meeting

There are two separate paths to startup success. The first and far more celebrated path is the one where founders discover a novel way to address an existing problem in the world. They build a product or service, find early customers, and Voilà! A new business is born.

But there is a second path that founders must walk to fully realize the success they desire. They also have to build a company. That means a set of reliable processes for recruiting, motivating, deploying, organizing, and harmonizing a (rapidly) growing population of humans. 

The second path is Enjoy The Work’s speciality 🙂 

In this series on Management Debt (harkening back to a post by that same name from earlier this year), I intend to highlight some of the subtle yet crucially important skills that make that second path just a hair easier for founders. Because startup cemeteries are sadly filled with former companies that had great ideas, worthy products, and amateur execution.

Enjoy The Work blog post. 5 Commandments on how to run a meeting that doesn't suck.

Lesson 1: Most people can’t run meetings.

You’ve attended many bad meetings. 

They’re agendaless. There’s no clear meeting owner. Some (or many) of the attendees don’t need to be there. The discussion meanders, actions are not captured, and open threads are left hanging. There’s no resolution, and everyone feels like they’ve wasted their time. 

Great meetings are different. And sadly, less common.

Great meetings leave people feeling empowered. There is a clear owner. There is a ritual for sharing, discussing, and resolving issues. People know why they’re present and understand the situation at hand. They’re current on what actions have already been taken and what actions might be considered next. 

But how do you get from here to there? 

The rules are simple. The discipline is hard. Ask yourself the following questions each and every time you’re contemplating a meeting, and I promise you’ll see a shift swiftly.

Do we have a clear purpose for this meeting?

Do not have a meeting unless there’s a clear objective. Name it, circulate it, prepare for it, and line the agenda up against it. If the answer is vague, kill the meeting.

Does the meeting have an owner?

Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering taught me a phrase that I believe applies as much at work as it does socially — the “generous host.” This person is responsible for planning and orchestrating the gathering, or in this case, the meeting. And the host is responsible for answering the remaining questions …

Do we have the right humans in attendance?

Invite only those who matter. If you realize your list is off, disinvite people (with empathy and kindness). They’ll thank you. If you’re invited to meetings where you won’t contribute, decline them (also with empathy and kindness). Further — titles are of secondary importance when determining attendees. A meeting is an investment of time. Make sure you get the return. And that means optimizing the audience for effectiveness, not egos.

Do we have the right space?

The setting matters. It influences the discussion in ways that are subtle and important. Sometimes a phone meeting will suffice. For others, it’s a video session. Often, an in-person is required. And for offsites, I suggest somewhere inspiring. The point is to be thoughtful.

Do people need to be prepared?

There are topics too complex, too dense, to simply jump right into a discussion about. While a pre-read places  a burden on the host and the attendees, the alternative is worse. They’re called presentations. They are the well-intentioned notion of educating a group of people on an idea. But when humans have to sit silently and listen to a single speaker, they are far more likely to check out. Give them something to read, or better yet, to comment on (ideally publically to add social pressure), and the result will be a room full of people ready to spar rather than doze.

What’s the agenda?

Crafting an agenda is a forcing function that helps you determine whether you’ve allocated the proper time and invited the proper audience. It also provides the host with a stick to keep the audience on track. An agenda can double as a minimally viable pre-read.

Who will take notes?

If you’re hosting a meeting, your role is to facilitate the discussion, manage the agenda, and ensure objectives are met. It’s terribly difficult to do that and take effective notes. And while AI notetakers are omnipresent, they don’t work well in every context. Designate a notetaker, and ask them to distribute the output, including conclusions and action items.

Speaking of action items — who will own what comes after the meeting?

You selected the attendees, distributed a pre-read and an agenda, facilitated a productive set of discussions, had expert notes captured, and concluded on time. So what happens next? There should be zero ambiguity about what follows, who owns what tasks, and when each needs to be completed. Write action items down, circulate them, and then hold the owners accountable.

Enjoy The Work blog post. 5 commandments for running a meeting that doesn't suck.

Bonus question: Is the meeting done?

Great meetings are done when they’re done. 

If you covered your agenda items, end the meeting. If you get into the agenda and realize that key voices are missing, reschedule. 

Please, please, please don’t be afraid to kill a meeting. If no one knows why people have gathered, there’s no clear agenda, the medium doesn’t fit the message, or the purpose can be achieved without a gathering, the meeting has to go. If it turns out that what you thought would take 2 hours to resolve only required 20 minutes, clear the room. The goal is not to have a meeting. The goal is to connect, share, and resolve business topics.

Where does this all leave us? Meetings are money, so stop wasting your money!

You’re a founder. You’ve allocated some of your precious capital towards hiring compelling people. And those people must deliver value by building products, winning customers and addressing a thousand other support tasks. Any time those talented people spend in a poorly constructed meeting is money vanishing from your treasury.

Enjoy The Work blog post. 5 commandments to run a meeting that doesn't suck.

And it’s not just about avoiding waste…

When meetings are well run, a funny thing happens. People don’t dread them anymore. They look forward to them. They participate. They contribute. And as a result, they might just Enjoy The Work a little bit more.

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