200801cover
If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

From the President: Effective Meetings

Lincoln Johnson

I am turning into my mother, and I don’t say this because she worked for more than 40 years on a college campus. For the last 20 plus years, she has always had difficulty in getting her joints warmed up after sitting in cars, office chairs, and church pews. Being the dutiful, caring son, I always strongly hinted that if she were to get out and about more frequently, then that physical exertion would eliminate what we affectionately referred to as the "hobble." She always just smiled and said, "You’re probably right," but I’m sure she thought, "Just you wait, Lincoln Johnson, just you wait." What she should have said was, "Back off, son; you have no idea what you’re talking about," in response to such arrogance and utter lack of sensitivity on my part.

Well, about 11 months ago, guess who started hobbling after sitting too long? I began feeling aches in nearly the same joints and the slight give on the right side. Yes, the hobble is genetic. So, over the holidays I begged forgiveness, and she just gave me that nice smile that said, "Told you so."

Beyond our similarities regarding aches and pains, I also inherited my mother’s desire to be as productive, effective, and efficient as possible. As one might suspect, these hereditary characteristics collide abruptly when it comes to meetings. I have a high level of expectation that meetings be productive and expeditious, so that no one’s time is wasted (and no one gets uncomfortable sitting in their office chairs).

Like many of us, I spend a fair amount of time in all kinds of meetings: staff meetings, project team meetings, executive meetings, student government meetings, hiring meetings, budget meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, and one-on-one meetings. It is a reality of working with any kind of system or organization, yet I have become less patient with those meetings where you sit around a table for a couple of hours and listen to updates that could have been easily shared via a short e-mail communication.

Granted, meetings are certainly a time-tested and effective way to accomplish tasks. And there is genuine benefit in gathering in one spot and reconnecting with staff, students, and other colleagues. Recently, my schedule has allowed me less time to see some of my student activities staff, so I’ll admit that a recent staff meeting was called due to my selfishness in wanting to check in with and check up on them. And because I have had the need to be a more structured in my meeting schedule, I have found that my staff and I can get a lot done in a 15- to 30-minute interaction.

However, this is not the case with all the obligatory appointments on my calendar. Too often, the meeting barometer leans toward boring and ineffectual. Look around the room during group or team meetings and notice how many people are clicking away on their PDAs or somewhat discretely checking their watches to determine how much time is left. As Lencioni (2004) says, with so many demands and priorities on our time, "it is frustrating to have to invest energy and hours in any activity that doesn’t yield a commensurate return" (p. 223).

Often the calling of a meeting strikes a sense of dread, not only for me, but for those who get called to the meeting. How many of us complain about, pray for the end of, and do nearly anything to avoid meetings, even when we are the ones leading the effort? There is no reason to automatically equate meetings to organizational dysfunction, lack of productivity, and painful interactions. Yet, I often do.

It is not my intent to speak ill of a tradition that has worked for decades, but I have learned from some rather negative examples throughout the years; my least favorite reoccurring meeting type is that in which discussion on issues of substance (action-oriented items) is kept to a minimum because the majority of time is spent on minute-by-minute reruns of previous meetings and general updates and announcements.

What is it about meetings? I’ve actually heard individuals say that if it were not for meetings, they would like their jobs more—or that they’d certainly get more accomplished. However, meetings are critical and significant activities at the center of our various operations, programs, and services. They are where decisions are made, new initiatives are funded, academic majors are initiated, support or opposition of legislation is determined, and semester programming rosters are finalized. According to Lencioni (2004), "There is simply no substitute for … a dynamic, passionate, and focused engagement … when it comes to extracting the collective wisdom of a team" (p. viii). Meetings should contribute to a successful organization.

For this reason, I have attempted to perfect a method that was more widely written about in management textbooks in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was called "management by walking around." I have found that my "hallway discussions" let me accomplish quite a bit. They allow me to be accessible and visible, greet people, ask questions, answer questions, and drop by a student government office and just visit about their classwork, break plans, family, girlfriends, boyfriends, and the latest initiative, project, or event. Besides, they allow me to get out of my office more often to stretch those darn joints.

Additionally, during the last several months I have taken a lesson from a university dean by having one-on-one meetings by leaving the building in which my office is housed and walking through various parts of the campus. Why not enjoy the beauty of campus and get some fresh air, while having worthwhile, thought-provoking,
strategic-oriented discussions?

Of course, it is easier to exert this kind of flexibility for meetings and interactions with smaller numbers of people. Nevertheless, we are constantly in need of education regarding how to best utilize our time in meetings, especially in group or team settings. Lencioni (2004) says meetings should be "relevant" and:

Good meetings provide opportunities to improve execution by accelerating decision making and eliminating the need to revisit issues again and again. But they also produce a subtle but enormous benefit by reducing unnecessary repetitive motion and communication in the organization. (pp. 250–251)

Bad or ineffective meetings need not occur if you attend to some time-honored techniques that John Schlegel (2006, p. 58) suggests:

  • Open meetings on time, even if it means starting without some people who have failed to show up. This demonstrates respect for those who show up on time and sends a powerful message to those who are late.

  • Guide, mediate, provoke, and stimulate discussions. Make sure that all sides are heard and no one side dominates. Use well-placed questions to seek information, clarify, and summarize what you hear from the group.

  • Deal firmly with people who disrupt or distract. If side conversations crop up, first use eye contact to send a message. If that doesn’t work, note politely that the side discussions are making it difficult for others to hear. If the conversations continue, handle the issue privately at the next break.

  • Periodically summarize what has been said and what decisions need to be made. Use this technique after every two or three speakers to keep the discussion on track.

  • Monitor participation to make sure everyone speaks at least occasionally. To identify people who need to be drawn out, create a seating chart and record a mark every time someone speaks. Control talkative people with a statement that’s polite but direct, such as: "Let me ask you to hold that thought while I get the thoughts of others we’ve not heard from for a while."

  • Work your way up the seniority ladder when calling on people to speak. Turn to the more junior participants early in the discussion to bring in fresh ideas and keep the discussion moving. If more senior members speak first, the less experienced people will often defer.

  • Be sensitive to people’s feelings. Watch for visual and verbal cues; this is where eye contact is essential. An effective chair is constantly reading the group.

  • Move the group to a decision after a reasonable period of discussion. You’ll know it’s time when you hear thoughts or ideas being repeated.

  • Seek consensus, not unanimous decisions. Unanimity means that everyone totally agrees. Consensus means that everyone, though not in complete agreement, is willing to support the decision. Many discussions go on too long because the chair is unwilling to seek consensus, rather than unanimity.

  • Finish the meeting on time. If you run a little late, stop the discussion about 10 minutes before the scheduled ending and ask members of the group for permission to continue for whatever time you think will be needed. If they say yes, they will remain active in the discussion. If they say no, respect that decision and close the meeting at the scheduled time. Remember, the group owns the meeting, not the chair. If you go much past the scheduled time without getting agreement, you will not have good participation anyway.

  • Close the meeting on a positive note. Recap all decisions and note other things the meeting accomplished. Verify assignments and due dates. Secure commitments on the spot. Confirm understanding of next steps. Too often people leave unsure of what was decided, what the next steps are, and who is responsible for making things happen. Participants have given you and the [organization] two valuable assets: their time and their energy. You want all participants to leave the meeting feeling that they contributed to the organization and will continue to be needed.

Often I am reminded how critical meetings are for establishing shared vision and how frustrating they are when meetings go off track. Trust me, I’ve had my share of awkward and less-than-inspiring interactions. The right kind of meeting can enhance the effectiveness and performance of our organizations, programs, and services, and produce "higher morale, faster and better decisions, and inevitably, greater results" (Lencioni, 2004, p. 222). And it does not cause me to focus more on my aching joints than on the topics at hand.

References

Lencioni, P. (2004). Death by meeting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schlegel, J.F. (2006, January). Let’s meet: Tips for chairing your next meeting affectively. Associations Now.