Adding muscle to meetings
This article is one of a series from "The Big Book of Small Business" by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.
Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.
In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.
It’s been said that a meeting is an event where minutes are kept and hours are lost. So why have meetings at all? Simple: the huge payoff. They leverage your time -— you can impart vital information to many key people at once, so the choir sings from the same song sheet. They tap into the power of brainstorming -— one plus one can equal three when viewpoints converge. Meetings tamp down turf wars — when a group solves each other’s problems, people magically become less turf-conscious.
Yet, you’ll waste a year of your life in meetings -— unless you announce agendas and expectations with a bullhorn. Get tough. Set tight parameters. Otherwise, you’ll be listening to disorganized people ramble on deep into the weeds about God knows what.
Here are my battle-tested protocols to get you in, out, and back to your desk before all the muffins are gone.
* Consider canceling the meeting. Or, at least, ask yourself whether the meeting truly needs to happen. So many issues can be handled via memo, e-mail or a quick one-on-one.
* Still gotta do it? OK, but invite only the A-listers, and make sure you have a quorum.
* Confirm the meeting room’s availability and be darn sure the necessary audio-visual gear will be assembled and working.
* If it’s a teleconference or video conference, confirm timing with the vendor. Do not screw around with cheap speakerphones; state-of-the-art phones won’t waste the time of long-distance participants. E-mail the agenda, handouts and step-by-step access instructions to all participants (noting start time in both your time zone and theirs). Add a note to remind teleconference participants to identify themselves before speaking.
* Prep an agenda that includes time limits for presentations and discussions. Circulate it via e-mail, clearly laying out the meeting’s date, time and place.
* Remind presenters to come armed with handouts that minimize questions and note taking.
* Appoint a time sheriff to signal you whenever people run long.
* Designate a note-taker to record the action steps produced by agenda items.
* Start on time, to the minute. It enforces promptness. George W. Bush was known to lock the door when he began his meetings. Starting 10 minutes late sends people a bad message —- that it’s OK for participants to mosey on in whenever they feel like it.
* Start your meetings with 60 seconds of quiet time to just breathe and relax (some people needed to catch their breath after running to get there on time). It’s amazing how this simple exercise can get people grounded and ready to go.
* If it feels natural, go around the table for (very) brief updates on everyone’s personal lives. It lifts spirits.
* Devote 30 seconds to the meeting’s objective and importance. Don’t assume that everyone takes their seat ready to hand over their full attention (even after a breathing exercise). You need to capture the attention of the woman who just finished arguing with her husband. That guy frantically dousing a departmental fire? You need him, too. A quick pep talk energizes and focuses everyone.
* Quickly review the agenda, then ask for late-breaking additions or deletions.
Pick up the pace
* Firmly, but tactfully, bat away remarks that stray from the meeting’s target. Positive comments get the point across without embarrassing anyone: “Sue, that sounds important. Why don’t we get that on the agenda for next time?”
* Urge ramblers, even when they’re on message, to keep it moving: “Hey, Tony, FYI, we’ve got five more minutes for this segment. Better finish up so we have time for questions.” If time is running out: “Hey, Tony, great point. Can you bottom-line it?”
* Beware “piling on,” the tendency we have to toss in our two cents even if they’re wooden coins.
Rather than allow everyone to say the same thing in slightly different ways, ask people to call out ditto to signal agreement.
* Deep-six side conversations by looking directly at the talker and injecting his name into what you’re saying: “So this solution, Jim, should solve that problem.”
* Drawn-out discussions make it hard to wrap up an issue. Bring it to a head by saying, “We’ve got two minutes. What are the action steps?” If that’s not practical, either defer the topic to the next meeting or appoint a committee to explore it. I know, committees get a bad rap. As former House of Commons clerk Sir Barnett Cocks delicately put it, “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” But when they’re quarterbacked with discipline, committees save time and produce results.
* Think high-stakes poker. Hold your cards close and betray nothing with your facial expressions. Why? Play your cards too soon and the pot won’t have time to grow. In other words, a leader’s opinion influences others’ opinions, the mental equivalent of a pile of chips. Keep a poker face and you’re more likely to draw out the quiet types and make it hard for the sycophants to parrot your ideas. (Ask a trusted team member to cue you if you’re too quick to seize the reins.)
* Get everyone to ante up. Don’t let the Silent Sams get through a meeting without contributing. Call on individuals if you sense they’re stifling their ideas. Resort to the round-robin technique if too many people are holding back.
* Use secret balloting when serious issues require a vote. When I staked out a position, I found others were sometimes reluctant to openly vote against me. Still, you may occasionally have to trump an outcome by playing the executive-privilege card. In the end, you’re the chief protector of the company’s mission, vision and values.
* Ask open-ended questions. You’ll hear thoughtful and often revealing answers.
* Indulge wisecracks. You’re keeper of the tone, and laughing and kibitzing with everyone else keeps it light and fosters strong relationships.
* Stand and stretch every hour or so to keep people invigorated and focused. Allow people to stand if they begin to feel uncomfortable or fatigued.
* Close out every issue by defining action steps: “OK, exactly what are we going to do, who’s going to do it, and when are they going to do it?” Skip this critical step and you waste everyone’s time. Plus, the next meeting will have a bloated, déjá vu agenda.
* Try putting the meeting “on the couch” every so often for post-game analysis. Ask the group what they liked about the meeting, and if they have any ideas for making the process better.
* Finally, schedule the next meeting.
* As people leave, strike up a conversation with anyone who was straying during the meeting: “Hey, Jim, good distribution idea. But I couldn’t help noticing you strayed off the mark a few times. That’s not like you. Everything all right?”
* Ask the designated note-taker to e-mail attendees a bulleted action-step summary within 24 hours. Succinct bullet points get read more thoroughly than long paragraphs.
* The note-taker also updates the Meeting Follow-Up Log, a list of items whose progress you want to assess during subsequent meetings.
Tight team meetings generate two powerful side effects. First, you teach participants by example how to efficiently conduct their own staff meetings. Second, you broadcast a message that reverberates through the entire culture: We value efficiency and teamwork, and we need your help to solve our problems.
In next month’s article, Gegax will take a look at interview essentials.