At one point during my Marine Corps career I was loaned out the the U.S. State Department for about a year to serve as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the Bureau of International Information Programs.
The culture was completely foreign to me, but apparently I adapted and integrated quickly. Within a matter of weeks, people I’d never met began stopping me in the hall to say the same thing: “You’re that Marine, right? I hear you run really great meetings. Can you tell me how you do that?”
The first time it happened, I’m pretty sure I just blinked several times with a look on my face that affirmed the longstanding stereotype of Marines as robotic knuckle-dragging bullet sponges who shout things like “Oo-RAH!”, “Blood makes the grass grow!”, and “You can’t HANDLE the truth!” (As it happens, we aren’t, and we do, but that’s beside the point.)
Somehow I managed to smile and say (without even raising my voice, I might add), “Thanks. Sure. Have a purpose. Invite the right people. Have an agenda. Start on time. Stick to the agenda. End on time.”
That may seem a tad glib (and undoubtedly affirmed another longstanding stereotype of Marines as direct and to the point), but years later now, I’m comfortable it was a solid response.
Let’s unpack it.
Have a Purpose & Invite the Right People
Like so many things, a good meeting starts with deliberate planning. Before holding a meeting, I recommend nailing down four things about them: the purpose, participants, inputs, and outputs.
As leaders, if we don’t know the purpose of a meeting, we probably shouldn’t call one. Unfortunately this step is often overlooked and “Let’s have a meeting about that” becomes a reflex that eats time and adds to the very problems we’re trying to solve.
Purposes for a meeting might include setting priorities, synchronizing effort, making decisions, or even getting actual work done.
If it turns out you just gathered people together to pass information (or worse, just churn it around), odds are good a meeting isn’t the solution you were looking for. Unless open discussion is needed to contribute to decision making, planning, or problem solving, passing information can usually be done in a better way.
Once you’ve nailed down a concrete purpose for your meeting, the next step is to think through who should attend and what their role will be. If they’ll come to the table to help you reach an informed decision, zap ’em an invite, but if they’d just be there as a potted plant, don’t waste their time. Leave them to their jobs and send them the meeting notes.
Understanding the purpose and participants prepares you to clarify the inputs and outputs. What do you want each participant to contribute to the meeting? How will the issue being discussed affect them? How will they affect it? What questions should they be ready to answer? What do you want them to take away from the meeting?
Finally, pass all this information along. For regular or repeated meetings, you may want to create a standing document that articulates each of these things. This can be a useful resource for new team members, irregular attendees, or deputies who have to cover for a senior leader who is unavailable for some reason.
Have an agenda. Start on time. Stick to the agenda. End on time.
Establishing the purpose, participants, inputs, and outputs is the preparation part.
From there, when it comes to running an effective meeting, you have three responsibilities as a leader.
First, have an agenda, and stick to it.
This requires you to be disciplined and pay close attention throughout. It’s ok to build in time for open discussion, but be prepared to table a topic for the future. Stay focused on the purpose of your meeting, and if someone wanders off down a rabbit trail, don’t hesitate to bring them back on topic.
Second, start on time.
If someone drifts in late, acknowledge their arrival but keep rolling. Don’t keep the whole group waiting while a latecomer catches up. You can circle back around to them if time allows, or connect with them after the meeting.
If it’s your meeting and you’re going to be late, either identify someone who can stand in for you and kick things off on time — or cancel it. But don’t keep people waiting. That’s a sure way to create a cascading effect that messes with everyone’s schedule and gives the impression you think your time is more valuable than theirs. Remember, even if you’re the boss, everyone’s time has value.
Third, end on time.
Do this even if you weren’t able to get through the established agenda.
When that happens, you have options: Cover the remaining items at a future meeting; shorten the agenda; or allocate more time for the next go round.
Regardless, it’s our responsibility as leaders to ensure the purpose, participants, inputs, and outputs for our meetings are clearly defined – and to manage the flow of our meetings to achieve their purpose in the time allotted.
A Couple More Pro Tips for Leaders About Meetings
Don’t schedule the darned things back to back. Leave time between meetings for folks to mentally process the inputs and outputs. Also, to pee.
I marvel at how often folks fail to account for the need to do those things.
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Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.