How to… conduct effective meetings

As an HR professional, it is likely that you will have to sit in on more
than your fair share of meetings. But how many have you attended and wondered
why on earth you’re there?

Meetings may well make the business world go round, but for many of us they
are startlingly inefficient and unproductive – eating into our working day with
no derivable benefit. Yet it needn’t be like this. Managed properly, meetings
are tremendous vehicles for communication and exchange of information,
problem-solving, devising business strategy and achieving consensus.

Preparation plays a major part in making your mark in meetings. Don’t forget
that even a quick one-to-one chat with your senior manager is still a meeting,
and dealing with it effectively will reflect well on you and help your grasp of
the issues discussed.

Preparation and planning

Consider whether the meeting is really necessary: what is the purpose of
calling it and what do you hope to achieve? If the answer isn’t clear-cut, then
it is probably not needed. There may also be alternative routes to obtaining
the information required such as e-mail, telephone research or published
reports.

Don’t be afraid to break with established routine. "Regular meetings
are the most commonly wasted ones," says Ros Jay, author of Fast Thinking
Team Meetings. "Could that fortnightly meeting actually be monthly
instead? Can the weekly meeting be cancelled some weeks?" she asks.

Having established a meeting is necessary, there is a three-point checklist
that should form the basis for any type of meeting:

– Select attendees carefully. List everyone who has a stake or contribution
to make and then re-evaluate it: will anyone be offended if they’re left out?
Is there someone not directly involved but who may bring useful experience or
insight?

– Draw up an agenda. Set out clear objectives and prioritise them, include
start and finish times, venue, and who will attend, and circulate it. Make sure
any relevant background information is attached – this reduces the potential to
get sidetracked during the meeting. Distribute the agenda sufficiently in
advance to allow other attendees to gather their thoughts and consider their
input. Check with them that they recognise the relevance of attending.

Location and housekeeping. Choose a venue in keeping with the type of
meeting. If it is a large formal gathering, select a conference room. More
casual communication, on the other hand, can take place in an office or
breakout area. If your intention is to stimulate and generate ideas, you may
wish to hold it off site. Other factors that may influence your decision are levels
of comfort and the facilities available. Also, will you need secretarial or
other support such as a facilitator or someone to help with visual aids?

During the meeting

It is vital to start the meeting promptly. It shows you place a high value
on other people’s time, but also, not waiting will encourage people not to be
late. Make any necessary introductions and outline the purpose of the meeting
and the desired outcome.

Stick to the agenda. Be firm but do not impose your views. As the
facilitator, it is your role to ensure everyone contributes. Play devil’s
advocate if you have to, but balance any controversial comments, summarise and
recap regularly. Take notes of key points, decisions made and action required.

Allow sufficient time to wind up and always conclude the meeting on time. If
there are unexplored topics, schedule another meeting or follow up with
individual discussions. Either way, ensure everyone is aware of the next stage.
Inform them when to expect the minutes.

Follow-up

A swift follow-up is vital to the efficacy of the process. Summarise issues
discussed and decisions reached. If action is required, highlight who is
expected to deliver what and by when. Record the time, date and location of the
next meeting, where the results will be reviewed and send it to the group
without delay.

Room for improvement

However adept you are conducting meetings, there is always opportunity to
hone your skills, so be alert to new ways of working.

Where can I get more info?

Books

Fast Thinking Team Meeting: Work at the Speed of Life, Ros Jay, Prentice
Hall, £5.99, ISBN 02736533148

Training package

Going to a meeting (two-part series): Messing up Meetings/ Meeting Menaces.
Package includes VHS Video or DVD, worksheets, PowerPoint slides, and self-study
workbook, Video Arts, £995 per video/£1,395 per DVD, tel 020 7400 4800, e-mail:
sales@videoarts.co.uk

If you only do five things…

1 Establish clear goals

2 Choose an appropriate venue

3 Start promptly

4 Stick to the agenda

5 Prepare a summary and send it immediately afterwards

Expert’s view Ros Jay on conducting effective meetings

Ros Jay is a journalist and author of several career guides, including Fast
Thinking Team Meeting. Her latest book is Get What You Want at Work – the
Complete Personal Skills Guide for Career Advantage.

What advice would you offer to individuals who aren’t very good in
meetings?

Prepare exactly what you want to say in advance so you’re ready to make your
point when you get the chance. If possible, have a word with the chairperson in
advance and let them know you have something to contribute to a certain agenda
item.

How should you bring a meeting back in line?

If tempers are rising, the best approach is to focus on the facts. Ask questions
such as: ‘What have we done about this in the past?’

Are advances in communication technology responsible for creating more
meetings?

Yes, and they can bring together colleagues who wouldn’t otherwise meet.
However, it also increases the temptation to schedule unnecessary meetings
simply because you can.

Are the procedures and protocol for video-conferencing and conferencing
calls the same as for conventional meetings?

Essentially, yes. But, the chair needs to make sure everyone is properly introduced
at the start, and be vigilant about not allowing people to talk over each
other, so the tone is usually a little more formal.

Some companies seem locked in endless spirals of meetings – is there a
way to break this pattern?

Generally, you can only do this in your own department or team. But try
formally monitoring the new approach and then submit a report to senior
management. If you can demonstrate the benefits, more enlightened managers may
be prepared to follow suit.

Top three tips

1. Try to defuse an unpleasant atmosphere with humour. But make sure it
isn’t at the expense of anyone in the meeting, or their close allies.

2. Turn your disagreement with a certain point into a question – ‘how would
this proposal work when we’re short staffed?’ is less confrontational than ‘I
can’t see how this can work when we’re short staffed’

3. Start on time. If people know you start on time, they’ll be there. Don’t
go back over the early part of the meeting for latecomers; if they weren’t
there, they’ve missed it.

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