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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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The Meeting before the Meeting

Brad Ruppert

Meetings are a necessity of any business and having the ability to run an effective meeting is a quality of a good leader. An effective meeting is one that addresses the objectives, answers outstanding questions, assigns action items, stays on topic, and concludes in the time allotted. This task may seem simple when the host is the highest ranking executive in the room, but what if the roles are reversed. This paper will address how to host an effective meeting when faced with attendees of higher rank.

What’s so hard about running a meeting? Meetings take time, collaboration, focus, and attention of all attendees. Meetings that have too many attendees have difficulty staying on topic. Meetings with too few attendees may not have all the players needed to make an informed decision. Finding the right time slot where everyone is available to attend can also be a daunting task. Meetings that combine managers and subject matter experts can often run into difficulties when trying to see an issue from both sides of the equation. When problem solving, often the focus of the solution is around fixing one issue instead of the root cause. The ability to juggle all these tasks becomes exceedingly difficult as the number of attendees and their position within the company goes up. Power struggles, egos, and personal agendas can all work to side track the objective of the meeting.

So what’s the secret?
Plenty of pre-planning and effective leadership provided by the host are the keys to achieving the objectives of a meeting. Being a good leader means having the ability to provide direction, engage attendees in conversation, stay focused on the topic at hand, and use good time management skills. Even with all these qualities, a host can still have a meeting go awry if it has not been properly pre-planned. Meetings are often the avenue of informing executive management to an agreed upon solution. To get to that solution, it is necessary to host smaller meetings with fewer attendees so that issues can be sorted out ahead of time. The last thing anyone wants to do is hold a meeting with executive management, waste an hour of everyone’s time, and still be no farther along than before the meeting started.

"The Meeting before the Meeting"
This is a phrase that refers to sorting out all major issues with meeting attendees prior to the larger get-together with executive management. Often when multiple managers are gathered in one arena, pride, ego, and thirst for power will supersede rationale. So what was once mentioned verbally in past discussions may not be what is agreed to in a meeting with the CEO or other executive officers. Because of this, it is important to verify agreed-upon actions, timelines, and action owners prior to involving executive management in a meeting.

Go to the source
When putting together an action plan, sometimes all that is needed is a manager or director’s approval. Depending on your relationship with that individual, it may be an easy task. More often than not, the work that is required will be from one of the manager’s subordinates or a subject matter expert (SME). Do not assume that just because the boss agreed to something, that the SME is going to be onboard with the idea as well. Either bring the SME into the meeting with the manager or go to the SME directly to verify the work that needs to be done. If a manager is unwilling to work with you, sometimes your only option is to work directly with the SME. Leadership and interpersonal skills are invaluable in this situation.

Resolve potential issues one on one
Never go into a meeting hoping to win someone over or back them into a corner when their boss is present. Previously discussed actions can easily be reversed if someone feels threatened by those in the room. More often than not, a manager will then side with their subordinate which leaves you hanging out on a limb. Take the time to sit down one on one with the person that will actually be doing the work to gather their input. If resource constraint is an issue, try to find a compromise or identify an incentive for the employee that accomplishes this task. After agreeing on an appropriate solution, then focus on removing the road blocks. Having an employee side with you will make it that much easier to obtain his or her management’s approval as well.

Focusing on the meeting

Meetings are often notoriously associated with wasted time. This association tends to come from poorly hosted meetings that drag on too long, end up on tangents, or don’t have the proper attendees at the meeting to make decisions. Therefore it is of utmost importance to define the objectives and potential outcomes and to estimate the proper amount of time needed to discuss and resolve known issues. When identifying the objectives, it is important to take a step back and verify that a meeting is the right place to discuss a certain topic. Sometimes specific objectives can be accomplished in discussions with an individual via email or over the phone and do not need to be introduced in a group discussion. Staying on track is another important component and can be a delicate balance between encouraging open discussion and defining resolution. If a discussion moves too far off topic, it should either be brought back on track or tabled for a later discussion between interested parties. Ultimately a well-driven meeting should end five to ten minutes early giving the attendees a feeling of resolve.

Guidelines for conducting an effective meeting

  • Define the objective and desired outcomes
  • From objectives, determine if a different activity could be used in place of a meeting
  • Remove distracters (close blinds or doors)
  • Determine topics to cover and best format for discussion
  • Estimate the length of the meeting [1]
Piecing together an agenda
The agenda is an important extension of the objectives and will help track the pace at which the meeting is moving. The agenda should provide start and end times, location of the meeting, list of participants and their roles, and the topics to be discussed. This agenda should be submitted to the attendees ahead of the meeting to provide some background on purpose and direction. When opening a meeting the agenda should be summarized so everyone is aware of what needs to be covered. This will help keep things moving if a topic begins to side track the conversation.

Perform a dry run
Hosting a meeting with executive management is not the time to introduce new material or to open the table for discussion without it being part of the agenda. Typically time is of the essence, so driving to hit the milestones and achieving the objectives of the meetings are the primary goals. Practice going over the agenda with co-workers and ensure its accuracy and completeness. Speaking out loud also helps to verify that you are assured of re-iterating your notes and that you approach specific topics correctly. Take pointers from your practice audience and incorporate them into your speaking notes.

Just before the meeting
Remind yourself of the purpose of the meeting and focus on meeting those objectives. About an hour before the meeting, verify that you have all supporting documentation including handouts, equipment, and any materials that will be needed. If you will need a projector, hopefully you planned and prepared for it well in advance. Attempt to arrive early and provide the proper setup or pass out materials ahead of the meeting so you are not wasting discussion time. Know your role within this meeting and remind yourself of the path you are going to follow. Stick to what you have rehearsed.

Preparation Techniques
Not all meeting situations are under your control, but working to enhance your core competencies of leadership will help prepare you for such times. Nine core competencies were compiled into a list as the foundation of good leadership:
  1. Communication (clear, concise, written, and verbal)
  2. Self-direction (goals, deliverables, time line, budget)
  3. Creative problem-solving (brainstorming)
  4. Interpersonal skills (respect, trust and dignity)
  5. Managing client relationships (internal and external)
  6. Social networking (building appropriate relationships)
  7. Flexibility (willful change for organizational needs)
  8. Professionalism (stay current, active in community)
  9. Financial awareness (makes positive impact to bottom line) [2]
Having open communication with the primary stakeholders will help ensure a clear understanding of each other’s position. Providing solutions to problems, instead of just identifying them, helps establish goals and deliverables. Examining problem solving techniques with subject matter experts and hosting brainstorming sessions fosters collaboration between groups. Maintaining respect and dignity while managing client relationships and building social networks provides trust and familiarity between coworkers. Being flexible enables groups to come to a compromise when not all interested parties are initially satisfied. Maintaining professionalism and involvement within the community helps provide solutions to common problems faced by similar businesses. Having financial awareness keeps projects aligned with the business model.

Recording what takes place
One of the most important aspects of the meeting will be to have a record of what took place and solutions that were agreed upon. Meetings can be very fast paced and cover a wide array of topics. A note taker should be appointed to keep record of attendees, topics discussed, and solutions identified in response to outstanding issues. The notes should incorporate accountability (who said what) and follow up action items. The action items should define an action owner, the deliverable, and the time required to complete the action or provide a status report.

Kicking off the meeting
The meeting should begin with a short introduction and attendance should be recorded of those in the room and on the phone. The background and purpose of the meeting should be provided so that everyone is working from the "same page.. Objectives should be discussed along with desired outcomes to provide direction for the meeting. Having conducted "the meeting before the meeting" should mean that all discussion items have previously been reviewed with the primary stakeholders. Therefore the introduction of topics should only be for the benefit of those not directly involved with providing the work. If the meeting has any ground rules, this would be the time to define them. Ground rules may include the means of conflict resolution, confidentiality of discussion items, or time allotted for each discussion topic.

Running the meeting
The host should ensure that the meeting keeps a pace that allows ample time to discuss each topic in the agenda. This should include a review of the topic, feedback from the attendees, time for questions, and follow-up or closure. Depending on the number of attendees and diversity of their roles and backgrounds, it is possible that additional information on a subject will be required. This is where your pre-planning, "the meeting before the meeting," will come into play. Hopefully you have met with the primary stakeholder of the topic at hand and all potential questioning has already been covered between both of you. Therefore, should any issues arise, the primary stakeholder will feel comfortable addressing any outstanding questions without pitting you in the middle. As the host, you can mediate any problems and ensure that the discussions stay focused on the ideas and not the individuals. Having spoken to the primary stakeholder ahead of time will also help ensure the primary stakeholder maintains ownership of any issues and does not involve you unless necessary. Additionally it will be important to acknowledge and reinforce constructive contributions and help summarize findings as they are provided. Staying on track will include stepping back for a moment and recapping what’s been accomplished and what is left to address.

Conduct the Meeting
  • Take time to tell and hear stories
  • Clarify and paraphrase important ideas
  • Ask for different points of view
  • Use brainstorming techniques and record ideas
    • Use bright colors and bold shapes
    • Use pictures as well as text
    • Use bullets to emphasize essential points
    • Use no more than seven words per line and seven lines per chart
    • Keep all flip charts posted
    • At end of meeting give flip charts to minute taker to incorporate into notes
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Keep focus on ideas, not on people
  • Assign next steps throughout the meeting
  • Stay focused on agenda topics [3]
Meetings should always end with enough time to recap key decisions and to quickly review outstanding action items. If necessary a follow-up meeting should be discussed and a rough timeline should be agreed upon to reconvene. For discussions that extend past the time allotted, it is best to reschedule a separate meeting with only the attendees needed to bring the discussion to closure. As a final wrap-up to the meeting, the attendees should be thanked for their involvement and their time committed to the discussion.

Follow-up actions
After the meeting, minutes should be refined and presented in a summary document to be distributed to the attendees. The minutes should incorporate decisions made during the meeting and action items with owners. As the host, you may be required to aggregate status reports from action item owners at a later period in time.

Hosting a meeting with executive management should be well-organized, thought-out, and flow as smoothly as possible. Having "the meeting before the meeting" will help to ensure all major objections have been previously addressed and that primary stakeholders are at least aware of the topics to be discussed. This planning will keep the pace of the meeting moving along to enable all topics to be addressed. Ultimately an effective meeting will result from having all attendees brought "up to speed" on existing initiatives and having action owners assigned to outstanding items. An effective meeting increases the likelihood that the same people will attend another meeting of yours, and reinforces your leadership potential.

1. Clark, Donald. Leadership and Management Competencies, SANS Institute, 2006. p.161
2. Clark, Donald. Leadership and Management Competencies, SANS Institute, 2006. p.150
3. Clark, Donald. Leadership and Management Competencies, SANS Institute, 2006. p.164