Let's Vote and Go Home: How to Run an Effective, Efficient Meeting

In my work life, staff meetings often involve one or two long-winded colleagues telling war stories while the rest of us feel like POWs. At meetings for one volunteer gig, we’d advance an issue nearly to completion…and then stop just short of resolution.

I became the master of excuses why I couldn’t make the meetings (but that’s a story for another day). Here’s what I wish my editors and board chairman had known.

Before the meeting, make an agenda. Don’t waste more time by having people read reports during the meeting. Instead, provide the minutes, the agenda and any supporting documents to all team members in advance so they can digest them beforehand.

Start on time. Don’t reward latecomers by waiting on them. Waiting is unfair to those who made the effort to be on time. People will be more likely to on time if they know you’ll start with those present. Arriving late to find out a meeting hasn’t even started provides no incentive to arrive promptly next time.

Respect everyone’s time. Schedule all items related to one team consecutively so that team can leave early or, with approval, arrive later. If one person must come to the meeting only to present one five-minute report, don’t schedule that person at the end and make her suffer, er, sit, through the entire meeting. Respect her time and schedule her at the beginning and allow her to go home to her husband, daughter, favorite novel or all three.

End on time. Set the length of the entire meeting and for each agenda item to help keep everyone on track. If one item is going past its allotted time, call for a vote or table the item until the next meeting and allow more time. Remind a long-winded speaker of the time limit for his agenda item. Another trick: when that verbose talker says something vaguely on-topic, cut in with, “That’s interesting. Hey Don, do you think that’s a good idea?” Hear another opinion, then move on. Schedule meetings right before lunch to provide extra incentive to be quick. If necessary, use an inanimate third party—a timer—to let speakers know when they have one minute left to speak. “Sorry John, the timer says you need to wrap it up!”

Determine if comments are relevant. At one Board of Supervisors’ regular meeting in a Virginia county, the public comment time at the beginning of each meeting typically brings gadflies to talk about national issues the board has little or no control over—such as the United Nations and the Second Amendment.

Avoid wasting time on the same topic year after year. Every year, one large volunteer group board debated whether to hold a banquet honoring older members. And every year, the same issues related to the banquet came up as experienced board members rotated off the board and new board members rotated on. It would have saved time to present in advance supporting information that listed the pros, cons and previous year’s talking points.

Set the tone. As a team leader, be tactful, gentle and calm. Respect everyone equally. People will notice if some attendees get special treatment while others are ignored. Don’t take things personally or get defensive. You will have to make tough calls—leave the emotions at home.

Think collaboratively. Don’t dominate the meeting or allow others to dominate. Ask for comments from those who haven’t spoken yet. Some people need encouragement to share their thoughts.

Special touches work. Use humor to get people’s attention and communicate tough ideas. Express appreciation genuinely and appropriately.

If the leader is the problem, that’s tough. You can always send him the link to this story—or to be anonymous, cut it out and leave it in her inbox.

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