A former McKinsey partner shares 7 steps to having productive meetings you won’t dread

caption
Sevenshift CEO Caroline Webb.
source
Caroline Webb

When you’ve had too many unproductive, time-draining meetings, you can find yourself full of dread any time one appears on your schedule.

Even worse, you may be resigned to the idea that all meetings are bad in their own way, and it’s your duty to simply tolerate them as the clock ticks on.

“‘Meeting’ has somehow become a dirty word; when we hear someone say ‘I had a day full of meetings,’ we feel pity rather than envy,” Caroline Webb writes in her book “How to Have a Good Day.”

Webb is the CEO of consulting firm Sevenshift and a senior adviser to McKinsey, where she was formerly a partner. Her book is a collection of career best practices she’s learned in her 16 years as a consultant.

She’s found that the reason why so many of us dread meetings is “that we often pay a lot of attention to what we’re discussing – the document we’re sharing, the decision we need to make, the message we want to get across – and very little attention to how we’re having the conversation.”

Here are Webb’s steps to improving the way you plan and participate in meetings, so that “meeting” is no longer a bad word.


1. Set an agenda.

source
flickr / VFS Digital Design

Meetings run off the rails when there’s no proper preparation.

Before stepping foot in the conference room or coffee shop, ask yourself the following questions:

• What is the one thing of prime importance you’d like to accomplish?

• What are you most concerned about that day, and what do you want to focus on?

• What are some challenges that may get in the way of maintaining your focus, and how will you get back on track?

• What are your colleagues looking to get from this meeting?

And if you’re in charge of setting up the meeting, plan on finishing slightly before the assigned ending time, rather than using up every minute, for the purpose of a smoother transition back to work. Try setting the discussion points as questions to get the conversation moving (e.g. “How can we improve communication?” versus “Team communication”).


2. Begin with collaboration.

source
Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/flickr

Regardless of the meeting’s purpose, it’s best to begin on a positive note, with a prompt like “What’s going well so far?”

Then, “encourage some collaborative goal setting by asking, ‘Where do we want to be by the end of this meeting?'” Webb writes. “And then ‘What’s the best way for us to achieve that?'”

She encourages you to introduce these questions, if necessary, even if you’re not the meeting’s chairperson.

And if you are in charge, strongly consider a “no-devices” rule to keep the meeting from dragging on as your team members sneak looks at their phones or venture beyond note-taking on their laptops.


3. Keep your colleagues’ interests in mind.

source
Flickr/Dell Inc

The worst meetings entail one person after another droning on, while no one is listening.

Don’t forget that the reason why you’re all sitting there in the first place is to boost each other’s performance. Webb suggests several key points:

• When applicable, “illustrate your points with an anecdote or real-life example that shows the effect on colleagues or customers,” Webb writes.

• Break down longer comments into easy-to-digest segments (e.g. “There are three things that strike me about this. One … Two … Three …”)

• When you feel the need to disagree or raise a concern with one of your colleagues, don’t dismiss the idea immediately, which can make them defensive. Instead, find what you like about the basic idea or the intention behind it, and then explain why you think there’s a better approach.

• If you’re not getting what you need from your colleagues, don’t be afraid to ask for it.


4. Ensure the discussion yields results.

source
Steven Depolo/Flickr

A truly bad meeting can unfold according to two extremes: Everyone pretends that each other’s ideas are all great, or no one is willing to agree to anything.

Don’t foster a feeling of groupthink, Webb says. Even if you like one of your colleague’s ideas, feel free to play devil’s advocate to see if they can defend their plan, revealing whether they’ve thought it all the way through and are ready to deal with potential hurdles.

On the other hand, if everyone is frustrated and arguing, step in and clarify where everyone is in agreement. Work toward agreement on the most important topics and accept that there are some on which things certain parties will never see eye-to-eye. Many times, Webb points out, the issues of disagreement in a chaotic meeting aren’t even relevant to the purpose of the meeting, and so it is worth having the team make a list of their concerns that are not pertinent, for the purpose of later discussion.


5. Get a handle on challenging behavior.

source
Wonderlane/flickr

No matter how well you plan, everyone is susceptible to having a bad day, and if someone brings that into the room, they can be quite unhelpful. Don’t meet aggression or a flippant attitude with a mirrored reaction.

“If people are being annoying, remember that they’re probably feeling threatened by one of the common triggers: exclusion, unfairness, feeling unappreciated, a lack of autonomy, lack of competence, a threat to their values, or uncertainty,” Webb writes. They may just even be exhausted and impatient.

To improve the situation, resist the temptation to react emotionally and take an objective look at your colleague’s behavior. Determine why they feel threatened in some way and calmly and directly address the source of their concerns.


6. Neatly wrap up the meeting.

source
wocintech chat/flickr

Even a well-run, efficient meeting runs the risk of being wasted if it’s not properly concluded. It’s especially easy for employees to forget some “next steps” by the end of a long discussion, even if they were engaged.

“Always allow a moment to recap key decisions or reflect on the insights gained from the meeting, and agree on steps that each person will take,” Webb writes.


7. Have fewer meetings.

source
Flickr/Casey Fleser

“Many people say they hate meetings because there are just too many in their schedule,” Webb writes. “Improving meetings helps, but they simply need fewer of them.”

After taking Webb’s steps to maximize the productivity of your meetings, consider the results of each of them. If you’re a junior-level employee and feel that too much of your time is spent in meetings that lead nowhere, meet with your manager and see if there is a way to improve your team’s workflow through the reduction of recurring meetings.

If you’re senior-level, take a look at your schedule and see if one of your employees is better suited to attending a particular meeting for you and reporting back.

Whether you’re streamlining a meeting or nixing it from your schedule, never forget that it should not be a painful obligation, but rather an opportunity to collaborate and make the most of your job.