Who's Leading the Meeting, and How Effective are They?

by Editors, Portico, Society for Design Administration – Seattle Chapter

When was the last time you sat in on the perfect meeting? The meeting in which the leader started and ended on time. The meeting in which the leader distributed the agenda two days prior. The meeting in which the leader did not allow attendees to negatively impact the meeting. Where are those great meeting leaders when you need them, and how can you develop your meeting effectiveness?

Candace BelAir, a communications expert, offers her thoughts on techniques to ensure your meeting exceeds your attendees’ expectations.

SDA: One of the greatest fears people have is public speaking, but that doesn’t always mean they are presenting to a large group. Sometimes they have to lead a small-scale meeting, which you would think would be an easy thing to do, but their knees are still shaking. What makes leading a meeting so scary?

Candace: It’s true; people are often more afraid to speak in front of people they know than total strangers. They fear being judged by their peers. They may think, “What if someone in the group knows more than I do?” “What if I say something wrong, and someone in the group knows it? How embarrassing to mess up in front of my colleagues.” Here’s my suggestion: put those negative “what if’s?” in a balloon, release the balloon into the sky, and watch it sail away. In its place, tell yourself, “I am here to HELP my listeners learn something.” “What I have to say is of VALUE to them.” “I am here to SERVE my group members, to offer my ideas freely and openly.” “I have something valuable to CONTRIBUTE.” When you embrace these positive affirmations, you bring an entirely different mindset to your meeting; it’s not about YOU, it’s about THEM. You are there to HELP, to SERVE, to CONTRIBUTE. By focusing on the GROUP and how you can help them, it frees you from negative self-judgments such as, “I should know the answer to every question;” “I better not stumble over any words;” “I hope I look okay,” etc. I’m a big believer in positive affirmations because THEY WORK. In addition to positive affirmations, there are exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation that will calm you down before your meeting.

SDA: You don’t have meetings without people, and unfortunately many leaders do not get to choose the people who attend their meetings. What about the attendees who enjoy dominating the discussion, or those who tend to ramble on and on, or start talking about topics that are not on the agenda? What best practice techniques would you recommend to the meeting leader on how to manage those people?

Candace: Here are a few suggestions:

SDA: Is it true that the most effective meetings have an appointed time-keeper? What if the time-keeper forgets to call “time”?

Candace: I prefer that the meeting leader keep track of the time. The leader should estimate how much time is needed for each agenda item, and mark his/her agenda accordingly. For example, “Item A” starts at 2:05pm and ends at 2:15pm. If you are taking more time than you allotted, you need to make up for it elsewhere. Similarly, if you allotted 15 minutes for an agenda item, and it takes only 10 minutes, you have an extra 5 minutes to “spend” elsewhere.

SDA: For meetings in which the attendees haven’t previously worked together, what do you think about spending some time at the beginning of the meeting to get to know one another?

Candace: Fine, as long as you KEEP IT BRIEF. Ask each attendee to give their name and answer a question relevant to the meeting. For example, “In 15 seconds or less, please give us your name, and tell us why you volunteered to be on this committee.” Or, “In 15 seconds or less, please give us your name, and identify one goal you have for this meeting.” I have found that when you specify a certain time, for example, “15 seconds,” people usually talk twice that long. If you want them to stay under 30 seconds, tell them they have 15. If someone’s introduction goes on too long, gently stop them by saying, “Thank you for your comments. It’s great to know your goal for this meeting; I share the same goal myself. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the next hour.”

SDA: We know that the meeting leader is responsible for setting the tone of the meeting and is accountable for the outcome of the meeting, but what about attendees who are stuck with an ineffectual meeting leader? Do you have any tips for that situation?

Candace: This is tricky, because politics may be involved. If the ineffectual leader is your boss, be careful: at best, it’s rude to disregard or ignore him or her; at worst, it’s professional suicide. No matter how poorly your superior is running the meeting, you should remain engaged, interested, attentive. After the meeting, if you feel you must say something for the good of the committee, have a private conversation with the person who has the leader’s ear, then let that person speak to the leader. Your name should stay out of it. While we’re on this topic, if YOU are the leader, I suggest that at the very first meeting, you introduce the policy of periodic “checkins.” These would be feedback forms completed anonymously at regular intervals (after every third meeting, for example.) Ask members to refrain from personal attacks, and offer ways to improve the process instead.

SDA: What traits do the best meeting leaders have?

Candace: They start and end on time; they distribute the agenda before the meeting; they encourage participation among all attendees; they validate all opinions, even those they don’t agree with; they are good listeners; they ask follow-up questions; they recognize when attendees are not tracking with them, and correct the situation immediately; they don’t interrupt; they SHARE THE GLORY. As President Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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