How To Make Meetings Work, Part 1

“I am a great believer, if you have a meeting, in knowing where you want to come out before you start Excuse me if that doesn’t sound very democratic.” – Nelson Rockefeller

 There’s an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) this month. This one on a problem you have probably encountered time and again in the workplace. It goes something like this.

A meeting is called to discuss a project/problem/opportunity. A presentation is made, and the room falls quiet. Everyone looks around waiting for someone else to open up the discussion. The CEO breaks the silence. He asks a few mildly skeptical questions to show he’s been thinking the subject over and then renders his opinion, either directly or subtly. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing how to implement the CEO’s ideas. It seems as if everyone agrees with him. A plan is established, yet, as the months go by, none or very little of it ever gets done.

Accordingto Ram Charan, a former business professor at Harvard, a consultant to “topexecutives,” and the author of “What the CEO Wants You to Know: How YourCompany Really Works,” the problem is the meeting itself. What looks like general agreement on a specific game plan is, in truth, “silent lies and a lackof closure,” leading to a culture of “indecision” and “false decisions.”

It all begins with dialogue, Charan says. Business leaders who want to make sure that good decisions get made and are then implemented must create a dialogue that has four characteristics:

1. Openness: The outcome should not be predetermined.

2. Candor: There should be a willingness to discuss the unpleasant things, to air the conflicts.

3. Informality: Formal, prepackaged presentations stifle candor.

4. Closure: At the end of the meeting, everyone should know exactly what he is expected to do.

This approach is fundamental to the way Jack Welch runs General Electric. Welch has instituted three “social operating mechanisms” that encourage useful dialogues:

1. The Corporate Executive Council (CEC): The company’s top leaders meet four times a year for 2 1/2 days to share their best business practices, assess the current market, and identify the company’s most promising opportunities.

2.The Session C Meeting: Once a year, Welch and GE’s senior VP meet with the head of each business unit as well as with his top personnel manager to talk about leadership and organizational issues and to identify the best talent.

3. The S-1 Meeting: This is a yearly meeting held about a month after the Session C Meeting. Welch, his chief financial officer, and members of the office of the CEO meet individually with each unit head and his or her team to discuss strategy for the next three years.

4. The S-2 Meeting: This is another once-a-year meeting similar to the S-1 Meeting, but it focuses on a shorter-term horizon (usually 12-24 months).

The whole process is unrelenting in terms of demanding that the divisional leaders involve their managers effectively in the decision-making process, that they create dialogues that are open, candid, and informal, and that they end up with specific action plans.

There is no question in my mind that the executive who runs his meetings this way will achieve more and suffer fewer setbacks than the employer who is all output and no input. That said, it must be acknowledged that quite often in business the senior leader is the senior leader precisely because he has a better understanding of how the business works and a more aggressive attachment to its primary goals.

So while it is easy to embrace the idea of open dialogue, it is much more difficult to make it happen. If you have tried it yourself, you know what I’m talking about. There is too much time wasted listening to comments that are simply uninformed, naïve, narrow-minded, or just plain silly.

Still, you should try. Here are some tips I try to follow:

* Let someone else — the next-most-senior person in the room — state the purpose and objectives of the meeting. This will give you a chance to find out if you are on the same basic track. It may also be a good chance to get a feeling for where everyone is, roughly speaking, on the issue at hand.

* In the beginning, ask only open-ended questions (questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”).

* When people ask you for your opinion, as they inevitably will if they’ve been trained to follow your lead, turn the question around toward them: “What do YOU think about it?”

* If the meeting has seven people or fewer (as it should), make a mental note of anyone who hasn’t said anything. After others have chimed in, ask his opinion.

* If you can’t engineer a sensible plan of action from the group, put one together yourself. But talk about it as if it had come from them. (In fact, much of it should have come from them.)

* Ask the next-most-senior person to create — on the spot — a written action plan with specific deadlines and identified responsible executives.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]