It seems my life is just one meeting after another these days so I have been thinking about what makes are a good meeting.

  1. Have an agenda. If I am the organizer of a meeting I always put together an agenda. That doesn’t mean it has to be a formal typed list given to every participant, but it does mean you have a plan for the topics of the meeting. Even when I am have a one-on-one session with my boss, I take the time to write-down a list of items I want to discuss. Having that agenda serves two purposes. One is to make sure you cover everything that needs to be covered and the second is to use it as a tool to keep you on track and on time. If a topic is taking too much time, maybe it needs to be further researched outside of the meeting or it needs a separate meeting with different participants. Either way, your agenda will serve as a great guide to accomplishing something during a meeting.
  2. Have an objective. If the objective of the meeting to make a specific decision, to get approval for something, or to just provide a progress report? If you know what the objective of the meeting is going in, you have a much better shot at actually accomplishing something and even more important, know when to end the meeting. Meetings without objectives tend to just fill the full time allocated to the meeting. Meetings with objectives finish early more often than not and it’s amazing how positive people feel about a meeting when they get out fifteen minutes early.
  3. End with a summary of follow-up responsibilities. While some rare meetings will end with nothing more to do, most meetings end with a list of follow-up tasks. It is very important to list out those tasks, and who is responsible for delivering on them, before the meeting is allowed to end. If this means cutting the discussion short so the last five minutes can be used to allocate tasks, so be it. The biggest failure of meetings is not the meetings themselves, but lack of productivity between meetings. By spending the last couple of minutes listing the tasks and who is responsible, the between meeting productivity will improve and there will be a lot less questions about who was responsible for what.

I know some people think all meetings are a waste of time. I disagree with that. Meetings serve a very important purpose. They are only a waste of time when they are poorly run and organized. If more people used the tips above, maybe more people would think meetings are useful.

The Four Day Marathon

Four days, 34 meetings.  That was my week so far as I write this Blog on Thursday night.  To put is delicately, I’m beat.  This kind of schedule is extremely unusual for most people in Business and Industry although I am sure there are more than enough controllers, officers and C-suite CPAs that would say that kind of schedule happens more than once during a year. 

My marathon week was brought on by a convergence of several factors.  First, at the beginning of the week, month-end close for April was still finishing up and that created a few regular and issue induced meetings.  The second cause was a rare occurrence.  My employer, AT&T closed on the sale of a Billion Dollar piece of the business, our yellow page and related local search internet operations.  That event alone caused more than a third of the meetings to deal with various aspects of the deal.  The third major factor was the ongoing schedule recovery from missing a day and half the week before while I was out sick.

Going through so many meetings, the hardest thing to do is to stay focused on the topic of each meeting.  It’s easy to let your mind drift to the next meeting topic or to the dozens of emails buzzing on your BlackBerry, but that defeats the whole purpose of the meeting in the first place.  The meeting is scheduled because someone either needs to pass information on to you, they need you to pass information on to them or they need your council, advice or approval for something they want to do. 

Passing information on to someone else is the easiest meeting to stay focused in because generally you are the active leader of the meeting. There is also a danger though of moving too fast through the information because you are looking to save a few minutes at the end of the meeting to clear out some of the emails building up, make a phone call or simply take a nature break.   It’s important to not only talk but listen with your ears and your eyes to make sure that your message is being received and more importantly understood. 

The other two types of meetings can be made even more difficult to stay focused if they involve conference calls.  It is all too easy to become distracted by the email chime or the papers sitting on your desk.  No one will notice if you take a peek for just a second, but anyone who has worked for a while can tell you that is when they invariably say something really important or ask you a question and you are caught asking them to repeat themselves.  One trick I use is to have a wireless headset and get up and pace around the office.  This gives my body something to do while my mind is focused on the topic at hand.  Walking to the other side of the desk is a great way to avoid clicking the mouse to look at an email.  You can even do a few low impact exercises, although you might want to make sure the mute button is on so people don’t suddenly wonder why you are breathing heavy.

I survived my marathon and can say I only lost focus in two or three meetings.  I just hope I didn’t agree to anything I will come to regret in those few meetings.