One of the biggest jokes about working in industry is how many stupid useless meetings one “must” attend.
Whether you are a low-ranking member of your team or the CEO, here are several strategies to stop wasting your time and everyone else’s.
1) Define the objective of a meeting.
If a meeting has no objective, cancel it.
If you don’t have the authority to cancel such a meeting, ask the meeting host or all participants, “Hey, what is the objective of this meeting?”
When I was working in industry and got invited to YAM (Yet ANOTHER Meeting), I got very ruthless with my time.
Just because you want me to attend a meeting does not mean I will be attending it.
If a meeting has no clear objective, I would not attend because it is not at all clear how my attendance would improve the odds of reaching the objective — since there is no objective in the first place!
If the meeting did have an objective, but my role in the meeting was not clear, I would ask the meeting host, “How does my attendance help you achieve the meeting objective?” Or “Is my presence necessary to achieve the objective?”
In many cases, my presence or input was not needed at all and I was invited merely out of political and professional courtesy. Other times, I had nothing to contribute to the meeting, but I did need to be informed about the decision coming out of the meeting. In those cases, I would ask the meeting host to email me a summary of the key decisions made at the meeting.
2) Politely Insist on a Clear Agenda
If a meeting has no clear agenda — especially an agenda that clearly shows how we’d achieve our meeting objective — I would decline to attend. Other times, I would simply walk out of the meeting (not something you can do with your bosses, but if it was a meeting with my “subordinates” and their peers, I would walk out).
In industry, I was a bit on the cavalier side, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend walking out of stupid meetings (but you know you’re tempted, right?).
However, if you are merely a participant in a meeting and it’s not clear what the agenda is in the meeting, as a junior team member I would “force” the creation of an agenda.
I would say, “Hey, I didn’t get an agenda via email before the meeting. Would it be okay if we quickly decided on our goal for today and what we plan to discuss?”
If the meeting had a senior person in the room that was more senior than me, then I would turn to that person and look for a response. In this way, I did not challenge the power hierarchy, but I respected the hierarchy (by deferring to the senior executive in the room) but still “led” the meeting by guiding the senior person in the room to make a multiple-choice decision. (Yes agenda vs. No agenda)
If it was a meeting with peers, before anyone would answer verbally, I would walk to the whiteboard and write the following:
MEETING OBJECTIVE: __________________
Then I’d stand there, wait, and say, “Well what do you think?”
If I filled in the blank, that would be taking over the meeting. But by leading the room of participants to fill in the blanks, I would provide process leadership — I would lead the process by which we made decisions, but not necessarily make the decisions.
In my experience, good executives LOVE it when you do this. They do so for several reasons. First, they’ve spent their entire careers in stupid, useless meetings. They know that a clear meeting agenda and objective really helps. At the same time, leading the meeting from a process standpoint takes energy, and senior executives don’t have the energy to do this in every meeting they attend all day long.
So, when you step up to lead the process, the senior executive gets to relax and actually THINK about the decision at hand.
3) Keep People Focused on the Agenda
When people start deviating from the meeting agenda, I would resist the temptation to walk out of YASM — yet another stupid meeting. (Can you tell just how much I hate useless meetings? 🙂)
Instead, I would say:
“Hey, I noticed that our current topic of conversation isn’t on the agenda. Given the limited amount of time we have today, and out of respect for the busy schedules of everyone in the room, do we as a group want to modify the agenda to include this topic, or do we want to stay focused on what we all previously agreed would be essential to achieving our objective today?”
This is code for:
“Hey you two people who are arguing about something stupid and irrelevant to the rest of us, will you guys just shut up, save your stupid little argument for later when the rest of us aren’t in the room, and can we just do what we need to do to make a key decision?”
Of course, you can’t actually say that out loud… well you can but then you tend to get fired. BUT, everybody in the room is thinking the exact same thing. So, using the more eloquent version of the phrasing tends to get the job done without getting fired as a consequence.
As you progress in your career, your work tends to be less about your individual abilities in engineering, sales, marketing or finance. As you take on more responsibilities, your job becomes getting things done THROUGH other people. In other words, an engineer works by engineering. A marketer does work by marketing. As an executive, you do work by sitting in meetings.
Being effective at meetings is HOW you become an executive and how you become a good one.
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