Q: Hello, I enjoyed your HBR webinar on the right way to end meetings. We are interested in changing our culture around meetings. If you were to recommend one thing for us to implement, what would that be? – Michael, FL.

Thanks for the question, Michael, it’s one that is asked often. Here’s my suggestion:

For the next six months, get six to eight of the top people in your organization to have someone observe and provide feedback on how they lead meetings. Doesn’t have to be every meeting—three times a week would be perfect.

Why?

  • It’s a powerful, bold statement that management wants a change.
  • These meetings will immediately improve.
  • Others will notice, and the idea of working on meetings will spread.

Why it works

First, you and I are better when we are being watched. This applies to working with a golf instructor or personal trainer as well as in meetings. When we know that we are under the watchful eye of an observer, we are more mindful and deliberate about what we are doing. We also pay attention to the critical variables associated with performance.

“Critical variables are not something to do but things to pay attention to.”

—Tim Gallwey

Second, the notion of high-level managers being vulnerable while seeking to improve their performance is powerful. It takes a confident human being to display the openness required to be observed and given feedback. This is especially true for meetings, because very few managers have acknowledged this is a competency that they need and intend to master. People respond to such leadership.

Third, real learning takes practice and there are many aspects associated with leading meetings to master. Learning also requires concentrating on one thing at a time. Six months and being observed 3 times a week will get you to a remarkable place with meetings.

How to make it work

In addition to the support and engagement of the top managers, you’ll need a pool of respected folks who want to be involved in designing and leading meetings. It would be wonderful for a number of these to be HR folks, since they are the natural business partners for managers. But it could be anybody who will take the time to sit in on lots of meetings and be willing to make candid observations available afterward.

The observation and feedback can either be unfocused or focused. Unfocused means that those observing simply listen, watch, and notice anything that they think adds to or detracts from the effectiveness of the person leading the meeting. Focused means that the leader has asked the observer to pay attention to one particular aspect of leading the meeting.

For example:

Keeping an eye on closing the conversations effectively is probably the best place to start—noticing when some element of closure is missing as a first step to getting it in place as a regular habit of meetings.

Michael, you are probably familiar with Geoff Colvin’s excellent book, Talent is Overrated and the notion of deliberate practice.

The message of the research is that we can all get much, much better than we ever imagined. There’s no required minimum investment in deliberate practice. More is better, but any is good. It isn’t easy, but you’ll be amazed at the payoff.

Deliberate practice is a very specific activity and not what most people think it is. Here are the elements: 1) It pushes you just beyond your current level of ability—not way beyond, because then you would be lost, and not within your current ability, because then you won’t grow. But just beyond. 2) It is designed for you individually at this moment in your development. That means it will change as you get better; one reason many of the world’s best performers employ teachers or coaches is to keep redesigning their practice as needed. 3) It can be repeated at high volume. This actually changes the wiring in your brain. 4) It gives you continual feedback. You can’t get better if you don’t know how you are doing. This is another reason great performers have teachers to give them objective outside feedback on their performance. — Geoff Colvin

Meetings Matter provides the critical variables to adjust the practice to fit each leader’s development, as Colvin outlines in the second element above.

Getting better at meetings is similar to changing your golf swing: it takes practice. A workshop on meetings usually gets people thinking about being better, but unless you put in the practice time, nothing’s likely to actually change. And getting feedback on how you’re doing accelerates your ability to grow.

The beauty of this approach is that you and I take our performance to a new level when we are being watched. And we have enough meetings every week to get in the necessary practice, so let’s be deliberate about it!

Good luck,

Paul