Managing your meetings
You must have heard a lot of horror stories about meetings. Meetings that lasted for hours accomplishing nothing or meetings that degenerated into cross currents of insults and vitriol that ended in fisticuffs. If you think meetings of this stuff did not happen in well-known organizations, think again. I know of a meeting in one organization that ended in one board member challenging another to a fight outside. The proverbial cooler heads prevailed upon both protagonists to cool off.
How do you manage meetings? Note that I didn’t use the word “control.” You don’t control a meeting, you manage it, as a presiding officer, to ensure a free exchange of ideas and achieve its purpose: to inform, to persuade, or to arrive at a consensus or make a course of action or decision. Meetings can be useful; they can also be useless if not managed properly. But meetings, for sure, are necessary.
The unsavory experience of some on meetings led to some quotable quotes from the famous. Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, a man of action, who must have been exasperated by so many meetings, was quoted to have said: “No matter what time it is, wake me up, even if it’s in the middle of a Cabinet meeting.” We had one past president of our country who was known to have had a very short span of attention that official meetings—so we were told—did not last long, but the kitchen cabinet meetings in the evening lasted for hours in a state of inebriation.
A guy by the name of Dave Barry, made the most scathing remark about meetings: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that would be meetings.” This facetious remark—albeit made in disgust of his personal experience on meetings—to my mind, trivializes the importance of meetings. For meetings are a must not only in business but also in any segment of civilized society. One just has to manage it to be productive and effective.
How many meetings do you have in a day? How many of these upset your priority schedules? When I was with General Motors (GM), there was a weekly meeting of the HR Committee of which I was the presiding officer attended by all Department Heads. Other meetings were of the Finance, Production, Quality, Supply, Marketing/Sales and Distribution, not to mention the weekly Management Committee meeting of all direct reports presided by the Managing Director. There were also some ad hoc meetings to treat on special matters. No wonder, if Westinghouse that won in the bid over GE in the aborted Bataan Nuclear Plant during the time of Marcos for millions of dollar of reasons, earned the sobriquet of Wastetinghouse, the wisecrack at that time was, GM stood for General Meetings.
How do you manage meetings? You don’t have to study the Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct meetings. That’s only advisable for parliamentary proceedings like Congress or other assemblies where there are voluble people like heat-seeking lawyers who love to engage in argumentation and debate. Leave the Robert’s Rules of Order to our Senators and Congressmen and other argumentative people in non-business meetings.
Business meetings are different. Time is of paramount importance. I’m talking of time here in terms of its frequency, duration and achievement of its purpose. In short, it’s not the place where you hear the oratory of Churchill, the rhetorical discourse of the old Jose P. Laurel, or the sheer logic of Don Claro Recto. Or the recent spectacle in the Senate where some members exchanged personal insults heretofore heard only among fishwives in the market.
Anyway, in a business meeting, questions that you ask are: What is the purpose of this meeting? What are the consequences of not holding this meeting? When it is over, did it achieve its purpose? A meeting’s purpose can be for information, for discussion or for decision.
Knowing the objective
Defining the objective of the meeting beforehand provides a roadmap of what the meeting will be and how it will end. If it is to inform, you have to decide whether it’s best to just issue a FYI (for your information) memo to all concerned stating all the factual data you wish to be known. You may even solicit their reactions/comments, if necessary.
However, if the information you wish to circulate has important implications, then, it is best to have a meeting. But it must be clear to everyone that the meeting is for information purposes only that requires no action, conclusion or decision. A good example of this type of FYI meeting is to announce a voluntary retrenchment program. The agenda requires no conclusion or decision but elicits reactions or clarificatory questions.
A meeting to discuss or decide a course of action is different. These ’what shall we do’ meetings involve topics that need actions such as progress reports in staff meetings, proposed HR policies and procedures, marketing plan, sales strategy, union’s proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement, financial reports, a new product to be launched, a plan merger with another company, etc. This myriad of topics calls for comprehensive discussion. It asks people in the meeting to contribute their talent, knowledge, experience, ideas and expertise. This is where the ability of the presiding officer to conduct a meeting is critical to make it productive and not a waste of precious time.
Preparing for the meeting
Defining the agenda of the meeting triggers the initial preparation to be done before the meeting. What are the documents to be prepared? Are minutes of the previous meeting required? What is the advisable form of the minutes? Shall there be a section on progress reports, pending actions, and actions completed?
How comprehensive should the meeting papers be? I’m reminded of my stint as board member of TESDA. I was aghast at the voluminous board paper bound in hard glossy cover. I asked: “Do you expect us to be able to contribute something out of this encyclopedic-sized board papers thrust to us before the meeting without reading it first?” I suggested that all board papers should be given to the board members at least a week before the board meeting.
It is useful to provide attendees with background papers before the meeting to help them in formulating questions beforehand and to contribute some inputs in the meeting. But it is impractical and unfair to burden attendees with voluminous papers that are impossible for them to read in advance. A summary of topics whose length would vary according to its importance is better. Financial reports and statistics could be appended as attachments.
I guess my stint in a concurrent capacity as HR head and Corporate Secretary of a GE-affiliate PEMCO, GM and Eastern Telecoms have honed me to the necessities of preparing for a meeting. For speedy conclusion of meetings, it’s always advisable to classify agenda into “For Information Only,” “For Discussion” or “For Decision.”
Time limit of meetings
It is always advisable to put in the notice the starting time of the meeting and the finishing time. This puts all attendees conscious of the starting time to prod them to be present on time. Knowing the finishing time in advance puts pressure to everyone to accomplish the meeting’s objectives because of the time limit. It also allows busy participants to schedule other meetings or attend to other matters that need priority attention.
While sometimes it is important to engage at the start in small talk—to remove the tense atmosphere—especially if the agenda is contentious that could result into fireworks, it must not drag too long to eat so much precious time. One common fault is to deal so much time on the trivia at the expense of topics that are of significant impact to the company. One way to avoid this is to put on the agenda the time at which a very important issue is tabled to begin the discussion and the time to finish it.
How long should a meeting be? It’s hard to put a hard and fast rule. It depends upon the type and importance of a subject. A strategic planning could last from one to two days. A board, Execom, or Mancom meeting could run for 2 or more hours; staff meetings, 1 or more hours. Other meetings may be less.
Conducting the meeting
The person chairing the meeting is the driver—if I may use a metaphor—who ensures that everyone arrives at its destination safely (quality) at fastest possible time (efficiency). He can make or unmake a meeting. If he talks too much, he does not preside nor facilitate but engages in a monologue or at, worst, soliloquy. He deals with the subject of the meeting and the people attending the meeting.
In dealing with the subject, the presiding officer’s job is to stay focused on the agenda and objective of the meeting. A subject that needs a decision must first run through discussions. This allows people attending the meeting to give their inputs before a decision is made. This part of the meeting needs the adroitness of the chair to steer the discussion and ensures that everybody is able to talk.
A common fault of the chair is the failure to terminate the discussion early enough. When an agreement has already been reached on a certain subject, allowing the discussion to go on for few minutes more would get to nowhere. It’s time for the chair to move on to the next agenda or terminate the meeting if all the agenda have already been covered. If some feel like talking some more, he could adjourn the meeting and announce that other matters could be discussed off the record allowing others to leave to attend to some other important matters..
Dealing with the people in the meeting is a little bit tricky. Punctuality is not one of the virtues among us, Filipinos. Generally, punctuality is not a problem in Mancom, Execom, or staff meetings in corporations chaired by the CEO, COO, or General Manager. In my experience, it is meetings in professional, social and other organizations, where punctuality is a problem.
Tardiness is not only dysfunctional but could delay a meeting especially if a quorum is required. One way of discouraging this bad habit is to list down the late arrivals and early departures. In one government body, we had one member who was notorious in coming in late but active in the discussion to put on notice that he was present. Then, he disappeared early. We called him “Mr. Per Diem” because he attended the meeting only to get the honorarium. Listing him for his late arrivals and early departures stopped “Mr. Per Diem” from going on with his pernicious habit.
How do you deal with the garrulous who, if not managed, may talk out everybody in the meeting? As chair, you can tell the talkative member the need for brevity. You can even suggest that if it takes him a long time, he can submit a paper for all to consider. How do you draw the silent to say something? Silence can be sign of meekness, indifference or hostility. You can encourage the meek to get out from his cocoon. The apathetic or hostile, you can talk to him privately and find out the reason why.
Before adjourning the meeting, it is advisable for the chair to recap the important points discussed and make a summary of what have been agreed on, the action points and persons accountable. This could trigger the recording of the highlights of the meeting in the minutes, if the meeting is to be recorded. It also helps people realize that something was achieved in the meeting.
Yes, indeed, a meeting can be a barrier to the achievement of the organization’s objectives. It can be an irritant, and a waste of precious time. But if managed properly, it can be productive and could enhance interpersonal relations.
(The author is Chairman of Change Management International, a management consultancy firm; currently, Vice-President of ECOP; professional lecturer on Human Resource Management and Labor Relations and member of the Tripartite Industrial Peace Council (TIPC), and member of the Tripartite Executive Committee (TEC) and Commissioner of Tripartite Voluntary Arbitration Advisory Council (TVAAC). He is co-author of the book, “Personnel Management in the 21st Century and author of the book, “Human Resource Management – From the Practitioner’s Point of View.” His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org)