Mastering the meeting: The ultimate playbook for productive meetings

Mastering the meeting: The ultimate playbook for productive meetings

/ 02:09 AM March 04, 2024



I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Most business leaders spend too much time in useless or unproductive meetings. Change is now happening faster than ever before in history. You need to protect your most valuable asset: time.

Poorly managed meetings drain time and can demoralize teams and stifle productivity. For business leaders, CEOs and business owners, mastering the art of conducting effective meetings is not just a skill—it’s a necessity and a strategic advantage. As a result, effective meetings become a catalyst for decision-making, innovation and team cohesion.


Break the meeting illusion

After having advised an abundance of companies together with my team from around the world and across virtually all industries, from family businesses to multi-billion dollar conglomerates and Fortune 500 companies, I can tell you:


• 99.7 percent of all CEOs and owners do too many meetings,

• Meetings are unproductive,

• There are too many people in the meetings (in a meeting with one of our clients, we counted 60 and only three spoke!),

• Outcomes suck; and

• There is often a need for more clarity of purpose.

In many cases, the CEO or owner uses meetings to give themself a false sense of accomplishment, “Well, I did many meetings today; I must have gotten many things done!” Wrong. Doing many meetings means nothing. Do not equate meetings with getting things done. It’s a fallacy.


Master time

Respect for everyone’s time is paramount. Start and end meetings on time. Allocate a specific duration to each agenda item and stick to it. If discussions veer off course, steer them back to the agenda.

Be on time.

One of our clients, an ultra high-net-worth business owner from the United States, is constantly late to every meeting, every board meeting and every client meeting. Because he “owns” the company, he thinks he “owns” everyone’s time. It is a very bad practice and sends the wrong signals.

Allocate enough time for every meeting—not too much, not too little. Some CEOs go overboard with this and dedicate too little time to each meeting to be hyperproductive. No bueno. There is a specific minimum time for a meeting to be productive, depending on what the meeting is about and what needs to get done. Respect that. Otherwise, you will not achieve an outcome.

Understand the purpose

We know from our clients that meeting purposes are often fuzzy. Before scheduling a meeting, clarify its purpose. Is it for decision-making, brainstorming, progress updates, or team building? Defining the purpose 100-percent guides the structure, participants and expected outcomes, ensuring the meeting is necessary and focused.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously uses the “two-pizza rule” —it’s too large if a team can’t be fed with two pizzas. This principle keeps meetings small and productive, ensuring that everyone’s contribution is valuable.

The culture of ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ at Netflix empowers employees only to attend meetings that are directly relevant to their work. This autonomy ensures that meetings are purpose-driven and results-oriented.

Demand agenda in advance

A well-crafted agenda is the backbone of an effective meeting. It should outline topics to be discussed, objectives and allotted time for each item. Distributing the agenda beforehand allows participants to prepare, leading to more engaged and productive discussions.

One of our clients, an American multi-generational family business conglomerate, used to spend hours in board meetings that had no clearly defined levels of urgency. Executives often slipped nonboard-level material into these meetings and inflated them to six, seven or even eight hours. We were shocked. The actual board-level matters could be discussed in two hours. And so we completely revamped all their board meetings with clear rules, precise levels of urgency, agendas and purpose. And after two hours, everybody should get up and leave. Done.

We followed this up by cascading clear meeting rules and strong guidelines across the entire organization. We also did spot checks and attended meetings to ensure that people adhered to these new rules. Finally, everyone got their time back. As a result, productivity in the organization reached an all-time high.

In my global experience of working with so many companies, Google has been one of the most effective regarding meetings. Former Google executive chair, Eric Schmidt, emphasized the importance of a clear agenda sent well in advance. This practice allows attendees to come prepared, making the meeting more efficient and outcome-focused.

Have constructive disagreements

Active participation ensures diverse perspectives and enhances decision-making. Encourage open dialogue, ask questions and invite contributions from all attendees. This approach fosters a culture of inclusivity and innovation.

We often introduce the “rotating devil’s advocate” as a standard rule in high-level meetings of our clients in countries that tend to sugarcoat. Some Asian countries are good examples of that. This rotating devil’s advocate rule is simple to follow and highly effective: in every meeting, one person gets to wear the hat of the devil’s advocate and must take opposition to the ideas presented. This means that they must come up with reasons why something being presented may be a bad idea.

The outcome? First, people are encouraged to speak out and engage in constructive disagreements. In countries like the United States or Germany, that is not an issue. It comes with the territory. People are, by nature, direct. In other countries, as I explained, this is a real challenge and prevents the CEO or owner from seeing what is reality. Not all sides of an argument or proposal are being discussed, and —and as a result—the person at the top makes the wrong strategic decisions.

Master follow-up and accountability

One of our clients engaged a well-known tech provider to help them develop and launch their new flagship product. Things were not moving fast enough, so the owners sent us in to check and speed things up. When we started to dig and attend meetings, we were shocked: at the end of the meetings, there was no clear follow-up, no clear deliverables, no deadlines and no pressure for the tech provider to deliver. Not even a meeting summary!

Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer of Facebook/Meta Platforms, a position from which she stepped down in August 2022, implemented a practice of writing down action items during meetings. This keeps meetings focused and ensures that everyone knows their responsibilities post-meeting.

The follow-through on action items is the only measure of meeting effectiveness. Top executives can sit in meetings all day long and still get nothing done. Assign clear responsibilities and deadlines for each task. Send all participants a summary of meeting outcomes and next steps.

Accountability ensures that meetings lead to tangible results.

Now that you have the tools, what will you do to master your next meeting? INQ

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Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: or email [email protected].

TAGS: Business, Tom Oliver

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