Mediocre to Masterful: Three Tips for Meeting Leaders

By Susan de la Vergne

My boss several years ago was a masterful meeting leader. Even when he wasn’t officially leading the meeting, he was good at it. What was his secret? He did his homework. He prepared. He had not only completed whatever assignment he had, but he’d also gauged the situation and participants beforehand. Who would be there? What were their agendas? What disagreements were likely? And—very importantly—how should we manage ourselves, given the dynamics?

If you were going to the meeting with him and the stakes were high, he’d invite you to pre-meet. Together you’d size up the situation—who wanted what, who would be prepared and unprepared, who the “power” person in the room would be and what he or she might do with their power.

I tell you what: if I ever have to go before Congress to testify, I’m taking him with me!

So, then, tip #1: Do your homework. Size up the participants and think through how the discussion will go before it happens.

But the stakes aren’t always that high, and the lay of the land isn’t always treacherous. Sometimes meetings just wander, veer off topic. Sometimes the meeting leader forgets about next steps or loses control of the discussion. What then?

Early in my career, long before I led meetings myself, I got a powerful bit of meeting advice from my first manager. I’ve used this advice again and again, and it’s simple, useful, and easy: if you want control of how the meeting goes, be the official notes-taker.

The person who writes the notes has a lot of control over how things go. Did the meeting leader lose track of the discussion? The notes-taker knows. Did the meeting leader forget to identify “next steps”? The notes-taker is the perfect person to point that out: “’Scuse me, but we haven’t captured next steps yet.” Then the notes-taker simply waves his hand over the keyboard, as if the laptop were waiting while the meeting leader gets his act back together.

So, then, tip #2: Take and publish the meeting notes. Next time you’re frustrated by inefficient meetings, try it. Your meeting life will improve. I guarantee it.

What about when attendees get distracted and leave early?—and these are attendees you really need to be there! Or, worse, they skip it altogether because they’re double- or triple-booked.

That’s a tough one. Conflicting priorities are an everyday reality, which means your meeting may lose out to another priority no matter what you do. But here’s one bit of advice that will help: always end early. If you develop a reputation as someone whose meetings always conclude five minutes early, people will be more likely to choose your meeting over one that typically drags on and on.

Meetings run over because leaders forget to monitor and adjust the pace to the time allowed. If a one-hour meeting plans to tackle four agenda items, then at the fifteen minute mark, you’d better be onto the second item. If not, simply say, “We need to wrap up this discussion and move onto the next item.”

Remember Parkinson’s law: “work expands to fill the available time.” If you want to end early, give yourself 55 minutes for a one hour meeting, and manage the pace accordingly.

Note: Also arrange the agenda so the least important items are at the end. If you need to cut and run, it won’t matter much.

So, then, tip #3: End early. Do that by managing the pace.

By the way, these are tips for in-person meetings. Next time, we’ll talk about virtual meetings. (I could cover them now, but I thought instead I’d end early.)

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