Raising the Bench in Big Meetings: Off to a Rough Start
Updated: May 16
We will soon lead a conference workshop on how to add leadership training to everything from small everyday meetings to big off-sites. We get it—most of you are so busy with meetings it’s hard to make separate time for training.
We have learned how to provide training in meetings to help our leaders improve specific skills AND to help us achieve better meeting outcomes.
As we add techniques to provide intentional skills training to meetings, we also tend to facilitate those meetings even more effectively, which improves meeting quality. To understand this opportunity, let’s analyze a hypothetical—but all too familiar-–quarterly steering meeting that’s off to a rough start.
Quarterly Steering Is Off to a Rough Start
[voice: Chris, the leader not invited]
All the bosses are out-of-pocket today for the quarterly steering meeting. Now we can get some real work done. Except my boss wasn’t ready, so he’s pinging me every 10 minutes. To pull last-minute data. To provide departmental updates so he appears to know what’s happening around here. To give him information that will help him get more resources for us.
[voice: Tim, a senior leader in the meeting]
Once again, quarterly steering has snuck up on us. I’m here listening to my boss tell us the priorities have changed, again. And now all the resources will go to Sharon’s department if I can’t quickly reframe all our work in terms of the New Big Thing. Better ping my people, and get them to scramble to change the data and help me make our case.
Both these leaders-–and the organization-–are failing to take advantage of what could have been a wonderful opportunity to practice collaborating effectively with colleagues to imagine and design the plan that would bring the best outcomes for the whole business.
Instead, Tim, in the meeting, is
not actively listening and not present to what is happening in the meeting, as he’s busy pinging staff and planning what he’ll say next
prioritizing only his own area of the organization, rather than considering value across the whole system and the whole company
seeking to retain resources, rather than seeking to learn how he and his people can contribute to meaningful results
asking his staff for information, but not asking for their ideas
But let’s not get upset with Tim for being territorial and uncooperative. Instead, let’s think about what training and facilitation could help Tim and improve the meeting outcomes. And meanwhile appreciate this group for doing quarterly steering at all! Some organizations don’t take time to do forward-looking planning and prioritization on a quarterly basis.
What this meeting is already missing
If we were observing this particular quarterly planning meeting, what might we see? We can guess what’s missing from the meeting design based on Tim’s behaviors. And we can guess some skills leaders are missing.
Meeting participants were not told how best to prepare for the meeting nor that there was a new direction that would be proposed by the meeting sponsor: There was no pre-read, or the pre-read did not include the most important information—or they did not pay attention to or complete the pre-work.
Leaders are not practiced in active listening, nor is the meeting helping them practice.
The meeting sponsor did not ground the meeting in outcomes or results that the attendees own together.
The meeting does not have—or the participants are not holding each other to-– working agreements that promote inclusion, asking participants to hear from everyone.
The meeting is not providing structure, such as exercises or facilitated discussions, that would make it easier to listen than to be distracted.
The meeting does not include the next layer of leadership: The people who are closer to the work and have access to more detailed information are not invited to bring their perspectives.
As those people outside the meeting are providing data in the background, they are missing the whole picture; they don’t get to hear the rationale for priorities nor the overall concerns of the whole business. We hope they do learn that context when leaders share them clearly after the meeting.
Design and facilitation could improve outcomes AND leadership skills
This meeting could really use some intentional design and improved facilitation, not only to achieve its purpose-–deciding collaboratively how to organize effort to move the company towards its goals-–but also to achieve the secondary purpose of providing a way for the humans to practice the leadership behaviors that will lead to better business results and happier humans.
We’ve hinted here at how to improve this quarterly steering meeting, and how to help Tim and his colleagues engage more effectively. Stay tuned for the next posts that will describe ways to design and facilitate this meeting and others more effectively.