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Effective meetings 101: Everything you need to know

Meetings are a central function in any organisation. They help teams align, communicate, collaborate and make decisions. But while we are well-versed in having meetings, chances are you often leave a meeting feeling more confused or unsure of what it achieved. You then scramble back to your laptop and try to catch-up on lost time away from your growing to-do list and attempt to work faster in a frantic haze.

The truth is, the reality of unproductive meetings are widespread and common.

In a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review, 182 senior managers in a range of industries provided their perspective on meetings. In the survey, 65% said that meetings keep them from completing their own work and 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% also said that meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. And while a plethora of communication tools have been built in order to foster quicker communication, research also suggests that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the last 50 years.

The importance of meetings

While we all know the daunting feeling that comes when we check our weekly calendar only to find it blocked out by back-to-back meetings, in truth, when created, planned and executed effectively, meetings can be a valuable tool to disseminate information, build alignment, gather ideas, develop relationships and boost team engagement. As Andy Grove said meetings are not just an activity but an important medium whereby you as a leader, and those around you, get work done.

Empowered and productive teams are those that have clear direction, feel safe to make decisions and use their expertise to solve problems. Meetings are also a microcosm of culture building, where leaders can facilitate and support a culture of collaboration and sharing ideas within a smaller group setting in the hopes that this penetrates into the culture of the wider organisation.

Prepared and facilitated mindfully, meetings also provide a safe place for the opinions, ideas and expertise of individuals in your team to be listened to. And perhaps, as virtual teams become more of a reality, the importance of meeting together as a team is essential for connection.

As we think about how to respect the time and energy of our teams and colleagues, in the article below we look at the ingredients for what effective meetings look like and how we can use meetings as a vehicle for connection, support and creativity.

The ingredients of a great group meeting

While the purpose of every meeting is different, the foundations of facilitating a group meeting remain the same. Below are some considerations to factor into your meeting preparation and post-meeting planning.

Get clear on the purpose of the meeting: While it can be tempting to schedule a meeting as soon as you’ve kicked off a new project or quarter, it’s important to clearly understand what you want each meeting to achieve. By taking some time to segment your goals, tasks and strategy, you may find you need several shorter meetings, or one large brainstorming meeting instead across half a day instead of a one-hour block. When building a plan, it’s also important to consider the dynamics of your team and what cadences they will need to be informed, inspired and given opportunities to share their ideas.

Identify relevant stakeholders: Similar to the point above, being mindful of who you invite to meetings is as important as identifying the meeting’s purpose. Ensure that all meeting attendees are attached to the purpose and can help you achieve the goal of your meeting — whether that’s providing essential context, tactical deliverables, or strategy oversight.

Providing an agenda for the meeting: Including an agenda to your meeting invitation helps provide initial context to the attendees and allows them to prepare if needed. It also helps attendees to determine whether they need to attend, or whether someone else would be more appropriate.

Make your meeting remote-friendly: As flexible working emerges as the new norm, ensuring that your meeting is accessible to everyone should become best practice. While you may have a centralised team that works within an office, last-minute changes to schedules are also a possibility and should be factored in.

Be clear on next steps: During the meeting it’s important that someone is taking notes or summarising what is taking place — this role should change for each meeting and be assigned prior to the meeting. After the meeting, make these notes accessible to everyone with agreed-upon action items. If there were discussions that needed a separate meeting or were unfinished, ensure that there is a follow-up meeting scheduled.

How to create a safe meeting environment

While planning and hosting a meeting can seem like a simple task, in truth, there’s a lot more that takes place under the surface of a collective gathering of any kind. Aside from completing an agenda item, meetings are also an opportunity to foster an environment of respect, inclusivity, and building a space where people feel safe enough to speak.

There are also a wide-range of personalities, experiences and ideas in meetings, so it’s important to try and create a psychologically-safe environment from the beginning.

Line drawing of group of people

Set clear expectations

Setting clear expectations before a meeting can help to establish them from the beginning. Even if meetings are a regular occurrence, it’s important to consistently set expectations in order to create positive habits.

  • Ask for full attention: Constant connectivity can interrupt attention in meetings. And if everyone is looking at their devices when people speak, this doesn’t help facilitate a culture of respect. If a meeting requires participation, engagement and attention, set the scene by asking team members to disconnect from their devices, turn off alerts or take calls or messages outside if urgent.
  • No interruptions: In group meetings, it’s likely that the room holds many different personalities. As such, it can be the case that extroverts or those who are more confident speaking are able to communicate their ideas more effectively. Ensuring that you’ve set the expectation to let everyone speak, and not allow for interruptions can help introverted team members feel comfortable speaking. As a meeting facilitator you may also need to hold people back if they are dominating the conversation and ask others for input all while keeping the conversation on track when it diverges or gets repetitive.
  • Allocate responsibilities and next steps: In meetings, to ensure that the creativity and light-bulb ideas are truly captured, it’s helpful to assign roles — or ask for volunteers. Whether it’s someone taking meeting minutes, someone capturing ideas on post-it notes, or someone keeping time, this will help your meeting stay on track.
  • Switch meeting hosts: Switching meeting hosts is an easy way to ensure that your team is engaged and there is a shift in power-dynamics and participation. It also allows quieter team members to build new skills.

Give permission to ask questions regularly

While the famous quote “there are no stupid questions” is commonly used to preface meetings, building a culture of question-asking and feedback takes consistent effort. If you’re presenting a vision deck, a strategy, or even quarterly goals, it’s important to give space for questions regularly, and not just at the end of the meeting. When preparing, leave space for questions after each main point or goal is communicated.

Team tip: If you have regular cadence meetings with the same team members, why not take the F4S Communication Quiz and share your results? From this, you’ll get a clearer understanding of how your team members like to communicate and can facilitate accordingly in your meetings, or work to build communication skills in your one-on-one meetings. 

The ingredients of a great one-on-one meeting

One-on-one meetings are an essential part in any leader’s toolkit in information sharing, mutual teaching and trust building with their team members (also spelled as 1:1 or 1-on-1). To make this time valuable for yourself and those you lead it takes preparation from both sides. However, it should be noted that while this is a shared meeting it should be primarily led by the team member, not you as the manager or leader.

Effective one-on-one meetings allow for your team members to feel like they have new tools, wisdom and insight to help them do their job better, but in a great one-on-ones the information flows both ways and you both benefit and develop from the experience.

An important aspect of leading individuals is ensuring that they feel heard, safe and empowered. As a leader you must pay attention to facial expression and body language to help gauge how your team member is really feeling. This means investing in leveling up your listening skills — not always an easy capability to develop.

Effective one-on-one meetings include:

  • Asking open-ended questions about how they are and what is a challenge for them at the moment?
  • Allowing space for them to lead the meeting and ask questions.
  • Asking how you can help them better achieve their goals and build next-steps and tasks together that allow for them to feel supported.
  • Work through any issues or blockers that have arisen throughout the week.
  • Build and grow individual goals for their career beyond this project or role.

Ineffective one-on-one meetings include:

  • The meetings are rushed and attendees are distracted by devices.
  • They are only focussed on cadence checks and work that’s been done that week.
  • They are consistently changed or cancelled.
  • They start late and finish early.
  • No one has prepared for the meeting.

Tips for effective one-on-one meetings

Set a recurring time: In order for 1-on-1s to be effective they need to happen regularly. Once you’ve agreed to a cadence with your team members, ensure 1:1s are scheduled and added as a recurring meeting into the calendar. This is a subtle but clear way for managers to show that they are invested in the 1:1 relationship and that they will consistently make time for the individual.

How often you should have a one-on-one depends on the experience someone has in that role or in the projects they are undertaking. A new team member should have very regular 1-on-1 meetings with their manager or coach, while someone experienced in that role might have less.

Equally if an area of the business is very dynamic and the pace of change is rapid both the manager and their team member might need to frequent meetings to keep on the same page and make fast and informed decisions together.

Create an ongoing agenda:  By creating and pre-populating a shared agenda, you are able to adequately prepare for each meeting. The agenda will also help you provide context prior to the meeting and also allows both parties to take ownership of the meeting. Remember to make sure your team member contributes to this and drives most of the meeting topics.

Ask questions and listen: One-on-one meetings are an opportunity for you as a leader to check-in on your team. And questions are a great way to ensure that you are learning as much as you can within that time — especially if you’re still in the process of building relationships and trust with your team.

Great questions to ask:

  1. How has your week been? 
  2. What is your biggest challenge right now?
  3. What has given you energy this week? 
  4. What has drained your energy this week? 
  5. Do you have any questions about the recent changes or news that you’ve heard from internal communication within the business? 
  6.  How aligned do you feel with the work you are doing? 
  7. What’s one thing (or a few) you learned this week?
  8. Do you feel confident in how you/your team are progressing?
  9.  How are you/your team progressing towards your goals?
  10. Is there anything that I can support you with more in your work or within the team? 
  11. How do you feel you are progressing towards your personal development goals? 
Leader’s tip: Do not ask too many questions. Usually one or two questions is enough to have a full and dynamic conversation if you listen and continue the thread of what is being discussed. Running through a full list of questions (like above) one after the other means you are not listening!  

Be clear on next steps and keep a record: In the last 5 minutes of the meeting it is great to recap what was discussed in your one-on-one while it is still top of mind and add this to an ongoing document you share, so the next steps are clear for everyone. Writing things down together in an action plan also signals your joint commitment to them. This shared document should be regularly updated by both you and your team member in between meetings and checked the day before your next meeting.

Change the setting to change the vibe: Going out of the office and grabbing a coffee or lunch is a great way to change the patterns and atmosphere of your usual one-on-ones, especially if there is a power dynamic at play in your relationship. One of the best techniques is a walk-and-talk as it means you can stand side by side and not have to make eye contact the whole time. Walking in many people also stimulates creative thinking and is generally good for wellbeing. Just be aware what your team member wishes to discuss and if a more casual environment is suitable.

Going beyond the basics

Above outlines some of the basics for how to conduct great one-on-one meetings. However, being a great people-first leader means growing, sharing and developing alongside your team.

We know our team members move through different phases in their motivations and productivity at work as well as in their relationship with us as their leaders. Recognising this means thinking about and understanding where your team member is on their journey and meeting them in that space to help them be the best they can be.

This means sometimes you will have one-on-ones that might have a theme that you need to be proactive on delivering. Themes can include:

  • Building relationships: Building your relationship with them so you have the trust that is the foundation of you partnering successfully together.
  • Setting goals: Setting meaningful goals together and then holding them accountable to these goals is a key tenant of a great leader. Also providing them with help and context from your perspective in the organisation can be incredibly valuable.
  • Recognising the need for change: Recognising someone in your team needs change or a break from what they have been doing is a great skill to have. This can be as big as recognising burn-out or helping a team member seek new opportunities if you suspect they are a flight risk. It can also be as simple as going for a walk and changing that person’s perspective that day.
  • Nurture growth and development: Real growth and development of that individual needs to match their career ambitions both inside and outside your company. How are they developing against any internal frameworks you or your company might be using and how are you generously helping them get better through quality feedback. Sometimes these types of 1-to-1s are done in a company cadence but that shouldn’t stop you from conducting them when you both see a chance to have a deep, meaningful dialogue about career and life aspirations.
  • Holistic development: This development looks at a wide-range of skills including, developing their leadership, communication and human skills as much as their craft. Some companies and teams proactively work on these capabilities and others don’t. Developing your team’s ability to collaborate, adapt, learn rapidly and communicate with those around them are more important than any other skills they hold.

As you can see, meetings done well — even in a remote world —  have always been essential to achieving our goals, collaborating with our colleagues and teams and having those shared moments where we all develop together. The key is intentionally preparing for them and valuing them as a medium for work and development.

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