I just finished sitting in on a conference call of a board meeting of
about 25 members where the main topic was regarding a politically
contentious document and how the members were going to form a strategy
to deal with the document. While the discussion proved interesting,
what was most fascinating to me was the style in which the chairperson
(who called the meeting) managed the process. Smooth, articulate and
consensus building, the chair had the meeting wrapped up in 30 minutes
with a general agreement from the group to act as one as the process
was worked out and assignments were made—pretty slick in a politically
This got me to thinking, where do most managers get taught this stuff?
And the answer for most is nowhere. For the most part, most of us have
had to pick it up on the fly, by observing others and by being thrust
into a position to run a meeting. As I am sure you will agree, based on
some of the awful meetings I have attended (hopefully not the ones I
ran!) some people learn the art better than others.
I say art as opposed to science because, although there is a method
involved, you can follow all the rules and still run a lousy meeting.
Running successful meetings comes from feeling comfortable with public
speaking and being able to think on your feet. These are skills that
many IT people struggle with.
Another part of the art is being politically savvy. You must understand
the power equations—who has it, who doesnt, how to wield it, and how
to be sensitive to it. This is another one of those things that isn't
taught in school.
So if our process of learning how to run meetings is by observation or
being thrown in the deep end and asked to swim, is it any wonder that
so many do it so poorly?
Interestingly enough, while the art of running a good meeting is a
difficult skill to acquire, it is more easily acquired if you know the
science behind meetings. By this I mean that if you are less worried
about knowing the "mechanics" of how to run a meeting, you can
concentrate on developing more of the "art."
Fortunately, there are plenty of guides on how to run a meeting, both
public and private, formal and informal. Here are just a few:
There are dozens if not hundreds more from where these came from, and
they all say pretty much the same thing. I recommend reading a few to
make sure you understand the ground rules.
The next step is to put them into practice. Practice does indeed help
you get to the next level. The more you lead or participate (not sleep
through) meetings, the more comfortable you get with the procedure. Be
critical of meetings (in your mind) and evaluate those you attend,
based on what you know (in regards to process), and also the style in
which they are run. You shouldnt have too much trouble identifying
good meetings from bad it's usually pretty self evident.
Now for the "art" part: Some people are naturally better communicators
than others. For reasons too many to enumerate, some people have a
built-in command of language, are sharp observers of their environment,
and are attuned to the feelings and emotions of their listeners.
However, even if you are not a natural communicator, there are
resources to help you hone your talents just a Google search away or in
the self-help section of your local book store. My suggestion, besides
reading, is to get a mentor to gently critique you. Its easy to be too
hard on yourself, but videotaping can be extremely helpful, along with
coaching from a pro.
As for power and politics, here are a couple of good reads:
While reading on the subject is good, I certainly recommend paying
attention to the power and politics in your own organization. Ask
questions and learn more about who wields power, how they do it, and
Finally, "style" is hard to quantify or learn from a book. My
suggestion is to find someone that you admire and try to incorporate
some of the things that they do best into your own style.
With the right attitude, you can improve your ability to manage a
meeting. This is hugely important, since your effectiveness in meetings
determines a great deal of things in the workplace from funding to
project management success. So for those of you who are "old" pros at
managing meetings, you might want to take a step back and make sure you
are as good as you think there is always room for improvement. And
for those who havent had much experience yet, I hope I have provided
something for you to work with. Call it a life preserver its probably
more than most of us got to start with ;-)