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

charged environment.

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 doesn’t, 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:

Roberts Rules

Managing Meetings

Chairing Public Meetings

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 shouldn’t 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. It’s 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:

Managing with Power:

Management and Machiavelli:

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 haven’t 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 😉