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Make the Most of Meetings

Think about the last time you participated in a meeting with people who don’t usually work together:
—Was it hard for some people to park their egos at the door?
—Who engaged in turf wars to take command of the discussion?
—Who competed for meaty assignments?
—Did some people show vivid indifference? Inattention? Passion?

If the leader was skillful and popular and if the subject was exciting, you may have witnessed a successful example of team building. Perhaps people learned what to expect from one another and began to pull together to achieve common goals. Once the new team achieved the desired result and the members returned to their normal duties, it may have become clear who the “power players” were—those who could be useful for the next project.

Whether you are an executive assistant at the top of your game, a midlevel assistant with a “tiger by the tail,” or a newbie just learning your strengths, take the time to observe and get involved in the process of meeting effectively. The future of every organization depends on it.

Gradually, over a series of meetings, people learn each other’s strengths. They form alliances around shared interests. Effective leaders harness these alliances to power up assignments and produce impressive results. From your vantage point with senior executives, you have a close-up view of smart meeting leadership. Emulate it when it’s your turn to lead a group.

Meeting Leadership
The best meeting leaders have learned that every team has several leaders—some formal, others informal. These include:

Official Leaders: These managers have the formal authority to run the meeting and issue assignments. However, if they want commitment from others, they know they have to share power with the informal leaders in the group.

Subject Matter Experts: These informal leaders bring specialist knowledge to the
table. Smart meeting leaders invite them to contribute strongly in their subject areas.

Charismatic Leaders: These informal leaders bring popularity, energy, and passion
to meetings, whether they are for or against the proposal. When they speak, others listen. Smart bosses listen and respond.

Slow Starters: These meeting members are smart players who don’t think aloud. They may need an invitation to contribute. Good leaders inform them with pre-meeting previews. They also provide visual aids, games, and other ploys to involve these less verbal team members.

Naysayers: These are the habitual pessimists or cynics who enjoy tearing down any favored idea. Smart meeting leaders welcome them, to a point. Better to handle early opposition inside the team than to face surprise attacks from outside, late in the game.

Meeting Planning
If meeting management is among your tasks, you may already use a preferred template. If not—here’s a useful format to help you and your managers clarify their meeting requests quickly.

To request a meeting, fill in the fields below…
1. Purpose __________________________________________
2. Desired Outcome      _____________________________________
3. Approach       ___________________________________________
4. Participants   ___________________________________________
5. Day/Time/Place _________________________________________
6. Duration    _____________________________________________
7. Physical Layout   ________________________________________
8. Announcement Method   __________________________________
9. Agenda    ______________________________________________
10. Follow-up   _____________________________________________

Meeting Ground Rules
When you begin new partnerships, it is often appropriate to create some ground rules. This can easily be accomplished by answering such questions as:

  • What do we want to achieve during our time together? (What are our objectives?)
  • What expectations do we all have about preparations for these meetings?
  • What roles will each of us play and what are we expected to contribute?
  • What happens when team members do not meet established expectations?
  • How should we handle contention or disagreement?
  • What criteria can we establish to gauge our progress and/or success?
  • What rules, if any, should we establish about communication?
  • What other ground rules should we include?

You may come up with something like the following list of rules to post on your meeting room wall:

1.  Find a way to take an active part in the meeting. Offer your services or accept an assignment.

2. Study the topic beforehand so you can contribute useful data from your viewpoint.

3. Work toward the group’s goals or debate them, but do not pursue a private agenda.

4. Keep an open mind; consider others’ ideas willingly.

5. Practice active listening. Concentrate on what is being said before you respond.

6. Use feedback and self-disclosure as humbly as you can.

7. Concentrate on process and projects, not personalities.

8. Interact ethically; avoid labeling other people’s motives.

9. Enjoy the process of learning together.

You will find that when groups establish their own operating rules and then post them where they can be seen and used to guide meetings, participants will be more likely to abide by them and so the group will be more successful.

Rules Governing Feedback
Giving feedback:
—Ask the presenter if he/she would like feedback.
—Share your expectations based on the presenter’s introduction of the presentation.
—Express how your expectations were met.
—Suggest how the presentation might be improved in any of these areas:

  • Structure or persuasion (How can they be more convincing?)
  • Eye contact or other body language (How can they appear more credible?)
  • Content (How might it be more useful or persuasive?)
  • Give one or more genuine compliments.

Receiving feedback:
—Acknowledge whether or not you would like feedback.
—If you want feedback on a specific aspect of your presentation, say so before you begin.
—Listen openly. Listening does not mean you have to agree.
—Ask clarifying questions as needed.
—Avoid arguing.
—Thank the person for their input.

© Copyright American Management Association. All rights reserved.

Adapted from the AMA seminar Management Skills for Administrative Professionals.