Have you ever been in a situation like this?
You’re the meeting leader and you’ve posed a question to the room. Silence. You feel dread as you wonder if anyone other than you will engage, or if you alone will carry the meeting. People finally begin to participate, and you enjoy a moment of relief, at least until you realize you’ve spent too much time on this one agenda item. Questions flood your mind: Do I cut this conversation off? Let it continue? How important is this topic in relation to the other agenda items? As you get stuck in your head, you realize that you just missed your colleague’s comments and people are looking to you to respond.
Soon, you’ve run out of time, and people excuse themselves to rush off to other meetings. You realize there’s no clear action plan for next steps. You feel disappointed and frustrated that your meeting didn’t accomplish what you intended. You blame yourself.
Meeting leaders often express feeling overwhelmed during meetings as various obligations compete for their attention - facilitating the conversation, engaging people, keeping the conversation on track, monitoring the time and taking clear and actionable notes. Leaders want to be productive in meetings, but they also want to stay sane during the process.
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Is it possible to lead effective meetings without losing your mind?
The short answer is yes. Here’s the longer answer.
You don’t need to be a meeting hero
“Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.” -- Margaret Wheatley, management guru
Put aside your image of an effective meeting leader as one who can successfully multi-task. Instead, take a step back to look at the big picture. Repeatedly applying specific strategies to achieve desired meeting results and good meeting processes is your goal. Think about the meetings you lead and ask yourself if you and your team:
Achieve the desired outcomes of the meetings?
Keep conversations on topic?
Start and end meetings on time?
Create a welcoming atmosphere for people to contribute their best thinking?
Keep a record of clear and actionable notes so it’s easier for team members to follow through on meeting tasks and decisions?
As the meeting leader, your job is to ensure the above questions are answered with a resounding and consistent “Yes!” As Wheatley says, it’s not about being heroic, but about knowing what to do to get results. To help you get there, try the following strategies.
5 Meeting Strategies to Keep You Sane
There are five main strategies that will help you lead a meeting without losing your mind.
Strategy #1: Use your agenda as your roadmap
When you’re juggling different responsibilities as the meeting leader, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture like the outcome you’d like to achieve. You have a lot on your mind, so why add the stress of having to remember the items on the agenda?
Plan and write down an agenda for your meeting. If you’ve already developed the habit of sending out an agenda in advance, congrats! This is a meeting best practice. If it’s not part of your routine, you can start it anytime. Use an agenda template to help you determine the desired outcome, the topics or activities that will support the outcome, and how much time each agenda item might take. Consider framing agenda items as questions for the team to answer.
Keep the agenda visible to everyone. Write the agenda on a whiteboard or share it on a screen visible to colocated and virtual participants. This makes it easier for everyone to see what needs to happen in this meeting and collectively focus on achieving it.
Strategy #2: Establish shared norms
Norms are the ground rules that guide meeting behavior. Decide with the group what kind of behaviors you want in the meeting and agree to follow them. For example, do you want quiet team members to speak up and more extroverted members to pull back? Are you looking for people to play devil’s advocate, build on others’ ideas rather than shut them down, or stay off their phones? Whatever you decide, creating norms will support that behavior.
Norms are powerful. One of our customers, Sivak Stonemasonry, describes the introduction of norms to their meetings as being “written for every problem we had but maybe weren’t even aware of.”
Consider using a process norm. Process norms guide the mechanics of the actual meeting. For example, if the conversation often drifts off-track, consider using a process norm like the backburner to store these ideas for future discussion.
Choose what norms work best for your team or even each specific meeting. Reference this sample list of norms and select the ones that resonate with your team. If using norms is a new idea for your team, you might need to get some buy-in or just try one or two norms out first.
Strategy #3: Empower the group
According to Dr. John Kello, an organization psychology professor at Davidson College, when a meeting leader empowers the whole group to share ownership of the meeting, it encourages active participation and improves meeting results. Remember that you’re not alone in the meeting -- there are other smart people with you. By sharing meeting roles and responsibilities with the group, you empower everyone to hold the team accountable for the success of the meeting.
Consider asking or assigning others to take on different meeting responsibilities. Common responsibilities such as setting up technology in advance, facilitating a portion of the meeting agenda or capturing notes for the group can be shared or rotated among the meeting participants. This can help develop team members’ skills and create engagement and ownership.
Remind the meeting participants that everyone shares the responsibility to hold each other accountable to the agenda and norms. Ask everyone to help identify when the conversation is going off track or you’re exceeding time limits. Encourage people to hold each other accountable and call out when they observe behaviors that are not aligned with the norms. For example, if you’re using the backburner as the norm, anyone can help keep the meeting on track by pointing out that a backburner item has emerged.
Strategy #4: Use different facilitation techniques
When you’re facilitating the meeting, group dynamics may emerge that metaphorically knock you off balance. Difficult meeting behaviors such as someone dominating the conversation can be challenging to handle in the moment. This is when various meeting facilitation techniques can redirect the meeting and keep you grounded.
Develop your facilitation skills. In the article, “10 Facilitation Techniques That Will Make Your Meetings Sing, we provide 10 useful techniques to improve your meeting leader capabilities. Find other resources like this to expand your facilitation toolbox.
Pick a meeting and give a new technique a try. Choose one technique and try it a few times in your meetings. Write it somewhere visible to you, like on the agenda or in your notebook. Use this as a visual reminder to call upon this technique during the meeting. When you’re comfortable with this technique, try another one. These techniques may help deflect or address sensitive situations that can emerge in meetings.
Strategy #5: Use the power of the team to capture notes
The follow-up actions of a meeting are as important as the meeting itself. What good is a meeting if it doesn’t lead to decisive action? When you document meeting decisions, next steps, and insights, it increases the likelihood that the team will follow through on them. Instead of you leading the meeting and taking notes at the same time, ask team members to jot down critical information during the meeting and then flesh out the official notes as a team in the last few minutes. This practice establishes accountability, improves follow-through, and creates a sense of teamwork and accomplishment.
Ask participants to jot down the tasks, decisions and learnings that surface during the meeting and consolidate them together at the end. From what our clients tell us, most meeting participants only jot down notes relevant to them. Encourage your team to think about the success of the team as a whole rather than just individuals. Share the “Tasks, Decisions and Learning” category as a framework to record information. Then, during a 5 minute wrap up, ask the group to share the decisions that emerged, next steps with owners and due dates and any other salient points.
Build on what you already have. During the wrap-up, ask one person to capture the outcomes digitally on a platform like Meeteor, or type them up in a Google Doc or word document and share with meeting stakeholders within 24 hours. If you’ve already taken notes or assigned a meeting note-taker, you can still use the wrap up to review the notes for accuracy and commitment.
Moving forward as an effective meeting leader
“Effective meetings don’t happen by accident. They happen by design.” - unknown
Nope, no heroics needed. Effective meeting strategies will keep you sane, and maybe, just maybe, help you thrive.
What strategies do you use to be a grounded meeting leader?