Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Do Your Meetings Crackle Or Flat Line?


The following is a guest piece by Dick Axelrod.

Meeting participants hold the leader responsible for the meeting’s success or failure. You can debate the rightness of this position, but what we know for sure is that meeting participants hold the leader accountable for what happens or fails to happen in a meeting.

Recently we discussed the leader’s role with Tanveer Naseer, who observed:

“I’ve watched leaders treat meetings as if they were handing out orders to their short-order cook with little or no discussion or input. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen leaders who were so lackadaisical in their direction that there were numerous periods of dead silence as participants waited for the team leader to speak up and guide the process forward.”

There is no argument when it comes about the extent of the leader’s power to shape a meeting. The real question is how a leader uses that power. There is no shortage of tools and techniques for meeting improvement. The problem is that these tools do not care how they are used.

Recently we attended a stand-up meeting. There has been a lot a talk lately about how stand-up meetings create energy, increasing a meeting’s productivity. In this case, the stand-up meeting lasted two hours and there weren’t any chairs in the room. As people tired, they slumped to the floor. The tool, stand-up meetings, did not care about how the leader used it: good idea, bad outcome.

Your power shapes meetings
The question faces every leader: How do I use my power to construct meetings that build teamwork among the participants and advance the work of the organization? Our experience is that leaders do not set out to have bad meetings, but nevertheless, they end up conducting them.

What makes matters worse: gone are the days when the meetings you conducted were solely with your work group. Now, in the course of a day, in addition to meeting with your work group, you may chair project meetings with people from multiple workgroups, and at other times be a meeting participant. How do you use your power in each situation?

Hank Queen, former Vice President of Engineering, Manufacturing and Product Integrity for Boeing, put the leader’s dilemma about meetings this way, “I can order involvement, but I can’t order engagement.” Hank recognized that he could call a meeting and, by virtue of his organizational power, people would show up, but he could not force them to be engaged in the meeting and contribute to its success.

Use leader prerogatives to improve meetings
In most organizations, leaders are entitled to:

1. Identify the meeting’s purpose
A clear purpose answers the question, “What do you want to be different because this group meets?”

2. Clarify the meeting’s task
What is the work of this specific meeting? Is it to make a decision, discuss information, or resolve an operating issue? Task clarity establishes boundaries for the meeting and tells people what is and is not open for discussion.

3. Decide the meeting’s structure
Will the meeting follow Robert’s Rules of Order, or will it have the shape of the Meeting Canoe™? The Meeting Canoe is an alternative to linear, get-through-the-meeting agendas.


4. Name the meeting place
Do the physical surroundings support the meeting’s work? For example, are there white boards, natural light, round tables, moveable tables and chairs?

5. Determine who attends
Are those present necessary and able to accomplish the task of the meeting? Depending on the meeting’s task, you may want to include people who have responsibility, authority, necessary information, ability to implement the results, different ways of thinking, or even an attitude of opposition to what you want to do.

6. Define meeting participants’ role
Participants need to know why they are present in the meeting and what is expected of them. Are they there to add a different perspective, provide information, make a decision, or learn something new? Not knowing what is required of you or why you are present in a meeting leads to apathy and confusion.

7. Define the decision process
Are participants there to simply learn about a predetermined decision? Are they there to provide the leader with feedback on a course of action? Is their role to have an equal voice in the decision at hand?

What we have found is that clarity about the decision-making process is as important as how the decision is made. Ilan Morachy, writing in Inc. magazine, says, “The deception of democracy bothers them [meeting participants] more than the transparent absence of it.”

8. Involve meeting participants the meeting design
You can take all the previously identified actions by yourself, or you can involve meeting participants. The more you involve meeting participants in constructing their meeting experience, the more they will take ownership for the meeting’s success.

9. Make your meetings voluntary
This suggestion is for the brave of heart. In doing so, you can be like Boeing’s Erik Linblad, who uses meeting attendance to gauge his meeting’s value. He wants people to attend his meetings because they are valuable and trusts them to make the right decision about where they should spend their time.

You are free to choose the voltage
Meetings provide a rapid way to shift your organization. The beauty about what happens in meetings is they are under our control. If you are a meeting leader, you can use your power to create productive meetings–or not. You can use the Meeting Canoe framework–or not. You can create meetings that carry an electric charge–or not.

When’s your next meeting? Head for the Meeting Canoe.

Dick Axelrod is an author, speaker, and consultant who co-founded with his wife Emily The Axelrod Group, Inc., a consulting firm that pioneered the use of employee involvement to effect large-scale organizational change. Dick has taught at American University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Dick and Emily’s latest book is “Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done”.

Click here to subscribe to my blog so you can get my latest posts sent directly to your inbox.

One Comment
  1. On December 7th, 2014 at 7:57 PM @davidpethick said:

    I've read "Let's Stop Meeting Like This" and it is a very good book. Dick and Emily do a great job of highlighting the core problems relating to meetings and providing practical solutions.

    What sets this work apart from others is there is a clear meeting framework that the meeting leader can build her meeting around. By using a framework, it ensures that the right things are done at the right time in the right way. In short – it's a method for successful meetings.

    I'm a big fan!

    David Pethick
    Co-Founder, Leading.io

Your Comment: