This article is excerpted from Herding Tigers: Be The Leader That Creative People Need.
“I just have no margin at all,” a marketing firm employee told me. “I spend much of my day running from meeting to meeting, some of which overlap, and I often feel like I’m playing catch-up.” She told me that it seems like the better she performs, the more responsibility she’s given, which means more meetings. The net effect is that she’s being asked to do more with less time and less ability to focus, because she’s constantly juggling her calendar.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Another person put it more bluntly: “Meetings are the scourge of our organization.” Meetings are necessary to a healthy team, but when you spend most of your day in meetings, it makes it challenging to accomplish any of the real work for which you’re accountable. Worse, when meetings are stacked one after the other, it sometimes means little time to think or be strategic about them. You’re simply being reactive.
You are uniquely positioned to help the team avoid “meeting pinball,” just bouncing between meetings all day in reactive mode. One strategy to implement to help your team better manage its energy is to establish buffers between tasks or events that allow your team to reset, consider what’s next, and catch its breath between commitments. Rather than stacking commitments back to back, you are giving each commitment that you schedule the amount of time it needs and no more, and you’re ensuring that every commitment has a little breathing room blocked off around it so that there is margin for participants.
It’s careless to waste someone’s time. When you do, you are essentially wasting the person’s life. It’s not like we wake up in the morning, thinking, I wonder how I can turn our day into a wasteland of meaningless activity and fruitless meetings. No, it happens via little decisions over time. What you model is what you get, and if you model for your team that you don’t truly value its time, then it will reciprocate. You will soon find that your unhealthy use of time has infiltrated the entire organization and set the tone for how work gets done.
Build buffers between scheduled meetings. If you truly want the people on your team to bring their best thinking to a meeting, don’t chain meetings back to back, especially if they are about different projects. Give them five or ten minutes to recollect themselves between meetings, to check in with their other commitments if necessary, and to refocus on the next topic.
It’s careless to waste someone’s time in a meeting. When you do, you are essentially wasting the person’s life.
Who decided that meetings should be an hour by default? Is it the calendar program that your company uses? I encourage you to consider changing the default meeting expectation for your team. Instead of defaulting to an hour just because that’s what most people or teams do, make it forty minutes. Or make it a half hour. Better yet, make each meeting precisely as long as it needs to be to finish the conversation.
My friend Ricardo Crespo, who has held global executive creative director roles at major companies, such as 20th Century Fox and Mattel, once told me that he would host standing meetings, which were designed to take as little time as needed while still being productive. Rather than inviting people to his office for a “formal” sit-down conversation, he was known to say something like, “Meet me at the potted plant on the northwest corner on the eighth floor at 9:20 a.m. tomorrow morning.” He knew that by choosing an informal setting (outside the formality of sitting in a boardroom or office), no one would settle in for a long and winding conversation. Instead, there would be an urgency to get to the heart of the matter quickly so that everyone could move on with their day. He would come to this five- to ten-minute standing meeting fully informed and prepared to discuss the topic; then each person would move on with their day.
Although you don’t have to be as prescriptive as that, I’d encourage you to infuse specificity into how you schedule meetings and make them only as long as they need to be in order to accomplish their objective. Exercising precision in how you schedule and run your meetings communicates that you value your team’s time. (And, frankly, your own as well.)
Here are a few additional thoughts about meetings that will help you honor your team’s most valuable finite resource.
1. Only call a meeting with a specific purpose and desired outcome. Never call a speculative meeting. The only reason that you should call a meeting is when you need a specific group of people to weigh in on a decision, and the outcome is clearly defined. Some leaders call a meeting as a way to soothe their own anxiety. They want to assure themselves that progress is being made. This is terribly demotivating to the team, which must break from its tasks in order to meet.
2. Make sure that everyone knows the purpose or outcome, and assign each person prework before the meeting. It should be clear to all attendees why you are meeting and what you are planning to accomplish. In addition, they should understand what they’re accountable for bringing to the meeting, whether it’s ideas, an update on progress, or a specific question that they need answered. Give them plenty of time to pull together what they need. No one should come to the meeting unprepared, ever.
3. Set only as much time as is necessary to accomplish the objective. As I said before: do not default to sixty-minute meetings. I can’t make this any more clear. Schedule as much time as you think you’ll need to accomplish the objective, and no more. It sends a powerful signal to your team that you value its time, and it also encourages everyone to use the time wisely, as there is little margin for banter.
4. Start and end on time. This one needs little explanation. You can say whatever you want about how much you value people’s time, but your actions prove your words. Be a person of integrity and honor, and expect others to follow suit. Refuse to tolerate those who waste your time or the time of others.
5. Save the small talk for lunch or the elevator. Meetings are for getting things done, not for catching up on the family or talking about the big game last night. Welcome everyone and get right to the point. Although you may think that this makes you a cold, distant leader, people will actually love you more for respecting their time.
Of course, all of this is just good, simple meeting hygiene, but it’s often not practiced because we get busy and overwhelmed. Set the tone for how other people’s meetings operate within your organization, then be very careful about how you manage your own. Articulate these expectations to the people on your team so that they understand how much you value their time. And your own.
Exercise: Evaluate your current slate of recurring meetings and consider eliminating or adapting them to better honor your team’s time. (And your own.)
Question: How can you better structure your current meeting schedule so that there is less wasted time and energy and more white space for your team to recollect and refocus on the work?