For leaders: Why and how to participate more effectively in meetings

As a long-time manager, I’ve had the following situation happen many times, and you may have too: You are tasked with getting input from people higher than you on the food chain. You determine that the best way to do this is to call a meeting.

You do all the right things: you make sure the time slot is available on everyone’s calendar. You considerately schedule the meeting far enough ahead of time. You circulate an agenda. If there’s homework required, you write “HOMEWORK:” at the beginning of the subject line of the meeting. You provide links to any materials the attendees need to refer to in order to be prepared for a meeting. If you suspect that your attendees don’t typically read the “body” of a meeting invitation before accepting, you also circulate the agenda and homework separately in an email — with the same subject line as the meeting. The big hour arrives, and…

One of your team leaders arrives late. Another one shows up on time but, after the meeting starts, confesses that they haven’t done the homework. And worst of all, a third high muckity-muck torpedoes your meeting by questioning the meeting’s agenda or its very premise. Now, your project has been set back, the time of the other attendees has been wasted, and you may even feel that your personal credibility has been damaged by the disrespect that your superiors have shown to you in front of others.

If you’re a leader, here’s why and how to stop doing this stuff.

First a disclaimer: If you’ve ever done this to me, I forgive you! I pinky-swear that I don’t even have a particular situation or a particular person in mind – because it has happened to me literally hundreds of times. Also, I’m not talking about the leader who arrives late to a meeting a couple of times a month or even a week – leaders are by nature busy and can get pulled into unexpected situations.

But: If you find yourself doing this frequently, it might be time to “have a think.” Your bad meeting habits may be damaging the effectiveness of your team, breeding resentment and disrespect throughout the company, and hurting your own professional reputation. You get a few people doing this in a company, and all of a sudden you have a culture problem. People on a task force are scratching their heads trying to figure out if another Foosball machine would make things better. I’m no guru, but I’m pretty sure that these effects are the opposite of leadership.

How: Here are the new useful habits to create for yourself as you accept each meeting:

  • Before accepting any meeting, read the agenda. My friend Jon Tarleton once coached me to consider declining meeting invitations that arrive without a purpose or an agenda.
  • If you disagree with the agenda, contact the meeting organizer privately — well in advance of the meeting — to hash out your disagreements.
  • Before accepting a meeting, also create a calendar appointment with yourself to get any pre-work done. You don’t have to set a specific time, but you can put the task on a specific day – here’s how.
  • Consider setting a 15-minute appointment for yourself before the meeting so that you can arrive on time and be prepared (water, coffee, online meeting software, etc..). You won’t be able to do this for all meetings, but if there are many attendees or the topic is super important, it’s a great idea.

Now all of this may sound a bit regimented and process-y. I’m not suggesting that you should never call impromptu meetings or never question a topic or never steer a meeting in a new direction as a discussion develops. What I am suggesting is that if you find yourself doing this a lot, you may want to consider tweaking your habits — with the ultimate goal of improving your team’s self-respect, productivity, and culture.