How Being Ruthless Can Improve Your Meetings

We’ve all been victimized (or been the victimizer) of boring unproductive meetings. There are hundreds of articles, posts, and books chock full of tips about how to avoid boring meetings, but today I’m going to write about something seldom said. This post concerns any kind of volunteer or staff meeting held on a recurring basis.

Roberts Rules of Order is your friend, not your master.

If you’re using the same agenda template for every single meeting, is it serving your needs or has it become your master? For example, let’s say that your practice has been to give each person (officer or committee chair in a nonprofit) time on the agenda to report. I’m thinking about Roberts Rules of Order for you nonprofiteers out there. That may work for you 90% of the time, but what about the cases where you are faced with a crisis. In a business setting, a key customer may be threatening to take his business elsewhere. In a nonprofit, your capital campaign chair may have just resigned mid-way through your campaign.

Do you really want to give each person a few minutes to speak when you need to devote almost the entire agenda to this one topic? Don’t be afraid to throw the format out the window. Put this topic at the top (oh, go ahead and approve the minutes from the last meeting first, if you need to:-)

Unless there’s something in your bylaws that says you’re required to follow Roberts Rules, don’t be afraid to modify the agenda in a manner that best fits your needs in times of crisis. Don’t be wimpy and do things just because they’ve always been done that way; be ruthless in managing your time and your fellow employees/volunteers time in a way that is most efficient and effective. If that means devoting 80% of your agenda to one topic because it’s a critical time sensitive issue, then go for it.

Do your meetings enhance or hinder your work?

Is it your custom or bylaws requirement that you have regular meetings? If so, is every single one necessary? Do you really need to have monthly meetings just because that’s the way  it’s always been done? Is that the best use of everyone’s time? If not, be ruthless and change the bylaws or custom to quarterly, or every other month. Meetings should advance your mission or contribute to your goals, not hinder them.

Encourage dialogues, discourage monologues

Even if you’re rolling out a new plan that requires a presenter spend the bulk of the time presenting, you must still allow time for not only questions but suggestions and brain storming on implementation. Be ruthless in sending out information to attendees in advance and in creating the expectation that they will review it as pre-work. There’s nothing worse than wasting meeting time on something that could have been sent out in as an update in an email. Use your meeting time to focus on what’s truly important.

Imagine what would happen if you developed the reputation of having relevant meetings that helped people meet their goals as opposed to those that were inefficient.

Sometimes it’s okay to be ruthless.

Three Tips To Engergize Your Volunteer Meetings

Decades ago, when I started in the nonprofit sector, my first boss took a sledge hammer and beat the following into my brain:

If nothing changes as a result of your meeting; that meeting was a waste of time!

I’m not here to suggest you use written timed agendas (you should) or that your meetings start and end on time (they should). Instead, I want to tell you a story about how we turned around a board that had meetings so boring that attendance took a nose dive into one that was energized, effective, and fun to attend.

After suffering through a number of boring meetings, I was discussing the board’s lack of effectiveness with my mentor. In a free wheeling conversation, I still remember from two decades ago, he convinced me to approach my board president and suggest the following:

  1. Reports of past activity would be submitted in writing. Working with my board president, we asked officers and committee chairs to submit their reports of the prior month’s activities in writing, preferably in advance. Those reports would be placed in the meeting folders at the board members seats when they arrived in the meeting room.
  2. Verbal Reports would focus on the future. Committee chairs were asked to focus their verbal reports on discussing future plans, especially emphasizing any obstacles, problems, or “doors” they needed opened in the community.
  3. Board Members were encouraged to bring guests. This nonprofit’s board meetings were open to the public and we wanted to attract visitors who might volunteer with us.

Within two meetings a sea change took place. Before we had been a servant to Roberts Rules as each officer and chair felt obligated to deliver a verbal report centering on what had already happened. But now, they still delivered those reports focusing primarily on what they were doing and what help they needed between then and the next meeting. With the death of boring monologues of reports read by officers and chairs, dialogue flourished. Questions were asked, answers offered, brains were stormed.

The meetings became much more livelier. As they changed, guests started getting more involved. By our third meeting, we filled an important chairmanship when a guest volunteered.

For me, these meetings became fun to plan as opposed to a burden to suffer through. I started to look forward to them whereas before I had come close to dreading them.

Over time attendance increased and the overall morale of the board increased as well.

If your meetings are focused on the past, convince your volunteers to change to the “future tense.”

Follow THIS Principle When Planning A Meeting

If you’re going to feel confident when you laugh in the face of danger it’s best to have an edge. For those of you seeking new employment in today’s brutal job market, one way you can gain an edge is to subscribe to, a web site with more than 500 free podcasts related to interviewing, career advice, and management. Additionally, they have one of the best online discussion forums outside of any technology product I’ve ever seen.

One of the recent forum posts had to do with meetings and how to make them effective as opposed to the meeting equivalent of a black hole. I’ve been going to meetings for more than three decades. I’ve been in some very bad ones and more than a few very good ones. In my early years of recruiting and training volunteers, I spent many hours sitting through volunteer board and committee meetings. Now as as a senior manager, I spend many hours in employee only staff meetings.

I’m not going to rehash here the great advice Manager Tools (and others) provide. I will repeat one thing my first boss burned into my brain back in 1977 and that I’ve found true of every single meeting since. He said:

If nothing changes as a result of your meeting, you wasted everyone’s time, including your own.

When you absorb this guiding principle into your DNA, two things happen.

  1. You learn to ask yourself this question at the very beginning when you are planning your meeting. “What do I want to change as a result of this meeting?”You ask this question BEFORE you even think of your first agenda topic.Let’s say you want to sell the meeting attendees on the need for a new initiative. Asking yourself this question means you probably need to visit with each attendee individually well before the meeting to gauge their willingness to buy in. Not just to determine who will support it and who won’t, but how clear your ability is to communicate the new concept. It’s not what you sell, it’s how you sell it. Running the idea past several people will help you refine your message before you get to the meeting itself.The benefit here is that it not only helps you select the right topics but it helps you think through the steps you must take before you get to the meeting thus increasing your chances of success.
  2. It gives you the courage to cancel a regular scheduled meeting if it’s not an effective use of everyone’s time. Just because you have a monthly conference call or staff meeting doesn’t mean that you have to hold one every time it says so on the calendar. If there’s not a pressing need, cancel the meeting. Ask yourself this, what is the cost, in salary and in lost productivity of needless meetings?

Remember, the question this principle should make you ask is:

What do I want to change as a result of this meeting?

Once you determine that, the next question becomes:

What must I do before the meeting to make that happen?

Followed by asking:

What must happen during the meeting to make that happen?

What must happen after the meeting for that to happen?

Adopt this principle along with other suggestions such as using written agendas, starting and ending on time, etc. and see if you don’t have more effective meetings. When you master the art of effective meetings you’ve got an edge when you laugh in the face of danger.