Friday, 1 May 2009

Time, everyone, please

No comment today about the Swine 'Flu - I've decided to take my own advice and wait for more data...

I have been reading "Management Today", as I sure have you all. One brief section caught my eye "Cope with Overload" (page 19 of the May 2009 issue, if you'd like to jump straight to it...). It quotes Alexei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, as starting meetings with "You have 15 minutes...".

I have always tried to keep meetings short and sharp (and ideally sweet), but it can be difficult. Having worked with lawyers much of my working life (so far), I can confirm that, in general, they do like to talk... I have worked with a couple of CEO-level people about their techniques for managing meetings, and can offer the following:
  • Schedule meetings for no more than one hour (unless really necessary for technical reasons). This means that most attendees will have another appointment 60 minutes after the start of the meeting and so will share the concern to move things along
  • Start the meeting on time. This may be a personal thing but I find people who saunter into meetings 10 minutes late rather rude. Common courtesy suggests that you should be in the room at 14:58 for a 15:00 meeting
  • Follow Alexie Miller's opening and state how long the meeting will last
  • Outline an agenda or the reason for the meeting at the start (another point mentioned in the MT article)
  • Possibly more importantly, outline the outcome you hope to achieve
  • Manage the meeting. Don't just sit there and let people talk. If it is your meeting - or you are the chairman of the committee - you are perfectly entitled to stop others speaking. The phrases "Thank you, I think we see you point, but need to move on" and "Thank you, but I think we are going off-topic now and I'd like to bring us back to the subject of the meeting" are two I use and recommend
  • If the outcome has been achieved, you are finished. If you manage it in 5 minutes, then congratulations. You do not need to continue the conversation in order to justify the meeting. You - and all the other attendees - are now at least 40 minutes ahead for the day. Enjoy it.
I have one example I should like to share with you. Some years ago I was a member of a board which had a new chairman every year. For 12 months we had sat through what felt like endless meetings with a chairman who both enjoyed long meetings and was not particularly efficient in controlling other members of the board. A two and a half hour meeting was not unusual and members would arrive late, read the papers (for the first time) through the meeting. All in all it was a bit of a mess. And then, the next January, our new chairman started. He too had sat through these long meetings and was determined that this would change. He decided to make a statement with his first meeting.

As the clock hit 5pm (the official starting time), he called the meeting to order and said "Right then, we're all very busy so let's get on. Item 1 - you've all read the papers, any comments of questions? No - right. Item 2 - you've all read the papers, any comments or questions? No..."

Half the members of the board were still helping themselves to coffee. Some were shuffling papers in a frantic attempt to catch up. Those (somewhat anal) members of the board who liked short meetings were smiling a laughing.

His first meeting took twenty minutes. A thing of wonder and beauty. We never again managed such a short meeting - but members of the board arrived prepared, and we never again had a two and a half hour meeting.

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