Meetings and more meetings

August 2, 2013 

People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything. ~ Thomas Sowell

As part of my responsibilities with the many organizations, I am always attending meetings. What drives me crazy about all these meetings -- and I think many others would agree -- is when information is exchanged that could easily have been read online or shared in an e-mail.

Meetings that simply exchange information are a waste of time in my opinion. The message they really send is that I am not bright enough to read and understand the material ahead of time.

Ask any executive and nearly every one will say meetings are their biggest time wasters. As Dave Barry put it, "If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."

Meetings do not have to be time wasters, however, if you take the right approach. Jeff Bezo, CEO of Amazon, has some pretty innovative ideas about meetings. Firstly, he has banned PowerPoint presentations as all they really are is a crutch the speaker uses for talking points. Rather, he requires the meeting organizer to write a six-page memo detailing his or her idea and the key points. Attendees read the memo before starting the meeting, so the first 30 minutes is always very quiet as everyone sits and reads.

One thing I really like about Bezo's meeting philosophy is that he always has an empty chair for the customer. It forces his team to make sure that they are looking out for the customer in all their decisions.

Having a visual representation in your meetings of an element that is important to your business is a great idea. As chairman of the board of First Commerce Credit Union, I plan to start using Bezo's tactic in our meetings. An empty chair labeled "Member" will help ensure that we are always serving our members.

When I run meetings, there is a formula I always follow. Firstly, I keep them brief. In my mind, long meetings are like water boarding in that they do not kill you but they make you wish you were dead.

To keep meetings short, I have a large consent

agenda that is approved in its totality in advance. At any time during the meeting, however, anyone can pull an item out of the agenda for discussion.

Having an agenda with times assigned to each element helps ensure that you stay on schedule. However, if a meaningful discussion develops, it is important to allow it to run its course even if it means getting a bit off schedule.

By far, the most important element to have in your meeting is an open discussion. Open discussions facilitate new ideas and collaboration, which are the very things that make meetings worthwhile.

It is also important that everyone participates. Many people like speaking up but many others do not, so you must find a way to draw each person into the discussion.

In my meetings, I accomplish this by calling on people and asking them directly for their input.

This can often change the direction of the discussion because it may introduce a way of thinking that has not been considered yet.

Now go out and make sure your meetings are as brief and productive as they can be.

This will make your organization so much better.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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