Brandt On Leadership -- How To Run An Effective Meeting

Aug. 20, 2006
Every meeting should reinforce the idea that nothing of importance can happen without you.

Many first-time managers worry if they have the right stuff, if they will be able to make it in the cutthroat corporate world. They fret about this in part because they haven't been in the corporate world for very long (i.e., they haven't yet worked for enough dumb-as-a-stump bosses to know just how low the corporate managerial bar is set), but also because everything on their daily planner is suddenly scary and new. How do I hire? How do I fire? How do I bury that dinner with the $200 bottle of wine in my expense account?

Mainly, though, these newbies wonder how they will survive their first big unit/departmental/divisional meeting. How to run it? How to gain the respect of more experienced colleagues eager to see the new kid fail? Do the bagels get paid for by the company or do I have to pick them up myself on the way into the office, and, if so, do I really need to buy cream cheese as well?

Fear not, young leaders. Just follow the Four Steps to Effective Meetings below and you'll not only look like a seasoned pro, you'll have the other pros shaking their heads in amazement at how quickly you've caught on:

Agenda: The first thing an old pro will do is to determine if the meeting requires: a) no agenda, so as to keep other employees guessing and anxious about the confab's purpose, or b) an incredibly detailed agenda (four pages at least) so as to forestall any independent thought or creative discussion. Whichever you decide, make sure the meeting is long enough (three hours at least) and with few enough breaks (two at most, spaced at odd intervals) so that attendees get the message that you are in charge of both their schedules and their bladders. You'll be surprised at how quickly your underlings will agree with you after three hours of coffee with no relief.

Background Materials: Don't worry about distributing anything ahead of time. Instead, pass out 53 pages of detailed contracts and market analysis at the meeting's start, and then spend the next 20 minutes watching your staff pretend to read them. This will not only make sure that you are the sole person with enough information to participate, but will also reinforce the impression that nothing of importance can happen without you.

Process: Encourage rancorous debate among your underlings, goading each participant by mischaracterizing another employee's opinion from earlier in the same meeting:

You: "Well, Jim, I think Bob would disagree with that. He said your strategy on the Fleemer account cost us $75,000 in profit."

Bob: "I didn't say -- "

Jim: "Well, I'm not sure -- "

You: "So you agree with Bob's criticism?"

Jim: "No! It's just -- "

You: "So Bob's wrong?"

Jim: "Yes. But -- "

Bob: "Wait a minute -- "

You: "Gentlemen, gentlemen! We can't have this kind of backbiting here! Now let's just cool down while I tell you what I think."

Follow-up: Numerous stupid things are said in meetings, and as a leader your job is to make sure that these stupid things never again see the light of day (unless it suits your purpose). Then, too, some of your minions may disagree with you, and may even have better ideas than you do. Your career depends on killing these ideas as quickly as possible, not only to let the team know that you're in charge, right or wrong, but also because new ideas often require hard work, courage and change -- three things no seasoned manager wants any part of. Either make sure there is no follow-up to the meeting at all (preferred) or, if you must, draft an "action" plan based on your original agenda that carefully omits any actions whatsoever, as well as any input other than your own. Not only will you look like a take-charge guy, you'll also let your staff know that their pesky opinions are no more welcome under your regime than they were under your predecessor's.

You'll be known as an old pro in no time.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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