I have participated in a lot of different kinds of staff meetings over the years, ranging from a structure based on a formal McKinsey management model to an agenda that consisted exclusively of the senior person talking about himself. Far and away the most common, however, has been the go-around-the-table model, in which each person reports on key activities in his or her function or business unit.
This default roundtable structure seemed to work pretty well when the pace of business was slower, and when key managers all worked together at the same headquarters location. It was fairly standard practice for the people responsible for running a business (whether a company or a division) to meet in person for two or three hours every week. After a financial review, we would then cycle through an individual update from each attendee. These collegial gatherings served to keep the business on track, maintain information flow, and keep the team bonded together.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this meeting style, but it may not be the best possible approach. In the era of fast-paced global businesses, I have found that round-robin staff meetings often don’t provide the necessary level of focus and efficiency. These are some of the constraints:
- In the conventional meeting style, the leader plays a passive role. The CEO/COO/GM can basically sit there and have information delivered, perhaps occasionally digging deeper or facilitating a decision. It’s tempting to convince oneself that this is a virtuous model: surely a participative, non-hierarchical, crowd-sourcing approach will tap into the real issues in the business. But is that really what happens, or is it just the easiest approach? When it comes to driving operational and financial performance, I think it’s incumbent upon the leader to set the agenda – for the staff meeting and therefore for the business. This doesn’t suggest that he or she has all the answers, only that a proactive approach is taken to gathering specific information from the group and establishing priorities.
- Another challenge with the roundtable format is the implicit presumption that everyone has something to say, and that it is of roughly equivalent importance. Attendees feel the need to claim their air-time, regardless of whether anything in their department is actually business-critical in a given week. While there is a certain egalitarian appeal to letting every voice be heard, diluting the staff meeting in this manner sometimes isn’t in the best interest of a business that needs to focus on some key issues. And frankly, people tune out – so this model doesn’t necessarily facilitate a real exchange of information.
- A contemporary business is likely to be global, with key managers geographically dispersed around the world or at least travelling extensively. It used to be OK to relegate people who aren’t at headquarters to some kind of second-class status, but that doesn’t really work anymore. They must figuratively have a seat at the table. Practically speaking, this means they need to be on the phone during the staff meeting – and sitting on a conference call for several hours every week is pretty painful. International participation in staff meetings increases the imperative for a higher level of focus and structure.
The design of a staff meeting format for a given enterprise is obviously very situational; there is no single right answer. But if my notes on roundtable exhaustion ring true for you, it may be worth investigating some other models. This is the general framework that I have found to be most effective in running my own staff meetings:
- Meeting frequency and duration depend on the velocity, complexity, and health of the business, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be every week. It can often be sufficient to allocate 1 ½ hours every two weeks for high-level operational review.
- The best basic mechanism is a dial-in conference call. Time zone differences will make it inconvenient for someone (usually the person in Asia), but it is doable. Participants gather in a conference room and participate together by speaker phone if they happen to be in the same physical location, so there often is critical mass in one place – but the meeting structure does not depend on it. (Practical Tip: No cell phone participation! It just isn’t worth the aggravation.)
- I prepare a detailed agenda for distribution prior the meeting, with team members dropping me brief emails about items for inclusion. The exact format of the agenda document will be different for each business, and a lot of thought needs to go into structuring the information. I generally use either a Powerpoint or a Word document, always starting with a high-level financial update, and then moving into whatever issues are driving the business and deserve attention from the leadership team. For some businesses this might lean heavily toward metrics and numeric information, in which case the data is included in the agenda document. Other businesses will be better served by a project-based format with an emphasis on dates and deliverables. The agenda document obviously provides structure for the meeting, but also serves to help unite the dispersed participants by keeping common visual elements in front of us as the meeting progresses. In addition, it is a general record of the meeting for absent team members and can be used to share information across and upward in the organization. (A copy to the Board on a regular basis might be an easy way to help them stay in touch with the issues.)
- The meeting itself consists of a pretty snappy progression through the issues in the agenda document. A quick update from the responsible party will suffice for most items, and when it’s clear that further discussion is required we make a note to convene the appropriate people at another time. The combination of a written guide and a fast pace will help keep all attendees focused on the meeting rather than their email. (Practically speaking, you know that people on conference calls have their computers open in front of them.)
- There is no roundtable element to the meeting, although it always concludes with an ‘any other business’ inquiry so people have an opportunity to raise critical issues that may not have made it onto the agenda.
- No minutes are taken. I realize this is counter to conventional meeting advice, and I agree that certain types of meetings (e.g. board meetings) must be minuted. However, I don’t think it’s worth the effort for regular agenda-driven operational staff meetings. As an added benefit, the lack of minutes helps clearly establish that the leader isn’t going to function in ‘babysitter’ mode. If someone takes an action item in the meeting, it should be assumed that they will take responsibility for following up. I’ll make a note on my agenda for my own reference, but it’s basically up to them to make sure it happens.
- I prefer not to have a secretary or administrative assistant in the meeting, and the ‘no minutes’ model eliminates one of the reasons they are sometimes included. Even very capable, trusted support staff seem to shift the dynamics a bit.
One of the biggest challenges with this approach is the regular investment of time required for meeting preparation. Some of the mechanics (like dropping updated financials into a template) can be handled by an assistant or a junior staffer, but the heavy lifting must be handled by the business leader – so don’t implement a model like this if the time commitment isn’t practical. On the positive side, I think it’s good to force oneself to regularly step back and take a big-picture view of the business. It’s easy to get caught up in the crisis of the moment, so it can be beneficial to have a routine that includes dedicated time for reflection and review of what really matters.
Another implication of structured operational meetings is the need to be vigilant about gathering information in other ways. Without a flow of round-robin information, it’s important to employ other means of keeping a finger on the pulse of the business. I find that the quality of the information can actually be better, since direct reports may be more forthcoming in a one-on-one situation and it’s possible to reach more broadly into the organization for data. But it does take some effort to consciously make time, seek information, and ensure that each week’s calendar contains a lot of varied touchpoints.
One interesting benefit of implementing a more structured approach to regular operational meetings is an improvement in the quality of participation in other meetings. If people aren’t worn out by perpetual roundtable rituals, the notion of hearing every voice is fresher when the group really does need to collaborate – such as strategy discussions and deep dives into specific issues. Most teams are better at sharing ideas, really listening to each other, and solving problems together when they don’t pretend to do it by rote once a week. It’s far better to save that particular kind of time and energy for those times when it can be employed for the biggest business impact.