What great leaders do in every meeting

There are an infinite number of books and articles written about how to lead. There are few written about where to lead. Where does the work of leadership get done? Given that the average manager spends almost 50% of each week in meetings, how they show up in those meetings will either demonstrate their leadership skills or showcase their leadership deficiencies. If this is true, meetings matter. Meetings matter a lot.

We’ve observed the full range of the good, the bad and the ugly in meetings over the past 15 years. Here’s what the best leaders do, whether they are in charge of the meeting or not…

They establish the goal. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone walked in and just started talking without stating the purpose of the meeting? That’s a great way to ensure the time is wasted. Stating what will be different by the end of the meeting gets everyone out of their heads wondering “why are we here?” and into the room. When the stated goal is something everyone actually cares about, you have a recipe for high engagement.

They listen. Western cultures tend to expect leaders to dominate the discussion, but in fact, great leaders are great listeners. They use meetings as a forum in which the people on their teams can share ideas, generate solutions and make decisions, providing guidance and correction only as needed. For this to be effective, they have to establish psychological safety, which is done by giving people the opportunity to contribute and rewarding them for it.

They promote balanced engagement. Great leaders know how to inspire individuals and teams to play to their full potential. In meetings, that means they notice and take action when the conversation is being dominated by the usual suspects or if folks on the phone or online can’t get a word in edgewise.

They synthesize. The complexity and global reach of modern organisations makes integration a critical capability. At the micro level, the ability to synthesize and connect the dots within a single discussion is likewise a differentiating leadership capability. In David Kantor’s Four Player Model, which outlines the four fundamental actions in any dialogue, this action is called “bystand” and it is the single most critical component of an effective dialogue, as well as the most often missing.

They take notes. Given that we encounter as much as 174 newspapers worth of information in a single day, is it any wonder we have a hard time remembering that great idea that emerged at minute 36 of the meeting? I once sat in on a 90 minute weekly staff meeting of the top doctors and clinical researchers at a major pharmaceutical company. About half way through the discussion, I looked around the room and realised that no one was taking notes. In fact, not a single person had a pen, a piece of paper, or a tablet. They just talked and then they walked. Is it any surprise that no action emerged from their discussions? On the other extreme, we’ve seen plenty of meetings where someone was assigned the role of a note taker, but ended up drafting a transcript of what happened, not what matters. When a leader takes his or her own notes, he or she can focus on the essentials like decisions, insights, and coaching points to share with people afterwards.

They summarise. If you ever played the game Chinese whispers (or the ‘telephone game’ in the US), you are well aware that what one person thinks they said is rarely what others heard. That’s why summarising the key conclusions, decisions and follow-up items before the meeting adjourns is so critical. Leaders who adopt this practice are demonstrating their willingness to be corrected, if someone interpreted the outcomes differently, and ensuring that the group will communicate the outcomes consistently to their teams outside of the room.

They stay present. Great leaders respect the time and attention of their teams too much to multi-task their way through a meeting. They believe that if it’s worth attending, it’s worth staying present and their teams notice and appreciate their example. In fact, in this era of constant distractions, staying present and focused is the underlying leadership behaviour that makes all of the above possible.

If you want an instant upgrade for your leadership, focus on your meeting brand. It is an often overlooked, but powerful tool for great leadership.


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About the author

Shani Harmon is the co-founder and chief delivery officer of Stop Meeting Like This. For the last 15 years she has focused on driving transformative change and eradicating wasteful and mindless activity within Fortune 500 companies around the world. Shani fundamentally believes that work shouldn’t suck. Her goal is to make it possible for people to be more connected and inspired by their own organisations and in turn, make greater contributions than they previously thought possible. She is a passionate Chicagoan who loves to take walks with her husband and their boisterous Cocker Spaniel, Ginger. Connect with Shani on LinkedIn and Twitter. More blog posts by Shani Harmon ››
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