How to Make the Meetings You Lead Matter, Part I

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Dave Barry said that meetings are “the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve it’s full potential.” Meetings are the universally despised part of the job. What’s the job? Leadership. All leaders have meetings—and most meetings are terrible, quite frankly. We’ve all sat in meetings where the point was unclear, the facilitator droned on and on, and at the end of the meeting no one was clear what we had accomplished. What’s more a whole hour, day or weekend was wasted. This is why Thomas Sowell said, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”

But what if our meetings were actually good? That would be nice, but, I’ve found that the biggest problem improving meetings is motivation. We all want to get better at the speaking part of leadership. There are hundreds of trainings and thousands of books on the subject of communicating to crowds. However, few of us think about getting better at the meeting part of leadership.

So why should we all get better at leading meetings?

1. The Bar Is So Very Low

George Will said, “Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” The bar is so low when it comes to meetings that you can take advantage of low expectations. Meetings are the ultimate short-term win. As a new leader in an organization there is nothing quite so easy to do as to change the tenor and tone of the meetings. An immediate impact can be felt just by leading shorter, more purposeful and clear meetings. Everyone probably already thinks the meetings are horrible when you show up, so why not make something horrible passable by merely being intentional?

2. You Invest So Much Already

I claim that leaders invest a third of their influence, half of their time, and two-thirds of their decisions in meetings. Meetings are where you really influence your best leaders (see #4) and it is where you “spend your chips” in terms of influence. If you invest a third of your influence in one place already it makes sense to improve the effectiveness of it. At a conference I attended Bill Hybels recommended the book Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni, which has become one of the best (albeit among few) leadership books on meetings. Hybels said that as a pastor he spends almost all of his time doing just two things: 1) preparing to speak, and 2) going to meetings. The audience groaned at the second one. He claimed that as much as half or more of his work time was spent in meetings. I think he’s quite right. What’s more, the higher one rises in an organization the more likely it is to spend more time in meetings. If you invest half of your time in one place already it makes sense to improve the effectiveness of it. In general as leaders we make fewer decisions in a vacuum than we thought we would have at the outset. Many people need to be “brought in the loop” and people must be in on the decision to feel ownership of it (see #5). The higher one rises in leadership the more others seek your involvement and advice in their decision, which creates another mini-meeting. If you invest two-thirds of your decisions in one place already it makes sense to improve the effectiveness of it.

3. The Stage Is Limited

“A man with a hammer sees everything as a nail” they saying goes. This happens with leaders as well, and particularly pastors. So much leadership training and seminary coursework is caught up in the act of communication that the preaching act becomes the “hammer” for a pastor, and every problem tends to be solved by the “sermon nail.” The problem is that the stage (or the pulpit) is limited in its effectiveness for solving many problems. We know this—but we do little to counter the tendency to invest our time in preaching as the cure to our ills. The reality is that the stage is ill suited to solve many problems we face in terms of culture, conflict, and leader-development. Influencing people from a stage is limited if you don’t back it up with meetings that match the same values. I’ve seen preachers get so very frustrated because they “have preached on this a dozen times before” in the church but there has been no change. I’ve seen corporate leaders that have cast the vision for their company a dozen times and their vice-presidents “still don’t get it” and the leader can’t understand why. The reason is that the stage is limited, and all our meetings must match the message before the culture is changed.

Part 2 will post next week.

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David Drury is the author or co-author of a half-dozen books and serves as the Chief of Staff to Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church. He previously served as a local church pastor in five congregations in the midwest as a church planter, solo pastor, or staff pastor in urban, suburban, and rural settings. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Indiana Wesleyan University.

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