The Leader's Impact on Meeting Success
By Ann G. Depta
You've heard it from all sources. The organizations of today must build teams and empower their people if they expect to survive and thrive. Change, speed, personal accountability, teamwork-these are some of our current themes. Unfortunately, though many people use the words, very few know what it will take to implement these things in their organizations. To truly make these concepts operational, organizations will need leaders who can transform the culture.
What tools will these transformational leaders need to take their organizations into the new economy? There are many, of course, but one of the most effective is the ability to facilitate meetings in such a way that a team can be built.
How can meetings build teams? Here the importance of that word "team" and the obvious analogy to a sports team is clear. A winning team must practice. Coaches cannot have a successful team if they only work one-on-one with the quarterback, the center or the wide receiver during the week but then expect the team to play a game on Saturday. Individuals must practice their particular skill, but the team must ultimately come together and meld into a unit. What does practice equate to in the corporate world? Meetings.
This idea can be quite a jolt to managers who insist they want a team but scoff at the necessity for regular meetings. But if meetings equate to team practice, they take on a different connotation altogether. Meetings are not only chalkboard sessions where information is disseminated and debriefing is done; they are also the practice sessions where decisions are made, problems are solved and the team comes together.
Many meetings seem like a waste of time because they are used as a place to dump information that could be disseminated through memos or e-mail. In contrast, meetings that build teams of people who will take on both personal and shared responsibility are those that involve decision-making and problem solving.
The Leader as Facilitator
In order to make meetings the practice sessions they need to be, leaders must learn a new role. Managers have always played many roles throughout their day-to-day activities-administrator, negotiator, coach, planner and disseminator of information. One role they are being required to play more often is that of a facilitator. That is the role discussed here-the manager as a facilitator of meetings in order to build the team. The word facilitator comes from "facile," "to make easy." It does not imply "to take charge." Unfortunately, most managers have not been trained as facilitators. In fact, other roles they play call for decisiveness, quick problem solving, and being the person with the answers. As a result, many managers do not know how to back off, listen and allow others to work through a process such as a meeting. The good news, however, is that managers can be trained to conduct meetings in a facilitative mode. They only need to be persuaded that this skill is one that will develop a more participative work force, and will speed up the teambuilding process. Meetings, then, are one very powerful tool in the kit of transformational leaders-provided, of course, the meetings are successful.
What is a Successful Meeting?
Most experts will agree that a successful meeting has the following characteristics:
· Outcomes are well defined up front.
· There is a clear agenda.
· Meeting procedures and operating agreements are established.
· Attention is paid to both task and process.
· Everyone actively participates.
· Some action will be taken as a result of the meeting.
Leaders who learn and apply each of these characteristics will find that their meetings are highly effective.
Outcomes are Well Defined Up Front
A sure road to the failure of a meeting is to begin it without clearly defining outcomes and then verifying that participants either have the same outcomes in mind or are clear about the leader's expected outcomes. Often easier said than done. And the inability to articulate outcomes, or desired results, manifests itself in more than just meetings. For example, many people in the workplace can readily recite what they do not want in a situation, but when pressed for what they do want, simply cannot tell you.
Thus, a key factor for leaders is to know what they want to accomplish in a meeting. Perhaps all the leader wants is for team members to have an opportunity to work together and provide input for a decision the leader ultimately has to make. Whatever the expected result, it must be clear in the leader's mind and then adjusted, if required, after input from team members. An example of a clearly stated outcome would be: "I want us to leave this meeting with a plan of action for managing our move to our new facility. I want clearly defined tasks with names and accountabilities spelled out." Then, with feedback from the team, the outcome can be altered to reflect the collective thinking of the group.
There Is A Clear Agenda
The agenda should be visible to everyone at the meeting, preferably shown on an easel or white board throughout the meeting. The agenda may be adjusted after the discussion about outcomes. Two chief reasons exist for identifying and publishing the agenda. First, to clearly indicate the nature and scope of the meeting and second, to determine at the end of the meeting that the group achieved success. If all agenda items have been addressed, participants sense that the meeting was effective. If some of the items have not been covered, the leader needs to address that issue and work with the group to determine how to cover the missing items.
Meeting Procedures are Established
Since facilitating participatory meetings to build a team is charting new territory for many managers, they could well use a "cookbook" that explains step by step the most effective way to run a meeting. They also need to be trained to understand the various procedures, such as brainstorming, consensus rules and nominal group technique. In this way, managers can learn which procedures are most effective in various situations.
Such training and preparation is critical. A little learning can be a dangerous thing. For example, many corporate leaders have been exposed to just enough information about brainstorming to be destructive. Perhaps you have seen a meeting leader attempt to lead a brainstorming session which quickly disintegrated because the leader allowed censure, either verbal or nonverbal, or the leader winced or otherwise nonverbally indicated an opinion about an idea that was presented. There is nothing wrong with the brainstorming technique itself. It can be highly effective in certain situations, but it must be taught as a skill like any other.
Attention Is Paid To Both Task and Process
When a group meets for decision-making and problem solving, the meeting is clearly task-oriented. It would seem that if procedures and operating agreements are established, and the agenda is clear, the group would be able to reach a comfort level about the task. This is the rational approach. However, a group that works together does not always function rationally. Human dynamics come into play, including competition for the leader's attention, a desire to look good, a fear of looking foolish, and hidden agendas. Thus, if the leader can find successful ways to manage a team's group process, the chance of reaching the desired outcomes greatly increases.
What do leaders need to know about process? One of the most important things is to understand the four stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. Meeting leaders need to understand that every group cycles through these stages, and the ultimate goal for a group (team), of course, is to reach the Performing stage.
During stage one, Forming, the facilitator must understand that when a group is in its beginning stages of formation, issues on people's minds are such things as "Where do I fit in this group?" "Are people going to accept me?" "What are my boundaries?" "What are my and others' roles?" Some behavioral characteristics at this stage are talking too much, withdrawing, questioning goals and telling war stories. An effective meeting leader will provide opportunities and activities that motivate group members to get to know each other so that they move through this stage, rather than just hoping they will somehow get through it in haphazard fashion.
In stage two, Storming, members' concerns are "How much influence do I have?" "Who is running the show?" "Are my needs being met?" "Are my values being respected?" Behavioral characteristics include the formation of subgroups (this frequently happens), jockeying for the power seat at the table, arriving late, and holding side conversations. Issues of conflict, control and confrontation must be addressed and dealt with overtly. Subgroupings are particularly insidious, undermining a group's ability to function as a team.
In the third stage, Norming, a group has developed some behavioral norms that everyone understands and tends to abide by. If the group has been purposeful in developing operating agreements, these become the healthy norms that groups need in order to move into the next stage. If a group doesn't establish and publish healthy norms, it will almost always develop some unhealthy ones, such as talking negatively about others in the group behind their backs. In this stage team members are increasingly assuming responsibility for the well-being of the group, rather than just depending upon the leader to do so.
In the fourth stage, Performing, healthy norms have been developed and the team can function successfully in meetings as well as on the job. Groups at this stage are more successful at accomplishing a task. Common characteristics that are exhibited by group members at this stage are the expression of positive feelings, joking, challenging, providing feedback, laughter and "groupthink." Most of these are positive, but "groupthink" can be dangerous. Teams that exhibit "groupthink" are so committed to the team that no one wants to be a naysayer or devil's advocate. Consequently, a group might make bad decisions because nobody will speak up for fear of disturbing the good feelings the group is experiencing. If leaders are aware of the pitfalls of this stage, they can capitalize on the team's positive energy, and meetings can become not only productive but fun.
There Is Active Participation By Everyone
A frequent lament among managers is their inability to get people to participate in meetings. Chances are managers with problems in this area are either making errors of commission, omission or both.
Errors of commission include familiar scenarios such as a manager spending 95% of a meeting telling or selling. Then in the last few minutes the leader asks, "Are there any questions?" Many managers are unaware of their power to enhance or inhibit participation. For example, during a meeting if the manager portrays the slightest hint of disapproval, it can be enough to shut down participation. Managers may not like or agree with everything that is said, but they must listen and project acceptance, verbally and nonverbally. After all, if someone gets "jumped on" for an idea, how likely are others to be as creative as they might normally be?
Errors of omission are even more frequent. These occur because the meeting leader does not understand what it takes to facilitate participation. Techniques to foster involvement can be taught to leaders so they are comfortable and proficient in cultivating individual contributions to the group. For instance, think of meetings that involve ongoing groups or teams. What about the seating? Do people have regular places at which they invariably position themselves time after time? Does the leader always sit in the same place? The sameness of seating patterns promotes a sameness of thinking that stays with the group meeting after meeting. Creativity and flexibility are stifled as people enter each meeting with preconceived opinions from the last gathering. Changing seats causes people to approach things from a different perspective.
Meeting leaders should understand that their meetings are really metaphors for change. People resist change for many good reasons, but today's workers must become more comfortable with change, embrace it and even drive it. If members of a group are encouraged to be more flexible by the simple act of sitting in a different place every week, the message about change will become a part of their thinking.
Another way the leader of a team can encourage participation is to rotate meeting leadership from meeting to meeting. Where is it written that the manager must always run the meeting? Many managers fear that if they're not in charge of the meeting, they are not in charge. Managers who are secure enough to allow their people to grow and develop through the process of learning to conduct team meetings will reap the benefits of increased involvement and ownership of the meeting's outcome. It is also important to remember that participation means different things to different people. The ways that an extrovert and introvert participate, for example, are quite different. Because extroverts "think to talk," they are usually going to be much more willing to speak without having to think through exactly what they want to say. Thus, if the meeting leader does not manage the process, extroverts in the group will totally dominate the meeting. Meanwhile, introverts with important things to contribute can't get their thoughts on the table because by the time an introvert "thinks to talk" some extrovert has jumped in.
How do effective leaders manage this process? Once they recognize the differences between extroverts and introverts, they can use procedures that require everyone's participation. They must also remember to ask introverts in the group what they are thinking. Introverts frequently have profound things to say because they have been busy thinking things through before speaking.
Furthermore, leaders can boost participation and creativity through the use of language. Most managers have been trained in active listening and, thus, are familiar with the concept of open and closed questions. Yet amazingly, the transfer of this knowledge to meeting leadership seldom occurs. Consequently, meeting leaders might ask questions such as "Do you agree. . .?" "Don't you think that. . .?" or "Do you have any questions?"-all questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead, the leader can be trained to ask open-ended questions such as "What do you think?" and "What questions do you have?"
Meeting leaders must also consider how language can stifle the ability to solve problems creatively. For example, groups create limits to their capability to accomplish things when they ask, "Is it possible to reach our target number?" Instead, the question can be worded, "How would it be possible to reach our target number?" This way of questioning assumes it is possible to accomplish the goal; it is just a matter of finding a way to make it happen. By asking questions in this manner, people stretch their thinking beyond the limits they tend to impose on themselves. Gaining active participation at meetings is at the very heart of developing a work group into an energized, motivated team.
Some Action Will Be Taken As A Result Of the Meeting
Very few things are as irritating as leaving a meeting knowing that nothing was accomplished and time was wasted. The meeting leader must manage the process to avoid that situation. This can be done in two ways. First, the group should review the agenda at the close of the meeting and determine which items have been addressed. If topics were not covered, the group should acknowledge this and decide what they can do to make sure these matters are addressed. Second, clear follow-up steps must be established and understood. What is to be done after the meeting? Who is accountable? What is the time frame? When do members report back about their tasks? Taking care of such loose ends makes group members feel they have been effective and that their time has been well spent.
The bottom line is this: To keep pace in today's world, businesses will require leaders who can transform them into lean, limber, agile organizations. Since they can't do this by themselves, such leaders will have to develop teams in order to get the job done. Teams must practice, and in the workplace, practice equates to meetings. If the "new leader" can learn to facilitate meetings in such a way that the team feels successful, gains energy, and has fun, meetings will no longer be the burden they have been perceived to be in the past, and everyone in the organization will end up a winner.
Adapted and reprinted from a chapter by Ann G. Depta in Innovative Meeting Management with permission of 3M Meeting Management Institute.