Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill-?

One leadership skill that always seems to be overlooked is leading meetings. How many meetings have you been to where one or two people were allowed to dominate the conversation, or where the topics seemed to drag on and on without resolution? How many meetings have you been to where you felt that your time could have been better spent somewhere else, doing something else?

Facilitating meetings well is a skill that is rarely taught, and difficult to do by oneself. Good meetings are the result of all the participants understanding the purpose and the process for the meeting. Everyone knows how the meeting should be conducted and takes the initiative to conduct themselves accordingly.

The foundation of effective meetings is having a set of ground rules that are agreed upon by all the participants.

Ground rules are essentially codes of conduct that participants agree will help keep the meeting civil, effective and efficient. Although most people assume that everyone knows how to do this without going the extra step to spell out the rules, that’s just not so.

Let’s start with one simple ground rule as an example: when the meeting starts. When I worked at Wizards of the Coast, we had what was referred to as “WotC time”. Meetings didn’t start until ten after the hour. No one even arrived in the room until about then, so sometimes meetings didn’t start until quarter after. I was informed of WotC time as soon as I started working there. So, although someone would set a meeting for 10am, everyone knew it would begin at 10:10am. Meetings would usually last just 50 minutes, giving attendees enough time to prepare for the next meeting if they had one.

Contrast this practice with Wally time, which was what meeting times were sometimes called at REI, where I worked before Wizards. Named after the then-CEO, Wally Smith, it meant that every meeting started exactly on the hour. It was not unusual for people to arrive up to five minutes early so they wouldn’t be late for the meeting.

These types of unwritten rules are part of the culture of an organization. But as a leader, you can create your own culture starting with the expectations you set around meetings. In fact, once the CEOs of Wizards of the Coast and REI changed, those meeting start times changed too (along with some other aspects of the organizational culture).

Take control of the culture you want to foster in your area by taking control of how meetings are held. Put together a list of ground rules you’d like to see in place, bring it to a meeting for discussion, and as a group, decide on the final ground rules that everyone agrees to abide by. Everyone expects some type of code of conduct, and formally establishing one emphasizes that an environment of respect, collaboration, and efficiency are priorities. It gives participants a sense of safety as well, as they know what is expected of them. Ground rules may look something like this:

1. Meetings will start on time, and participants will be on time.
2. No texting, emailing or phone calls during the meeting.
3. Participants will come prepared to participate.
4. Everyone will be heard; no floor-hogging.

Of course your group's rules will reflect what you and your team decide are the most important meeting behaviors.  It’s best to keep the rules short and simple, and to review them as a group from time to time to see if any changes or additions should be made. It also helps to copy them along with every agenda so they can be a reminder for everyone at each meeting.

You may want to impose penalties for violating the rules. The first time someone violates the rules it could just be called out to them – keeping people accountable to agreed-upon rules is all important or otherwise no one will take them seriously. For the second offense you could impose a penalty – maybe a contribution to a change jar to be used for cookies for the meeting, or even buying the whole group muffins for the next meeting.

Once you have some ground rules, you have others to help with the facilitation. For example, if someone starts monopolizing the conversation it shouldn’t only be the meeting leader who calls them out. Anyone should feel comfortable enough to say something like, “Janet, Rule #4. I know you have a lot to say about this, but it’s time to hear from someone else.”

Meeting facilitation lies somewhere between a skill and an art. An active group with a large agenda can be quite challenging to facilitate. Running meetings smoothly requires more than just a good set of ground rules. Here are a few helpful techniques:

--At the beginning of the meeting state the purpose of the meeting, even if everyone knows or should know. The purpose should be crystal clear to everyone.

--Briefly go through all the agenda items to see if there are any changes or corrections to it.

--Put a few short agenda items at the beginning to get off to a good start.

--Be alert to participants’ facial expressions and body language: are they engaged, confused? If confused, you may be going too fast. If they are not engaged, you may be going too slow.

--Draw out quiet ones without putting them on the spot. Before the meeting, make sure everyone knows what agenda items they will be expected to contribute to. If they don’t speak up, ask them. Sometimes that’s all they are waiting for.

--Evaluate the meeting at the end. Leave a couple minutes to ask “How was the pace of this meeting?” “What do you wish we had done differently in this meeting?” “What went well in this meeting?”

--Thank everyone for their participation and for honoring the ground rules.

There are many more excellent techniques for facilitating meetings. Since you know your group better than anyone, you can customize your facilitation methods to foment participation and keep them engaged. And since meeting facilitation is a skill that is best honed by practice, rotating that responsibility among others is a great way to develop your employees.

Violating the ground rules gets you kicked out of meetings on The Office.

The purpose is stated clearly! Just about everyone seems prepared to give an opinion…and he keeps everyone on task, allowing everyone a chance to speak.

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