During my first day of each interim CEO / COO assignment, inevitably I’m invited to what I’m told is an important meeting. And inevitably I refuse. Agreeing with the points made by University of Chicago professor Reid Hastie in his NY times article, “Meetings Are a Matter of Precious Time,” one of the first things I change at each company is the plethora of ineffective meetings.
The tactic I use is simple; I refuse the very first meeting to which I’m invited – no matter how important the subject may appear – by stating that I’ll only even read meeting invitations that include three things. 1. The objective we will achieve by the designated end time. 2. The agenda we’ll rigidly follow during the meeting. 3. The homework required of each attendee before the meeting starts.
The objective can’t be “to discuss…”; it needs to be a decision or an action. Not “We’ll discuss why sales are 20% below plan” but rather “We’ll decide why sales are 20% below plan and we’ll decide what actions to take to fix it.” The agenda needs to include specific blocks of time for presenting, discussing, and then deciding. As for homework, when I do attend my first meeting I start by asking, “Did anyone not have time to do the homework?” When someone, inevitably, admits they did not complete the homework, I immediately end the meeting, asking that it be rescheduled for a time when everyone is prepared. Such a delay happens only once at each company.
A few other things: I make it clear it’s ok to refuse an invitation if you feel you don’t need to be there. Just don’t cry later about the decisions that are made in your absence. Action items – which can only be assigned to those in attendance – should be reviewed and agreed at the end of the meeting. And, as Hastie points out, every meeting must end precisely on time. As he’d agree, one of the most precious things each employee has is his or her time.