leading team meetings - effective leaders listen in meetings and help team members listen to each another
leading team meetings - effective leaders listen in meetings and help team members listen to each another
leading team meetings - effective leaders listen in meetings and help team members listen to each another

Don't Hate Meetings, Make Them More Effective

Many meeting problems can be eliminated by choosing and using simple structures.

Business meetings are supposed to provide time to listen, learn, and make plans, but they can be stressful, demoralizing, and ineffectual. Common problems with meetings include no clear purpose, no clear outcome, rambling participants, personality conflicts, poor quality participation, late arrivals, early departures, and absenteeism.

When a meeting is your responsibility, its success or lack thereof reflects either well or poorly on your leadership effectiveness and your value to the organization. It's up to you to introduce structures likely to make meetings productive--or to assume the risk of sponsoring mediocre or regrettable experiences.

The following three tools can help you give your meetings a built-in structure for effectiveness:
an agenda plan;
an internal facilitator; and
an external facilitator.


This section was written by Bruce Wilson, a Seattle-based coach who helps business professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs improve their return on personal effort in business, with input from Donna Karlin, an executive/observational coach from Ottawa, Canada with expertise in "shadow coaching" executive-level leaders.

Using an Agenda Plan (like Donna Karlin's adaptation of the Rickover method)

An agenda plan can radically improve business meetings, especially when you want a meeting to be short and to end with specific people assigned to specific tasks. Combined with a policy of consistent attendance and firm starting/ending times, an agenda plan solves most of the common problems mentioned above.

Donna Karlin, executive coach and leadership development specialist from Ottawa, Ontario, put together an agenda plan template with these goals in mind, based on the standard procedure for meetings used by Admiral Hyman Rickover. Donna's blank form can be downloaded from her web site using this link.


Do a self-audit: ask the people you work with for their feedback about the meetings your organization typically has. Ask them what they currently like about your meetings and what they think would make your meetings better. After conducting this audit, it may become clear that one of these three tools will help you.

The basic Rickover agenda has five columns. The first shows the time at which each item is to be discussed, and the second lists the items themselves. The other columns start out blank. During the meeting, in the third column is written the decision made for each item--Rickover used Y for Yes, N for No, or H for Hold. In the fourth column is written the name of the person responsible for completing that item. In the fifth column is written the deadline for completing the assignment.

Time Item Decision Person Deadline

Creating an agenda plan beforehand helps define the steps that must be taken during the meeting to make it worthwhile. Circulating an agenda plan before the meeting helps attendees get prepared to make efficient use of meeting time. Sticking to an agenda plan during the meeting keeps participants focused on specific issues. Filling in the blanks for each agenda item as they are decided gives responsibility for results to specific people in a specific time frame. Circulating the agenda plan (now minutes of the meeting) afterwards helps remind attendees and inform others about decisions made and responsibilities and deadlines assigned.

Potential disadvantages of using an agenda plan. Certain problem-solving meetings don't lend themselves to an agenda plan, particularly those where parties are in conflict or are grappling with unexpected or unfamiliar situations, or those that don't begin with detailed objectives and won't necessarily generate detailed assignments to carry out. Such meetings may benefit more from using a facilitator who can help sort things out in the moment, as discussed below. However, a facilitator may be used in combination with an agenda plan.

Using an Internal Facilitator

An internal facilitator is someone from within your organization, either someone already planning to attend a particular meeting or attending it specifically to facilitate, who coordinates and focuses participation while discouraging distractions. A facilitator acts like an air traffic controller, helping people stay on the assigned flight path by keeping the meeting from getting diverted by off-topic discussions or personality issues.

A facilitator is especially valuable in meetings about complex situations, where dissimilar people are being brought together, or where tension or conflict are expected. A facilitator can also be used in combination with the agenda plan described above.

Anyone can facilitate a meeting, including the leader or a member of the group that is meeting. But whoever they are, to be effective the facilitator and the other participants must understand the facilitator's role and agree to assist. The facilitator's role is to remind participants as the meeting opens, and as needed thereafter, to stick to the agreed upon topic and/or format for the meeting. This includes interrupting participants who are rambling, off topic, or exchanging personal attacks with other participants, and asking them to return to the topic and format of the meeting.

By comparison to Robert's Rules of Order or other parliamentary procedures, facilitation has many advantages as a structural element for meetings because facilitation keeps meetings on track with simplicity and flexibility while avoiding unnecessary formalities and flourishes.


Leading by coaching, disussed at length in the leadership and teams topic of businessLISTENING.com, is sometimes called "facilitative leadership" or "facilitative management".

In high conflict situations a facilitator can be essential to bring parties together and set them up to succeed in solving problems. See the businessLISTENING.com section on the role of the facilitator in conflict resolution for more information.

Potential disadvantages of internal facilitation. A facilitator's attempt to "wear two hats" by both facilitating and participating during the same meeting can backfire if the facilitator's impartiality is important to the success of the meeting. A supposedly neutral facilitator risks sacrificing credibility, and thus effectiveness, if she even temporarily advocates or shows preference for any particular viewpoint or recommendation during the meeting. Although this could reduce the effectiveness of a facilitator in any meeting, it can be devastating in high-conflict meetings if the would-be facilitator is perceived to be abusing her position to give unfair advantage to one side. However, if in a low-conflict meeting an internal facilitator must step out of her neutral role in order to provide essential information, the group may accept her dual role if she first asks permission to temporarily take off her facilitator's hat, then makes clear when she resumes the facilitator role.

You can learn to facilitate by studying basics then practicing in actual meetings. If you want to learn more about basic meeting facilitation we recommend reading Michael Doyle and David Straus , How to Make Meetings Work (Berkley Pub Group , 1993 [reprint edition]) (>Amazon.com). To learn to facilitate simple workplace conflicts, we recommend reading Daniel Dana, Conflict Resolution (McGraw-Hill, 2001) (>Amazon.com). Between the two you will find nearly everything most people need to know to begin effectively facilitating workplace meetings. You may also want to consider working with a coach or trainer.

Using an External Facilitator

External facilitation can be essential for meetings between people who are in conflict with one another, who are from diverse backgrounds, or who face complex problems. In theory an external facilitator can help any meeting run smoothly, but they may be seen as intrusive or an unnecessary expenditure if their presence isn't required.

External facilitation is critical from a business standpoint if progress is being blocked by the complexity of a problem or if a conflict threatens to cause long term damage to important business relationships.

If you choose to call upon an external facilitator, take the time and spend the money to bring in someone with proven ability. Skilled mediator-facilitators are available almost everywhere. For a relatively small fee they can make a big difference to the bottom line by helping groups arrive at superior solutions.

Disadvantages of external facilitation. You must find room in your budget for an external facilitator's fee and for the time it may take to set up a productive meeting--although the cost may be far lower than the consequences of doing without.


Don't tolerate poorly structured meetings that waste your organization's precious resources of time, information, and motivation. Experiment with meeting tools such as the ones discussed in this section to make your meetings more effective.






For further reading. As discussed above, to learn more about basic meeting facilitation we recommend Michael Doyle and David Straus , How to Make Meetings Work (Berkley Pub Group , 1993 [reprint edition]) (>Amazon.com). To learn to facilitate simple workplace conflicts, we recommend Daniel Dana, Conflict Resolution (McGraw-Hill, 2001) (>Amazon.com).

by Bruce Wilson with Donna Karlin


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