Running productive meetings

Meetings are a large part of any CEO’s working life, with many CEOs spending more than half of their working hours in meetings of some kind. Equally, however, many CEOs have the feeling meetings could be made more productive: according to one Bain survey, 85% of executives surveyed are dissatisfied with the effectiveness and efficiency of the meetings in their companies. asked Dale Cottrell, Managing Partner at Bain & Co, how CEOs can make meetings more effective, and what his personal experience has been.


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OrganizationDecision EffectivenessPerformance Culture What are some of the ways CEOs can make meetings in their companies more effective and/or efficient?

Dale Cottrell: The first thing they can do is eliminate unnecessary meetings. Some meetings are aimed at making a decision, but some are not, and it is this latter category of meetings that you want to eliminate from your calendar. These kind of meetings might be serving other purposes, such as keeping people informed, but you can probably find more effective ways of achieving that without having the meeting.

The second thing is that, when you have a meeting, everyone present should be clear about the purpose of the meeting. You can do this in very simple ways, e.g. by making sure that each meeting begins with a clear statement about the purpose of the meeting, so everyone focuses accordingly. Meeting agendas, too, should reflect this purpose, and highlight the key decisions that need to be made.

Another important task is to make sure the right people – and only the right people – attend a meeting. Some people, whom we jokingly call ‘business tourists’ attend meetings for non-instrumental reasons – for status, to feel ‘in the loop’ etc – but this just makes meetings more unwieldy to manage. As a general rule, the smaller the meeting, the more productive the meeting is likely to be. We have a ‘rule of seven’: every person added to a decision-making group over seven reduces effectiveness by 10%. Sometimes larger meetings are necessary, of course, but you should be wary of them.

A final tip is to make sure meetings have real consequences. People get demoralized, for instance, if meetings fizzle out and never reach a decision, or worse, do make a decision that never gets followed up. A simple tool to apply here is a decision log, which is a record of all decisions made within a meeting, to make sure they do get subsequently communicated to the organization and executed. As you point out, many people enjoy meetings regardless of their effectiveness, as they provide a sense of camaraderie, shared purpose and status. Can a CEO expect ‘push back’ if they do make substantial changes to the meeting culture within an organization?

DC: Yes, we jokingly say some people can suffer from ‘meeting withdrawal’ symptoms. Because they rely on meetings to organize their day, they can feel a bit bereft if the number of meetings they need to attend is reduced. They may also feel their status within the organization has been diminished.

In this situation, it is up to the CEO and other senior executives to communicate clearly to the organization why these changes are being made.

Basically, that means setting people’s expectations on meetings, i.e. that they will, most likely, be attending fewer of them in the future and, when they do attend them, they are likely to find them more productive than in the past. The CEO also needs to set a personal example, and, where possible, limit the number of meetings they are personally attending to those meetings that are truly decision-making meetings. Where the CEO is leading a meeting, they can also do things like asking ‘Does everyone have to be here?’ to reinforce the message about meeting attendance. The CEO can also role model new required meeting-related behaviours, like explicitly focusing on purpose, clarifying expectations of each attendee, and ensuring meeting follow-ups via decision logs etc. Sometimes other executives want their CEO to attend a meeting as a kind of visible statement of commitment to a particular initiative. How do you suggest a CEO resist that kind of pressure to attend meetings?

DC: Once again a decision perspective can be helpful here. What decisions does the CEO need to be involved in personally and what decisions are so important that, even if he or she doesn’t need to be directly involved, would benefit significantly from a “CEO presence”. We typically see CEOs pick just a few areas which they really want to get behind in a major way. These include the key strategic imperatives for the firm as well as select areas, such as a new focus on sustainability, which need extra support to overcome early resistance. Any CEO will also know that it’s critical to develop broader-based support for key initiatives so should discuss with those asking who else it’s important to get on board as a leader for a particular topic. Another issue with meeting effectiveness that some researchers have documented is that discussion between like-minded people can actually end up with the group taking a more extreme position on an issue than they otherwise would have individually. A related problem is that executives may find themselves agreeing with the most powerful person in the room, out of political expedience, and/or seen as being a ‘team player’. How can meetings be run most effectively to ensure these problems are minimized?

DC: The danger of like-mindedness is well documented and so hopefully easy to avoid. The best medicine is to ensure that your leadership team is diverse from the outset, including people from different geographies, functions, social backgrounds, genders, etc. Other tricks are to appoint someone formally to act as the devil’s advocate, ensuring the difficult questions are asked. Or to reframe the decision from the one most people would lean to. In the Challenger disaster, the group was asked to decide if it was definitively unsafe to launch. Framing the question as ‘is it definitively safe’ to launch might have avoided the group-think that led to disaster.

Getting past the ‘powerful personality’ syndrome can be tricky. Part of it is ensuring people are clear from the start who's playing what role in the decision (our RAPID® decision roles tool can be helpful), so if the powerful person is “just an I” they and others will know it from the start. The person running the meeting also plays a key role in ensuring this doesn’t happen, usually, for example, by systematically asking each person to give their views.