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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Aug 7, 2020


The amount of time leaders spend in meetings has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. But so too, thankfully, has our understanding of what makes a meeting effective. It’s time to have better (and fewer) meetings now!



Hello and welcome to episode 89 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at ways to have better (and fewer) meetings now!

Over the past 50 years, the average amount of time leaders spend in meetings has steadily increased from below 10 hours per week in the 1960s to now approaching 23 hours per week. And the recent proliferation of video conferencing has removed the travel time between meetings altogether. We can now move from meeting to meeting without even leaving our desk. As a result, many of the clients I am working with describe an increase in meetings with remote working, and the associated demands that places on their time.

Research into the attitudes of senior managers towards meetings identifies 65% of people who see meetings getting in the way of completing work. A similar percentage, 64%, see meetings being at the expense of deep concentration work. It’s hard to get into the flow if you have meetings scheduled every other hour. 

Other research by Desmond Leach and colleagues looked into the factors that lead meetings to be rated as effective by participants. They examined a range of factors including the use of an agenda, keeping minutes, punctuality, the appropriateness and comfort of the room facilities, the number of attendees, the length of the meetings and the use of a chairperson. Of all of these, they found the three most important factors were:

  1. Agenda use - distributing an agenda ahead of time, sticking to it during the meeting and completing all the items on the agenda

  2. Punctuality - both starting and finishing the meeting on time

  3. Facilities - having an appropriate room that is setup well, and that is comfortable and quiet

The researchers noted that these three factors are important independent of the type of meeting. So whether the meeting is for routine issues, information sharing, or emerging problems the three key factors are agenda, punctuality and facilities.

Of course with so many meetings now occurring online, it’s easy to translate the meeting room facilities finding across to the technology platforms we are using. When we are meeting online, the technology is the setting. Video conferencing software continues to improve dramatically, but does call for a different skill set to be used effectively. If you have used a particularly clunky platform, you know how detrimental that can be to the meeting, independent of the agenda and punctuality. What I call ‘mixed mode meetings’ are particularly challenging - where you have some people individually online, and others sitting together in a room or across several rooms. It’s extremely difficult to maintain a balance between the two types of meeting attendees. It’s for that reason that I recommend either having everyone in the same room, or having everyone individually online, but don’t mix the two unless you have the high end technology to pull that off.

Bringing all of that together, here are five ways to have better (and fewer) meetings now:

  1. Begin by asking “Does this need to be a meeting?”  Meetings are most effective when you need real time interaction, where people are Interdependent and generating new ideas. Being in the same place at the same time allows people to build on others ideas in real time. It’s also appropriate to call people together for celebrations, milestones and recognition. However, if it is one-way information sharing or updates without discussion, switch it to another format using video, email or collaboration software. There’s no need to have everyone together at the same time for information sharing.

  2. Set some shared expectations for those scheduling and facilitating meetings. Some organisations require a meeting to have a clear purpose and agenda before it can be scheduled. In addition I would look carefully at the attendee list in terms of the role each person is expected to play in the meeting. If you can’t identify why someone is required, then save them the bother and don’t invite them. The excuse of inviting people ‘just in case something comes up’ is not a good enough reason to eat into their time. It’s a lazy way to lead.

  3. Make meetings shorter. Parkinson’s law states that work will expand to fill the time available, and the same is true of meetings. Yet suspiciously few meetings are scheduled for less than an hour in length. Why not give a 20 or 30 minute meeting a go. And make sure you complete the agenda. Desmond Leach’s research demonstrates that people become particularly frustrated when a long meeting doesn’t complete the agenda.

  4. Start and finish on time. Punctuality really matters to people. I’ve seen some organisations that are brilliant at this, with everyone ready to go at the appointed time. Unfortunately, for every one of those organisations, there are others where people routinely arrive 5, 10 or 15 minutes late - with the person chairing the meeting simply waiting for everyone to arrive. That’s a great way to encourage people to arrive even later next time.

  5. Look for improvements. It’s important to leave time at the end of the agenda to reflect on the effectiveness of the meeting. That might include discussing what we did well and what we need to improve. 

We all need connection and collaboration. Following these research-based tips will help ensure you’re only having the meetings that really matter, and that we’re making the most of the investment of people’s time and energy.

While I have your attention can I please ask you a favour. If you haven’t already, please provide a rating or review wherever you download your podcasts. There’s a reason why every podcast host asks you to do it, as it really does help others to find the podcast. Have a great week, and I look forward to sharing some more practical leadership research with you next week. 



Stop the Meeting Madness. Leslie A. Perlow , Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun, Harvard Business Review July–August 2017

Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics. Desmond J. Leach, Steven G. Rogelberg, Peter B. Warr, Jennifer L. Burnfield, Journal of Business Psychology, 2009 24:65–76.