Management and Board meetings are essential but expensive. Just multiply the salaries of all the participants for the duration of the meeting and you’re likely to get an astronomical figure. And that’s without factoring in other costs, such as the use of the boardroom, available services (catering, assistants, etc.) and the opportunity cost.
Yet, despite their high hourly cost, the reality is that they often seem interminable, sometimes lasting a whole morning, often the whole day and occasionally even continuing the next day! It’s not surprising that other employees comment admiringly on how busy their managers are, because they spend so long in these meetings. It’s assumed this is inevitable.
The reality it is neither inevitable nor justifiable. But it can be explained by several reasons:
Shelter and comfort. The board meetings are a good shelter. Managers generally feel comfortable in these meetings with their peers. Attending them prevents them having to face a diverse and problematic world. Furthermore, participating in board meetings is the best public display of their status within the organisation, so being there, reaffirms them psychologically and reaffirms their professional success.
Lack of preparation. Normally, either because it is not considered possible or just not required, these meetings are not well prepared. This is offset by the work done during the meeting itself.
An unspecific and changing agenda. The agenda of the meeting is loose and flexible, with generalities, alterations or items added at the last minute. The agenda is rarely associated with a tight schedule.
Socialisation. Because teamwork gurus have convinced us that it is important to have a friendly atmosphere, socialising and non-business conversations abound, from golf to football or plans for the weekend.
Lateness. As all participants have important responsibilities, last-minute problems frequently arise and the other managers are left waiting. They are invariably understanding, knowing that in a future meeting, it will be their turn to make the others wait.
Inefficient coordinator. To preserve a friendly atmosphere, the chairperson refrains from focussing participants on the subject of discussion. Thus all kinds of ramblings and thoughts on the subject are tolerated, rather than asking people not to beat around the bush.
The result is an endless meeting where when everyone is impatiently watching the clock. And they know that next week, the same situation will be repeated, unless they are lucky enough to be away on a trip.
A pessimistic scenario? Not at all. It’s what I’ve seen, with few exceptions, in the last 20 years in companies and organisations of all kinds, from multinationals to unions, from hospitals to family businesses. And I’ve seen this in northern Europe, the United States, southern Europe, Asia and Latin America.
But the reality is that it is perfectly possible (and healthy) to hold an effective board or management meeting that lasts just 30 minutes. Here are the most important factors:
1) A clear agenda
The agenda should be clear and concise, and distributed with enough time so that all participants can prepare the issues that concern them. It should also detail the presentation and discussion times for each item. By stating a start time for each item, all times are explicitly defined in the agenda.
The definition of schedules makes all participants aware that time is short and that they need to focus on what matters most. Moreover, it will be easier to monitor compliance with the timing.
The items on the agenda should be issues about which decisions need to be made or action needs to be agreed, as detailed in Section 4.
2) An effective chairperson
Someone needs to lead the meeting to ensure effectiveness and efficiency. It does not have to be the CEO or the Chairperson of the Board. It can be anyone vested with the authority to direct the meeting. Their task is to control the timing, reach consensus decisions and keep the Action Plan, a simple but key document that is described in the following section.
3) An Action Plan
Any legal or official records that need to be kept must not replace the Action Plan. This is an agile and visual document which controls if everything that is decided, is done. This document is one of the most important management tools. It should include concrete actions, responsibility and due dates.
The chairperson or coordinator must distribute the Action Plan to all participants immediately after the meeting, keeping it constantly updated, removing actions completed and including new emerging actions at each meeting.
The agenda should only include actions due for completion or follow up on the day of the meeting.
The meetings are not for discussing outstanding issues but to make decisions and assign the actions agreed to a responsible participant, or, if necessary, to assign the resolution of the issue to one of the participants. For decision-making, the person responsible must propose their solution and the participants may discuss it. However it is not efficient to discuss the different proposed solutions ad nauseum.
If scheduled actions have not been taken, the person responsible must explain why. One trick that pushes managers to carry out the actions planned is to colour unfulfilled actions in red. Nobody likes to appear in red on a management document widely distributed.
5) Make it priority
The agenda items are to be allocated time in fractions of five minutes. This encourages punctuality, and the attitude of the chairperson must be inflexible on this point, asking for explanations for lateness.
Any absence must be justifiable. Of course, the person with the highest authority in the meeting (CEO or Chairperson) must lead by example. When travel is inevitable, provision should be made at the previous meeting as to how the next meeting will proceed (replacement manager or participation by conference call).
When participants are located in multiple locations, face to face meeting are replaced by conference calls, but the same principles apply.
6) Get the right information
The quality of decisions depend on the quality of the information available. So it is very important to have strategic and management information that is timely and relevant.
It is necessary to define the goals to be achieved (whether strategic or performance), the relevant key indicators to measure compliance and the frequency which such information is required. Then the sources and channels are to be determined, so the information arrives in a timely manner to the meeting.
So, next time you’re sitting in a long management meeting, remember these points and start planning how you can change it.