Keys to Effective Meetings

Most managers deal with two basic types of meetings – team meetings (those with only members of your team) and organizational meetings that may involve people from outside of your team. The good news is that the keys to running great meetings are mostly the same for both types.

Before determining when to meet, ask yourself what the objective of the meeting is. Some common reasons why people meet in work situations are:

  • To stay informed of key organizational issues
  • To learn more about each other’s work
  • To discuss and collaborate on work tasks that are common to the attendees
  • To plan for the future
  • To address an emergent issue or challenge

So, what is the purpose of your meeting? Understanding this will have an impact on your meeting in a number of ways. For example, if it’s to stay informed on key organizational issues, then you may need to invite representatives from other areas to speak at your meeting. If it’s to discuss and collaborate on work tasks, then you will need to ensure that there is enough time to do that, and that all of the required information is (to the extent possible) available to the group in the meeting.

If you are unable to sum up in less than a couple of sentences the purpose of the meeting, then you may want to reconsider why you are calling the meeting in the first place.

Team Meetings

It has become common practice for teams to meet regularly in order to stay connected with each other’s work, and also as a forum for collective discussion and problem solving. This is a practice we encourage, so long as the meeting is about the work and that the meeting doesn’t become the work. There is certainly a value for all of the members of your team to learn more about what each other is doing. The fact that they are on the same team suggests that there are some common threads, goals or objectives to all of the team members’ work.

But how much detail does each person need from the other team members? What information is actually useful to share, and what information is really a waste of people’s time? One of the most common problems in team meetings is ‘oversharing,’ where people go into incredible detail on the topic that is most relevant to them, forcing others to listen to the minutiae. Worse still, unless something is said, it sends a signal to the next person that this is an appropriate level of detail. So, not to be outdone, the next person also launches into exquisite detail on a specific project and so the process becomes self-reinforcing.

Controlling this ‘detail creep’ takes strong leadership from the person running the meeting, and may often require them to step in and stop someone from giving too much information. One of the best ways we have seen to do this is to have the meeting leader go first (this can be hard for many team leaders as intuitively they don’t want to go first) and model the level of detail that is appropriate.

It’s important to understand the function of team meetings just like you would at any other meeting you convene. If you can’t easily say why you are having the meeting, you may need to re-evaluate.

Project or Workgroup Meetings

In some cases, it’s not the intact team that you lead for which you are arranging meetings, it’s a project or a workgroup. While the majority of the best practices around the meetings still apply, there are some additional considerations. Depending on the project in question, you may have to meet more often than you would for a team meeting. You may also feel (correctly) that you have less authority over the project team than you might for your own work team. Even so, as a leader, it’s important that you stick to the best practices of leading meetings. 

When you first start working with the project or workgroup, collectively agree on how often you should meet. Also discuss how agendas will be compiled and circulated, and what needs to happen if someone cannot attend a meeting. You may instinctively know when a member of your team will not be able to attend a team meeting, but project groups can be more disparate, and you may not know about someone’s absence from the meeting until the actual meeting itself (which can be frustrating if there are items about which that individual was to speak).

Also very important, and perhaps more so than for team meetings, are ground rules (discussed later) that define what behaviors are acceptable at the project meetings. We say more important because teams often establish norms of behavior as they go about their regular work, which project or work teams may not have the opportunity to do. Additionally, going through a process of defining ground rules at the beginning of the project can be a great way of building understanding and communication between members of the project team.

As with team meetings, follow-up on action items is very important, but again, project teams that are dispersed, and over which you have no formal authority, can present real challenges. Agree at the outset what the tracking process will be for tasks and issues. Here is a great opportunity to leverage technology and utilize an online project site.

Keys to Running an Effective Meeting

Many books have been written on running meetings, and some are certainly worth reading. But the most basic principles of best practices can be distilled down to a few key points, which are covered here. These key points are scheduling, agendas, and minutes/action points. While there are lots of other things you can do to make meetings more effective, getting these three basic things right every time will have a significant impact on your effectiveness. Running effective meetings is one management leadership skill that will get you noticed – and as you will know from your own experience, they are things that are often overlooked.


Impromptu meetings might work if you have a small or very well connected group, but most meetings are scheduled in advance. In some cases, you may not have a chance to pick an optimum time, and in others you may have to take what’s available, but a few tips are:

  • Avoid right at the beginning or the very end of the work day – people often use time first thing in their day to catch up on emails or what’s been happening, and at the end of the day/shift people are often tired and eager to go home.
  • Friday afternoon’s are particularly bad, and before long weekends are about the worst time possible.
  • Right after lunch might seem like a good idea, but research shows that people are less attentive immediately after a meal.

Whatever time you end up scheduling your meeting, be sure to let people know well ahead of time, and also be certain that people know where the meeting will be, or how to connect to the meeting with teleconference or videoconference instructions, numbers, and passcodes.


There are very few meetings that will not benefit from having a formalized agenda. Whenever possible, circulate the agenda ahead of time so that people know what will be discussed during the meeting. If there is ‘pre-reading’ to the agenda items, be sure to circulate that as early as possible as well. The closer to the meeting time and date that you circulate the pre-reading, the less likely that it will actually be read.

You can think of agenda items in two ways – information or decision. Information items are those that involve someone sharing information, and perhaps some discussion. Decision items are those that require the group to come to a decision about.

Resist the temptation to ‘fill the time’ on an agenda, and instead look for the most efficient way to cover the material needed. If you end up with less agenda items than the time you have allocated, simply finish the meeting early. No-one will complain.

Many teams or groups find that they don’t get through all agenda items at a meeting and thus ‘bring forward’ the items at the next meeting. The problem is that after a while there is such a backlog of items brought forward that there is no space for new items. Items brought forward should be a major red flag to the leader. They can indicate a couple of conditions:
  1. There are too many items on the agenda for the time allotted.
  2. Too much time is being spent on items.
  3. Meetings may not be long enough or often enough.
Brought forward items are a great starting point for a discussion with the group on how it might be possible to work on the format and structure of meetings. They are an indication that the group is not getting the work done that they need to in the meetings, and so alternatives should be sought.
Minutes or Action Points?

Minutes from a meeting can vary between a word-for-word account of proceedings to a simple point form. Either way, someone has to take them and that someone is not likely to be able to participate fully in the meeting – they will be too busy taking notes.

Detailed minutes may seem like a good idea, and there are certainly times when they are essential, but for many meetings, the outcomes, summarized as Action Points, can be all that is needed. Creating Action Points is simple. As you close off the topic, simply make a note of what was decided and who is going to do what as a result of the discussion. This summary can then be distributed after the meeting, and checked at the beginning of the next meeting to provide continuity in resolving agenda items.

Distractions and Disruptors

Meetings can be hard enough to function effectively without having to deal with things like a ringing cell-phone complicating proceedings. There are so many potential distractions in meetings that it’s impossible to name them all here, but to give you an idea of what we are referring to here are some of our favorites:

  • Side conversations
  • People on their phones
  • People using Instant Messaging on notebooks or laptops
  • People arriving late to the meeting

One of the easiest ways to get around the problem of these distractions is to set Ground Rules with a group when you first meet. This is somewhat easier for an intact group (such as at team meetings or at project group that meets on a consistent basis), but can be done for any kind of group. By calling for people to suggest behaviors that they are not comfortable with in the group, you can get everyone’s acceptance before you start. Have a few ground rules in your back pocket so that you can get the group started and don’t be timid about suggesting some of your own pet peeves for the list. Some of the most basic ground rules that appear over and over again in the groups we work with are:

  • Turn off cellphones
  • Be on time
  • Be present
  • No sidebar conversations
  • Respect other people’s viewpoints and perspectives

As well as defining the Ground Rules, you should also determine what to do if people break them. One of the most effective ways we have found to deal with transgressions of the Ground Rules is to say that anyone in the group can call it – not just the meeting leader.

In addition to these distractions, there are also what we call ‘disruptors.’ These disruptors refer to behaviors in meetings such as taking too much air time, interrupting others, and taking the group off topic.

Disruptors are a little harder to deal with as they tend to show up as visible demonstrations of an individual’s underlying behavior. For example, the person who interrupts others in meetings is also likely to do the same thing in other interactions. The person who is confrontational to others in meetings, is also likely to be doing the same thing outside of meetings, too.

As the leader of a team it’s your responsibility to deal with this disruptive behavior, and your other team members will be expecting you to do so. There are many ways to deal with the issue, and that’s beyond the scope of this article. For more information, refer to our resources on Coaching in the Workplace, Resolving Conflict, and Performance Management. Suffice it to say here that if you have individuals in your meetings that are being disruptive, the situation is unlikely to improve on its own. It’s up to you to take action.

Beyond Team or Project Meetings

We started out in this article by talking about the kind of meetings that you are likely to have on a daily or weekly basis – those with a team or a project group. But often you will need to schedule longer or more complex events such as a strategic planning sessions, working groups, or strategy meetings. Many of the points we have already covered still apply – you should still have an agenda, be clear about the purpose of the meeting, and ensure that you have some kind of record keeping process. But there are some additional factors to consider. For example:

Consider the venue – off-site meetings are a way of getting people away from the workplace so that they can focus on the task at hand, but in today’s uber-connected world, going to a conference center 10 miles out of town is not likely to hamper people’s ability (or desire) to answer emails or check in with the office.

If the session is likely to be very complex, or you would like to participate fully in the session, consider using a facilitator. The facilitator should be able to help you with the planning of your event (not the catering or the room, but what you cover in the session, and how best to work on the material), as well as run the actual meeting, leaving you free to take part with your group. 

Something else to consider when planning longer events is that, unless you keep things varied and switch up activities and topics, people may find it difficult to stay engaged. Think back to some of the long meeting-like events that you have been to in the course of your career and you will likely have some thoughts about what you might be able to do to make the session more effective.

With a little bit of thought and planning, meetings can go from being something people dread to effective and productive uses of everyones time!

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