VITAL SIGNS: Agenda bender

VITAL SIGNS: Agenda bender - Meetings are hell. That great leader of the Western business/industrial world Archie Norman conducts all meetings standing up. It gets people to the point and quarters average meeting times. But dysfunctional, dishonest and de

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU, e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Meetings are hell. That great leader of the Western business/industrial world Archie Norman conducts all meetings standing up. It gets people to the point and quarters average meeting times. But dysfunctional, dishonest and depressing meetings still happen. And the happiness, transparency, bonding and empowerment movements make it worse. More meetings.

Bad meetings proliferate. For me, the warning signs of an awful meeting are either leaden eyelids ('Why couldn't a troll do this; we shouldn't be wasting our time on it') or mounting fury ('You're trying to bounce us into rubber-stamping your mad/self-glorifying/hopeless plan') or despair ('We should hold this in the pub for all the clear decisions we'll get out of it').

There are meetings called by people who really, really like meetings. Calling meetings gives them a role - particularly when it's a meeting about a meeting, a 'how should we play this?' when the issue is easily decided in five minutes by the water cooler. But for mediocre managers, process mania (a form of control freakery) goes under the new banner of transparency and consensus.

For the chairman, there's a different kind of hell. There are those attending who just talk to be heard. There are the secret agenda point-scorers who start off with a reasonable-sounding question that rapidly turns into crazed sniping. Anything that leads to that awful moment when you say 'I've lost them, they've gone feral' is hell.

But, hellish as they are, meetings are hugely important. Yet the seriously clever, good and hard-working often so hate the politicking and the time-wasting that they perform badly or find ways to cut out of them altogether.

A brilliant, painfully honest woman I know used to hunch up, gently banging her forehead on the table, in utter despair. She fainted once in her corporation's executive committee preparatory wind-up in Milan - and then asked to be excused meetings for ever.

But this righteous disinclination to meetings leaves the field wide open to the Machiavellian and the mediocre. Ask around about, say, those politicians who've risen without trace, with no discernible conviction or talent, and you'll often find they are brilliant meeting-fixers. So you've got to learn how. And it is a learnt skill - the agenda-fixing, the preparatory deal, the boning-up on rules and etiquette, the timing conventions and all the wild obsessions and nutty blood feuds pulsing under the surface.

You have to think about your going-in position, your role in this particular bit of acting-out. One captain of industry has a simple golden rule about any committee situation: be the maverick or the chairman. As an inspired maverick you're so threatening you can become the next chairman if you want to. If you don't, you can still achieve your short-term goal and resign gloriously, leaving everyone else feeling slow-witted. That takes real confidence, but there are a mass of lower-risk positioning strategies if you just think them through.

Whether you're chairman or maverick, expert or eminence, you have to get your hands on the agenda, to stop it being blanded out by the mediocrities or fixed by the fixers. If there's something you really know or care about, you've got to make sure it's properly tabled. And then you must be sure of the outcome you want. However passionate you feel, however informed you are, keep it simple, set down the options and describe how - and when - to decide on them. People who care are often marginalised by their passions. Sit down and rehearse, if you feel you're going to get carried away.

Learning meeting skills is particularly important for women getting through those glass ceilings. Good women managers often start off by despising the politicking and positioning, the machismo of formal meetings. They worry about positioning themselves as shrew or handmaiden ('Could you take the minutes, Diana?'), about being loud enough or deep enough, about rolling with the jokes and, most of all, about letting those anxieties show.

But the very best women managers learn to use meetings and run them brilliantly, not as male impersonators or substitute mums but as emotionally intelligent chairs who get to the real issues fast, feeling tolerably warm and wet about your fellow members too.

You're right to hate meetings, that's why you'll feel so much better when you've grasped the nettle, hugged the gorilla - and kissed a few frogs too.

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