From good to great strategy meetings

Immediately after taking over as chief executive officer of Google in 2011, Larry Page sent out a company-wide email. The subject of the email: how to run meetings effectively. Among his tips was the advice that every meeting should have a decision-maker. Even more importantly, Page said that one might not need a meeting after all. “No decision should ever wait for a meeting,” the e-mail reads. “If a meeting absolutely has to happen before a decision should be made, then the meeting should be scheduled immediately.”

On the other hand, if you are working at Facebook, be prepared to welcome COO Sheryl Sandberg to a meeting with a notebook and a list of discussion points. She herself carries one with her to every meeting. Her notebook has a list of discussion points and action items. A Fortune article reported that she crosses off the items one by one during the meeting, and once every item on a page is checked, she tears the page off and moves to the next. The report also said that if all the items on her list are attended to 10 minutes into a meeting, the meeting is deemed over.

The thing is this: meetings take up a huge amount of corporate time but a large majority of them, say analysts, fail to deliver thanks to sloppy agendas, inarticulated ground rules and other structural mistakes. One needs to remember that while over the years, expectations from business meetings – quarterly targets, new product launch planning, channel partner meetings, etc – have not changed much, there has been a sea change in the way these meetings are conducted. This is because during uncertain times, faster decision-making can help companies stay ahead of their competitors or at times, it is the only key to survival. Many years ago, when Amazon found the elevators in its Seattle headquarters rather slow, whiteboards were installed inside those, so that meetings could be held while travelling from one floor to another. Today India’s leading e-commerce company Flipkart has writing boards along the walls in its office, so that meetings could be done while walking around.

The Strategist conducted a dipstick among 10 India Inc chiefs to understand what determines the success of business meetings. Be it in a large multinational or a start-up, the effectiveness of a meeting depends on the leader who presides over it. Next, our survey also revealed while there is no dearth of tools and apps to track the progress of meetings, these are mere enablers. The best way to get more out of a meeting is to set the agenda clearly, limit it to the key stakeholders and do thorough homework and follow-through. Here, four business leaders share how they schedule meetings, the technologies they use to make them more effective and that help them fast-track their meetings and, most importantly, how they prepare for these meetings.

Meeting = decisionmaking

> Schedule: I attend 20 to 25 meetings in a week. This includes meetings with Motorola’s regional teams from the US and Europe, interactions with function heads in India and other meetings with our channel partners.

> Meeting mantra: After setting the agenda for a meeting, clear timeline is established outlining the duration assigned to each participant for sharing inputs and presenting counter arguments.

These details are shared while sending meeting invites to all the participants. This procedure ensures that our meetings are concluded within stipulated time periods.

The other important part of our meeting culture is the way we hold individuals and not functions accountable for not meeting set targets. For example, we are currently gearing up for the launch of Moto E (Gen 2). Typically, we have a checklist to ensure that everything falls in place before the day of launch. Let us assume that the brand team is not ready with a particular piece of communication related to the launch. In this case, the concerned person who is assigned this job within a function will be questioned. With this approach, we avoid cross-functional wars between function heads and save time. ]

Of late we have also changed our approach towards problem-solving. I encourage my direct reports to sift through multiple solutions and present only the top 3 best ones during meetings.

Interactions with our channel partner have also become crisper. While we interact with our exclusive channel partner Flipkart informally a number of times in a week, monthly meetings with their operations team are crucial.

> Enabler: I swear by Google Docs. This software office suite allows users to create and edit documents online while collaborating with other users in real-time.

General manager, Motorola Mobility, India

Learn to pull the trigger

> Schedule: My business meetings can be divided into three broad categories. The first comprises team meetings in which the product management team tracks how we are moving towards our set targets. Second, we have fortnightly meetings conducted for 30 minutes with 10 of my direct reports. The last set of meetings is ad-hoc or meetings that are meant to address issues related to specific projects.

> Meeting mantra: Before every meeting, I believe in establishing the agenda well in advance. The run up to the meeting involves sharing content with all the participants. This is done either via email or by posting information on our internal social network. I am careful about the time spent on a particular meeting and the number of participants. While I block 30 minutes for team meetings, I try and wrap things up in 20 minutes. Then, any meeting that has more than five participants is a waste of time as more people can create confusion. Besides, as we work with global teams, it is crucial to keep a track of multiple time zones.

The fate of any meeting lies not only in the hands of the person who is leading it, but a lot depends on how fast the participants react to the decisions taken. For example, recently I created a team of four to work on a new project. Interestingly, other stakeholders in the company who were not a part of this team expressed interest in sharing inputs. I asked the team to schedule a meeting with everyone who wanted to add value to our project. While the meeting started on the right note, it soon turned into an interrogation scene. The dedicated team was asked questions related to project’s feasibility. Now this was not what we wanted to achieve. We decided to end the meeting by thanking everyone in the room for their contribution.

Enablers: At SAP we use Adobe Connect, an enterprise web conferencing software solution for secure web meetings, eLearning and webinars.

Vice-president, Application innovation group, SAP

Be informed and grounded

> Schedule: On an average, I have 18 formal business meetings and around 20 informal ones lined up every week.

> Meeting mantra: Meetings – at least the effective ones – for me fall into one of the three categories:

* Brainstorming
* Updates or follow-ups
* The ones in which decisions are made.

Regardless of what level in the organisation we are all in, our individual and collective time is valuable and comes at an opportunity cost. Now I am not a big fan of meetings for the sake of meetings. Regardless of which of the three categories the meeting falls under, I like my meetings short, task-oriented with well-established goals.

One type of meeting that I thoroughly enjoy and take very seriously are the ones where I spend time with the line teams of engineers, ground staff and crew. The objective behind these meetings is to understand the challenges faced by our employees in their day-to-day work. This involves sharing home-cooked food, loading the bags into the cargo hold, cleaning the aircraft, taking customer service calls, spending time at check-in counters etc. By doing this, I learn a lot more about what they go through and bond with them. This is personally very critical for me to be an informed and grounded leader.

Lastly, related to the aforementioned type of meeting is one where you know that a member in your team just needs to be listened to or needs feedback/mentoring or coaching. Many a times, it is not so much about what they want to say, but the fact that they just want to be heard. These are some of the most difficult meetings as you really need to invest yourself into the conversation, no matter how busy your schedule is. The best coaches are the ones who can suspend their own biases and agendas and genuinely help their subordinates arrive at their own answers as opposed to telling them what to do.

Enablers: My iPhone is the best organiser for meetings.

CEO, AirAsia India

Junk that meeting agenda, be flexible

> Schedule: We have our internal staff meetings and client meetings on a weekly basis. Then, we also meet with our private clients on the phone several times a week. Some of them are CEOs and other C-level executives who call us to talk through their leadership situations. Other clients include job-seekers or people in mid-career reinvention stage who would like our help with their branding and career strategy projects.

> Meeting mantra: When our team meets, we have an agenda but we do not allow that agenda to lock us in. For instance, if there is something important for us to talk about at the meeting – a topic that emerges during the conversation, but was not included in the original meeting agenda – we switch our focus mid-meeting. We do not let the agenda rule our discussion, because if we did that, we might skip an important discussion that we really need to have, whether it is a discussion about upcoming stories for publication, our products and services, or a particular client situation.

Many of our popular virtual courses arose from discussions that had nothing to do with product development originally. We came up with the idea for our popular course ‘Get a Job No Matter What Boot Camp’ when one of our team members said, “What is our advice for someone who says, ‘I don’t have time for reinvention. I don’t have the time to think about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I just need a job now.'” That discussion was completely unexpected, but it gave birth to one of our most popular courses.

Getting more out of meetings will always be work in progress. When we meet with entrepreneurs, they are always eager to show us a demo of their product or service, right away. Earlier we used to sit through the demo and take notes, and then talk to the entrepreneur and sometimes his or her team afterwards. We always started our meetings with the same question: What problem are you trying to solve for your customers? Over time we realised that it was silly to have a demo before we understood what problem a new product or service had been designed to solve. So, we flipped our process and put the conversation ahead of the demo. Our brains can go off in all kinds of directions and give us new insights when we allow. If we are ruled by a meeting agenda and fixed time slots, only allowing for discussions of deep, weighty topics, we hurt ourselves.

When meetings are boring, no one’s creative brain is turned on. I have sat in meetings that were so boring I was literally trying to remember the names of the kids in my third-grade class. There is no reason for business meetings to be sleep-inducing. We have to raise the trust level on our teams and allow people to say, “Can we talk about this topic that is on my mind, that I think is important, rather than spending this meeting talking about a detail that frankly doesn’t make any difference to our success, whatever the decision is?”

> Enabler: We don’t use any software in conjunction with our meetings. In terms of tools, we use a plain whiteboard. We draw all the time. All of us draw – not just me. Lots of people know my drawings, but drawing is fundamental to the Human Workplace creative process.

CEO, Human Workplace