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E240 | Creating Effective and Engaging Meetings with Mamie K. Stewart

Have you ever felt that you were wasting your time in a meeting? When we ask clients this question, all hands go up. Yet, everybody seems clear on what a good meeting looks like. Why is this? Our guest on The Melting Pot this week brings some light to this. 

This week we learned from Mamie K Stewart, host of The Modern Manager podcast, author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging and Enjoyable Meetings and Founder of Meeteor, a training firm focused on improving the productivity of meetings. 

In this insightful conversation, Mamie tells us why she decided to write a book about meetings and gives us some tips on how to run great meetings in person and virtually. She also discusses how meetings are a reflection of your culture and your team dynamics, and what questions you should ask yourself before setting up a meeting.

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Why write a book about meetings
  • Are your meetings reflecting your culture?
  • What to ask yourself before setting up a meeting
  • How to bring clarity to meetings
  • Using tech during meetings 

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How to create effective, engaging and fruitful meetings

Mamie Kanfer Stewart is passionate about helping people thrive at work. She is the host of The Modern Manager podcast, author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging and Enjoyable Meetings and Founder of Meeteor, a training firm focused on improving the productivity of meetings. In addition, Mamie is an executive coach and online course creator who works with entrepreneurs and managers to build the habits they need to successfully manage themselves and their teams so everyone can be their best selves and do their best work.

Why write a book on meetings?

Mamie grew up in a family business called GoJo, known for being the inventors of Purell hand sanitiser. Her first job out of college was working with some of the senior people in their business, where she got exposed to incredible tools, including how to run effective meetings, being a team member, etc. One of those tools was the Project Profile, a template that walks teams through the strategic thinking that goes into a project. 

In the template, there would be a series of questions, such as why are we doing this? How does this align with the organisation’s goals? What does success look like? What are the measures that we are going to use? Not just one goal statement, but what are all the metrics that we are going to be able to measure if we’ve achieved success? Who are the stakeholders impacted by this work? What are the resources needed? Who is going to be involved?

And there’s a process that would bring people together to do this thinking. And by doing it as a team, you get them aligned, and you surface all that could go wrong. So you’re making smarter strategic decisions upfront. It’s a brilliant tool that significantly impacts how smoothly the teamwork flows after that. For Mamie, this was a tool that every organisation should have. She realised that she wanted to take it out to the world and help embed it into the project management process.

When she started a business focused on the strategic thinking behind projects, Mamie was using the Project Profile tool, but it wasn’t having any traction in the market. She talked to consultants about how they might incorporate the tool into their work, and one of them said to her that it would be helpful to get their teams to have effective meetings and be more effective in their strategic thinking. How could this tool help them lead a meeting in the conversation more effectively?

“I was like, oh, that’s interesting. Maybe where I’m at is just too far down the chain, I’m too high level. And what if I just focused on how to run the meeting so that the thinking could come out as opposed to using a whole process and this big thing? So I started talking to folks everywhere I went, asking them about their meetings and every single person I spoke to had a story to tell about a terrible meeting that they had been to at least that week if not that day.”

Why are meetings so bad?

When asked, people admit that their meetings are terrible, yet everyone seems to know what a great meeting looks like. It’s not rocket science, says Mamie. The solutions are not hard and they are things that most of us know how to do. The problem is that we either don’t take the time to do it, don’t feel safe in the environment to do it, or haven’t thought about what we should do. 

It’s not a complicated problem to solve, but it takes some time and intention, says Mamie. However, most people don’t want to take the time to do it because of the way the organisations are run, with a sense of urgency. 

“We skip over or we assume that the strategy happens at the high level, and by the time things are trickling down to a team, there’s no room for a team to be doing that deep thinking. It’s kind of like it’s expected to come from the top, or the top is so controlling about it that they don’t want the team members on the ground to be doing that kind of thinking.”

That’s why Mamie does what she does, to help teams figure out how they can be most effective and build wonderful workplaces where people’s strategic thinking is welcomed. Often, says Mamie, people who are doing the work have the best ideas because they understand the situation. However, there’s also value for people at the top. They have a different perch. They’re looking across an organisation to understand how a project relates to another.

“So really, when you’re developing the project profile, you have people from the team and there’s usually a senior person who’s a sponsor of that project who’s also participating in the project profile development. So you’re getting all of these different perspectives to come together and share the brilliance that you get when you have that collaborative conversation.”

Meetings are a reflection of your culture

“Meetings are a microcosm of your organisation. They really show power dynamics. They show communication skills. They show psychological safety. They show so much preparation and respect for each other.” 

For Mamie, by watching a meeting you can really get a read on an organisation’s culture. In a business of four or five people, you can get a consistent culture across the organisation. But if your company has over 20 or 30 people, it’s likely that your overall culture has some commonalities, but every team leader does things differently and fosters a slightly different kind of environment, says Mamie. 

“So to truly understand what’s going on, you need to watch multiple meetings led by different people in different areas of the organisation. And you’ll start to be able to piece together not only what are these meeting practices and how are your meetings fostering the kind of culture that you want to create, but also what is the true culture or cultures that are being perpetuated inside this organisation.”

When teaching meeting practices, Mamie sometimes gives pre-work –that is, some homework before the meeting. Of course, not everybody does it and, often, it’s the senior person that comes into the meeting unprepared. But, how do you tell your boss or someone that is senior to you that you’re cancelling the meeting because they didn’t prepare, or that you’re moving on without them? It’s tough, admits Mamie. 

“The people at the top of the organisation tend to be the worst. They tend to think they can get away with a lot of things without realising that their position doesn’t give them the leeway to bend the rules. It actually makes it more important that they need to be good role models, show respect to their team members, but also to foster the kind of environment that they want for their colleagues. If you want people to show up prepared for you, you should show up prepared for them.”

Before setting a meeting, ask the right question

Mamie explains that the number one thing that will improve your meetings is writing a desired outcome for it. It has to be a very specific statement that is often uncomfortable to write at first. A desired outcome is a statement of what that meeting will achieve. 

“Most of the time, the way that our brains work is we say we need a meeting, what are we going to do in the meeting? And we think about the activities. We’re going to discuss the report and the findings. We’re going to review the budget from last quarter. We’re going to make a decision about how to move forward with this vendor. And that’s great. You can have really good conversations, you can build lovely relationships. But at the end of the meeting, what will be different? What will you have accomplished?”

Having discussions is not an accomplishment, so you need to retrain your brain to ask a different question: what will we achieve by having this meeting? What will be different? When you start thinking about the outcome of the meeting, it changes how you plan the time that you’re going to spend in it; who is going to be invited and how much time you need to get to that outcome. It really starts to shift how you’re preparing what people should do ahead of time so they can come in ready for that meeting.

Also, instead of asking yourself how many people you need in the meeting, ask yourself, which people. 

“I’ve had teams tell me that they’ve gotten into a conversation, and then they realise that they need a particular person’s perspective to make a decision. And they didn’t think about that ahead of time. They just called the team together without realising, oh, we actually need somebody who has deep knowledge of XYZ.”

Do you need a meeting?

There are reasons to have meetings, and reasons not to have them, says Mamie. For instance, information sharing is not a reason for a meeting. There are only two times when you would use information sharing as a reason. First, if the information is complex and you need to have a nuanced conversation check for understanding as you’re going. 

“If you just send it across the transom, the likelihood that the person is not going to understand it or the team isn’t going to be aligned on what this all means, then you want to have it in a meeting so that it can really be part of the processing of this information.” 

Second, if it’s sensitive. You don’t want to send something highly sensitive that’s going to have an emotional reaction, or where there’s a relationship at stake. 

“That’s a reason to share information in person or over a virtual call so that you’re showing the person the respect of giving them this information in a meeting as opposed to sending over an email. But most of the time, one-way communication is not a meeting.” 

One of the biggest challenges in meetings is inviting people that doesn’t need to be there. They wonder if that’s the best use they can do of their time. Sometimes, this happens because the meeting’s outcome isn’t clear. The meeting leader has decided to have a meeting and invite people without considering whether they need their perspective in the room. 

Mamie thinks that smaller isn’t always better. It’s just easier for most managers. Leading a conversation amongst five people is really easy because you can fit around one table, and you don’t have to do a lot of planning and get away with facilitating in the moment, even if you’re not a great skilled facilitator. But once you get to ten people, it gets a lot more complicated. And too often we don’t then do the required process to create an agenda to build out how we’re going to use our time effectively so that you can get the most out of those ten people.

“I think you need the right people in the room. And if the right number is ten, then you have to do the work as the manager or the meeting leader to plan your agenda, to use the time effectively to get what you need to get to the outcome. It’s harder, but it’s totally doable.”

How to bring clarity and quality to meetings

A good meeting starts with building out a thoughtful agenda. This will help you know how you’re using your time and it can be more than just a discussion about something. When you time-block your agenda, you allow yourself the ability to participate in different ways, as you’re using the activities that allow for everyone to participate. 

For example, if you send people some material ahead of the meeting, you want them to read it and come ready to share their two or three takeaways. 

“So instead of just saying, I’m going to give myself ten minutes to have people share, I’m going to give each person one minute, and we’re going to go around. And now, I can say there are six participants, so one minute per person means about six minutes. And I’m going to put myself on the list so that we each are going to go around and share.”

You can use tools like Jamboard to get everybody quietly thinking and putting their ideas onto the board for five minutes. This will allow you to take off your facilitation hat because, for five minutes, everyone is doing the thinking and will discuss their ideas later. By designing an agenda to do more than just talk, the facilitator can flip more easily between wearing the facilitator hat and the participant hat. 

“You don’t have to be the only facilitator. I really encourage teams to train all their people in effective meeting techniques because everyone can help the meeting stay on track, and everyone can help the meeting stay on time. You don’t need to be a meeting hero and do it all as the leader, you can encourage everyone to help, but you have to give them the tools and the techniques as well. They need to know how they can help.” 

Good meetings VS bad meetings

So, what are the things that people in good meetings do differently than those in bad meetings? Mamie says, one of those things is opening the meeting by clarifying what the desired outcome is. By doing this you achieve a few things. First, by reminding them that you only have an hour and a desired outcome, you get everyone focused.  The meeting leader knows exactly what this meeting is about, but everyone else’s brain could be in a million different places. 

Second, it gives everyone the tool to notice when the conversation has gone off on a tangent or has stopped being relevant to the desired outcome. This is a technique that you can teach your entire team. You can say, “if you’ve noticed that our conversation has gone off track, or you’re confused by how what we’re talking about is going to help us get to the desired outcome, how it’s relevant, then raise your hand, interrupt us and say, hey, this is really interesting. I’m not seeing how this is going to help us get to our desired outcome. Or can somebody help connect this conversation to the desired outcome today? Or can we put a pin in this? Can we follow up on this? I’m happy to schedule some time next week on the calendar, but can we reorient to our desired outcome for today?” 

Now, you have a group of people thinking as the conversation unfolds, instead of sitting there thinking, ‘why are we talking about this?’ 

Should you allow tech in meetings?

Most people that use tech in meetings, do it because they don’t have an easy way to get back on track, or they don’t even know what the track is. What they do know is that the conversation isn’t interesting. If you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve with the meeting, you’re more likely to get people raising their hands because they will clearly know when a conversation isn’t relevant and they’ll feel more empowered, says Mamie. 

“That’s an essential part of this. You have to be really explicit with your team that everyone needs to help keep the meeting on track. As for the email and the technology side, you can’t totally stop people from multitasking. It’s unfortunate. We’re so overloaded. People are going to do it, and it’s not always easy to catch it or stop it. But if you’re leading a good, effective meeting, people don’t want to multitask.” 

As a meeting leader, you have the opportunity to design a thoughtful and engaging experience to make sure the right people are in the room. When you do this, the chances of people emailing, or texting go down. 

“And if you do notice that someone is multitasking, doesn’t hurt after the meeting to just check in with them and say, it seemed like maybe you were a little distracted during a meeting. I’m just wondering, was there something going on for you that was just a really high priority to attend to, or was there something in the way that I designed the meeting that didn’t work for you? I would just like to be able to not have that happen again.” 

Keeping track of the outcome of the meeting?

If the number one thing a meeting need is an outcome, the number two is notetaking. Mamie says you should think about this as a wrap-up. So the last five minutes of your meeting should be reserved for this. And this wrap-up has three components: what are the next steps? What are the tasks that are coming out of this meeting, and specifically, who will do what and by when? 

“I have seen teams where ideas get thrown out and then nothing happens. And then the boss gets really angry that something didn’t happen. And the person’s like, I didn’t know that was an actual next step you wanted me to take. Or the opposite, where the team hops to and does a whole bunch of things. And then the boss was like, why are you wasting your time doing all those things? I didn’t tell you to do them. I didn’t give you the go-ahead. We were just brainstorming. So you want to be super clear at the end of the meeting, what are the next steps.”

Secondly, what are the decisions that were made? What were the key reasons that we went with this decision? You want to get it in writing in the language that the team is agreeing to. What was the rationale behind these decisions? Get this clear so that if others are reading about this, they understand why it was made. This will also allow you to review it later and assess whether the factors have changed, or if something in the market has changed that makes you revisit the decision. Because if not, this is why we made the decision. The decision still stands. 

The last one is, what are the big ideas? The highlights are the key takeaways that you want to remember or that people who weren’t in the meeting need to know about. So was there particular information that was shared that people need to know about? Were there ideas for the future that you just want to capture so that you don’t lose them? We call them highlights, takeaways, or learnings. 

Book recommendations 

Getting things done by David Allen

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