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Companies should strive to make meetings meaningful: Organizational leadership experts say many companies could be more productive with fewer, better gatherings

April 2, 2007

Executive Steve Kellam once went to such great lengths to cheer up colleagues during a difficult period that he arrived at a company meeting wearing a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume.

He's dressed as a clown as well.

It's doubtful every corporate gathering requires those types of creative tactics to grab the attention of associates, but there are ways to ensure the boardroom doesn't descend into a state of boredom.

"I was just trying to get some laughs," Kellam said. "You know, we're all people."

The senior adviser at Mission Capital Partners LLC in Carmel who spent time at the former Galyan's Trading Co. and Onex Inc. is among those who realize the importance of conducting a productive meeting.

Yet, far too often, the weekly or monthly rituals persist with no true purpose and leave employees confused about the objectives the company wants to accomplish. Experts say there are ways to avoid such meeting pitfalls.

Is it necessary?

Foremost is to ensure the meeting is really necessary, said Taggart Smith, a Purdue University professor of organiza- tional leadership and supervision in the College of Technology.

The two questions to ask before scheduling are, "Can this be accomplished with a phone call or an e-mail?" she said, and, "What is the purpose of the meeting?" A common mistake is mandating that everyone attend all gatherings.

If the presence of the entire staff is required, Smith said, a clear objective should be communicated on an agenda distributed in advance. The schedule should include all topics to be discussed, the time allotted to each item, and who will be responsible for implementation.

Make it worthwhile

Jean Palmer Heck, an executive speech coach who operates communications training firm Real-Impact Inc. in Zionsville, concurred.

"One of the key things that I teach everyone is that their audiences hold the remote controls to their minds, their hearts and their wallets," she said. "If you are leading a meeting, the people in that room expect it to be worth their while, or they will check out either physically or mentally, and sometimes both."

Nothing can take the wind out of a meeting quicker than a PowerPoint presentation full of mind-numbing text. After 15 years of consulting, Palmer Heck said, the same mistake continues to plague many leaders: presentations that are identical and difficult to read. This causes eyes to glaze over and, ultimately, leads the audience to miss the most important points of the presentation.

The solution: lots of visuals in the form of charts, graphs, and illustrations that let participants bypass boring blather.

"If you've got too many words, it causes the people to spend more time processing the information," Palmer Heck said. "It may only be a couple of seconds, but during that couple of seconds, your audience is somewhere else."

Indeed, droning PowerPoints are ineffective, Kellam said. Most employees want to be educated and learn new things, but only if they are taught in an interactive and fun atmosphere, he noted.

Kellam often begins meetings by letting people tell something exciting about themselves, in an effort to promote connectivity and team building. If someone is late, he said, they might miss an accomplishment that was "pretty cool."

Another key to getting everyone involved is to turn the meeting over to the team, Kellam said. Give each member a shot at leading, regardless of his or her title or responsibility, and most workers will be surprised by what they learn, particularly about one another, he said.

Clare Coxey, an independent strategic consultant, shares Kellam's sentiments. Coxey led many meetings during his time as chief operating officer at Indianapolisbased law firm Sommer Barnard PC and as vice president of public affairs at the former GTE telephone company.

"To dominate as a leader, or to let anyone else dominate, is one way to kill a meeting," he said. "If people start looking at their watches, that means you haven't been very effective."

Smith at Purdue said employees who introduce complaints unrelated to the topic at hand disrupt a meeting and throw a wrench in the schedule. The best way to confront the problem is to respond by saying something to the effect of, "That's a complaint, but what's your solution?" or "That's an important point, but it's a side issue that we can discuss at the next meeting."

Straying from an agenda might be necessary, however, when everyone's input is needed to consider new ideas. But leaders need to be aware of whether those in the room are being authentic and speaking their minds, Coxey said, because the "meeting after the meeting" can be the most damaging.

"They can nod their heads as if they agree, but in their minds they're thinking, 'This is a lousy idea,'" Coxey said. "Then people will gather in somebody's office and close the door, and that's when the real discussion starts. That's the sign of an unhealthy organization."

What might be even less healthy, though, are meetings that last too long or are held at unusual times. Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. sends a vibe that the meeting is important, while a session during lunch is more casual, said Karl Ahlrichs, a senior human resources consultant.

And then there's the weekly meeting scheduled at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, which Ahlrichs endured at one job.

The message, Ahlrichs said, was that the company didn't trust its employees to work the entire week.
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