Freshman year of college was when I stumbled into it. You have been there, that one class that seems to put you to sleep every time. For me it was English 102. This class was filled with reading books that made me want to forget how to read. Oddly enough, that was not what made this class difficult to stay awake in.
My professor was such a nice guy. Really, he was. The only problem was that his speaking voice made the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seem excitable. He was so monotone. It made talking about stories such as The Odyssey seem like a journey that really would never end.
One day after class I was talking with some friends and made a comment that I wish I could take back. I have the gift of saying really dumb things at really great times! Very arrogantly I said, “That class is not too bad, but man it is so boring! I think they are trying to discourage me from staying in college!” As soon as the words escaped my mouth I heard that familiar, monotone voice behind me speak up saying, “That’s what they pay me for.” My professor had been behind me all along. Just as there was no way to escape the boredom of that class, there was no escaping the horrendous awkwardness of that moment.
There is an environment we often find ourselves in as adults that can be equally as mind-numbing as English 102 was for me: Meetings. The mere thought of a meeting has some of you twitching right now. How many times have you wondered if you were somehow less smart from having sat through that time? Many things have a reputation for being the highlight of people’s day, meetings are seldom one of those things.
The good news is that it does not have to be this way. I submit to you that it should not. My professor was wrong, he was not paid to bore us, he was paid to make that class come alive. If you are a leader you are not there to waste your team's time or your organization's resources with how you lead gatherings. Staff meetings, tactical meetings, creative meetings, planning meetings should and can have life to them. It is not easy to pull this off, but easy never promised to be part of your job. Step up, gather your team, and create environments where great things happen.
Here are seven things you can do to help bring energy and focus to your meetings.
Tell stories, tell lots of stories.
We begin all of our meetings by passing out attendance breakdowns from the previous Sunday. As people are looking at this I tell them that before we talk numbers, I want to talk about the people behind those numbers. We spend the first minutes of our time telling the stories of the weekend. People are not best represented by a number, people are best known by their story.
Do not limit storytelling to only discussing people. Any moment you can put story to brings life to that agenda item. If you are introducing a new idea, do not just give facts but tell me how your idea was formed. When you are giving a report on the student ministry event, tell me about a new family who connected instead of the attendance. A new sales pitch needs to be introduced with a narrative of a problem that it will solve. Stories add flavor to otherwise stale statistics. Stories keep people intrigued. Stories move people. Stories create feeling behind action.
Make time your friend.
This is the number one problem successful people have with meetings. Productive people are conscious of their time. They are worth a lot per hour. While some things may be out of your control in your meeting, when you start and when you stop are not. My team can count on me for one thing: I will start on time. Rarely are people on our team late because of this. If your meeting is productive and people are engaged, you will be forgiven if you go ten minutes over. If you always start fifteen minutes late because you are waiting on latecomers, you will lose respect. Set a time, communicate that time, stick to that time.
Here are two proven tools to help you keep good time in your meetings. First, use a timer when people are talking. I am not joking. Communicate ahead of time that you want each department to give a summary of what they are working on in 2 minutes. Time them. Let everyone hear the alarm. If they did not communicate everything they need to, they will learn to talk faster. Then, set the timer for people to ask questions. Next, and this one is less fun, lock the door. When your meeting begins, lock the door to the room. If you have constant stragglers, this will help change their behavior. Will it be awkward? Yes. Could someone get their feathers ruffled? Maybe. Should you care? No.
Lighten up the mood.
There is a reason so many people think meetings are dull, because they are! Perhaps I should correct that, because we allow them to be. If you lead a meeting, it is on you to break the monotony. Intentionally add some laugher and fun to meetings. We are fortunate, I do not have to be strategic about this every week. We have a team that loves to have fun, so much of this occurs naturally. If you cannot say that of your team, then it is on you to lighten the mood.
Recently, just before one of our largest events of our year, we had our weekly staff meeting to go over final details in preparation. People had worked hard, felt tension, experienced late nights, and did not need another routine meeting. That day I showed up with one of Chic-fil-A’s newest lemonade/milkshake concoction for everyone. Besides the fact that those things are going to be on tap in Heaven, it was just a moment everyone needed to be able to breathe. The best thing that meeting could do is somehow take their minds off of the pressure of that week. I kept the agenda brief, we discussed necessary details, had a lot of laughter, and the meeting was about half as long as usual. Read you team, adjust your meetings and lighten the mood as often as you can.
Be honest about what does not work.
When Mark Cuban meets with an entrepreneur he has invested in he only wants to know what is not working. While I am sure he hears the positive as well, he says the most effective use of his time is hearing the bad because it zeroes in on the areas where he can add real value. If he can fix the problem, he can increase the production. What if you approached your meetings this way? What if you asked the question, "What's not working anymore and how do we fix it?" to kick off your meeting. Your team already knows, they all talk about it, let your meeting allow them to make it better.
I work in the ministry space, so what I am about to say may not be as relevant to your world. There is a trend in my world to only discuss things that are working. Ministry leaders should be politicians because we are spin masters. We can take a program that is simply not working and “Jesus juke” reality by highlighting one person who likes it. Instead of owning that something is not working and eliminating it, we create new programs around it. The sad reality is that this practice keeps many ministries stuck in the land of mediocre. Stop spinning things, quit patting yourself on the back for what went well and own what did not. Lay your ego aside, separate yourself from your emotional connection to a program and change what is broken. Do this in meetings, and people will be engaged!
Make people work together.
Departmental silos are the venom to great teams. If your organization or ministry grows, eventually you have to empower leaders to lead departments. One person cannot make every decision. The danger is when a department becomes an island of it’s own. When a department has it’s own culture, values or behaviors that function in opposition from the whole, there is trouble. I believe all staff meetings are one of the best ways to destroy departmental silos.
There is a way to leverage your meetings to incite cross-departmental work. Carve out time each week to have each department share one thing they are working on this week and one thing that has them stuck. Each department has one spokesman and shares this info. It needs to be quick but be an actual issue. Once the info is share, you speak up and ask, "Who has faced a similar issue or thinks they can help this issue?" Encourage others on your staff to help solve the problem. Perhaps a quick answer will emerge or maybe follow-up meetings will be scheduled to work through the issue. Either way, you have just broken down departmental barriers.
Listen to outsiders.
Any leader has experienced an outside voice speaking to their team the exact thing they have been saying for months, only to have their team finally get it. Why does that happen? I have no clue. I have learned to embrace voices that can move us where we need to be. Including outside voices in our team meetings is a good practice. The beauty of the age we live in is that you do not have to pay a ton of money or bring in a physical person to your meeting to expose your team to other voices.
Read blogs prior to our meeting and discuss what spoke to us individually. Watch 15 minutes of a leadership talk. Have one of your staff members share for 10 minutes on a specific topic. Take six weeks to read through a book together. Expose your team to people who have a different angle than you are used to. Breaking through the barrier of familiarity will help grow your team.
Meetings get off track when there is a loss of focus. When every mind is engaged around an issue, they can actually be productive. Leaders eliminate distractions. This may mean guarding from the drift into too much detail, not allowing one person to dominate a conversation, having everyone move to different seats to break up routine, or cutting the people off who just like to hear themselves talk.
One step I took was to remove phones from our meeting. It was so frustrating to me to have one staff member talking through their issue only to see two other people texting under the table. Now we have a basket in the middle of the table that everyone puts their phone in. Rarely is there any digital device at all in the room, just old school note taking. Where I had once noticed people checking out at times to text or catch up on email, now every one is engaged the entire time.
I wish I could say that English 102 got better. It did not. While I survived it, I do not remember anything from it. This week make your meetings memorable. You have the ability to lead people to a new mindset when they approach your team gatherings. Add these elements and more to see productivity soar. Hopefully, you are able to keep everyone awake too...those are expensive naps!