Getting thrown in the deep end

Meeting management is a critical skill in any organization and one that most IT people are particularly poorly prepared for.
Written by Ramon Padilla, Contributor on
I just finished sitting in on a conference call of a board meeting of about 25 members where the main topic was regarding a politically contentious document and how the members were going to form a strategy to deal with the document. While the discussion proved interesting, what was most fascinating to me was the style in which the chairperson (who called the meeting) managed the process. Smooth, articulate and consensus-building, the chair had the meeting wrapped up in 30 minutes with a general agreement from the group to act as one as the process was worked out and assignments were made--pretty slick in a politically charged environment.

This got me to thinking: Where do most managers get taught this stuff? And the answer for most is nowhere. For the most part, most of us have had to pick it up on the fly, by observing others and by being thrust into a position to run a meeting. As I am sure you will agree, based on some of the awful meetings I have attended (I hope not the ones I ran!) some people learn the art better than others.

I say "art" as opposed to "science" because, although there is a method involved, you can follow all the rules and still run a lousy meeting. Running successful meetings comes from feeling comfortable with public speaking and being able to think on your feet. These are skills that many IT people struggle with.

Another part of the art is being politically savvy. You must understand the power equations--who has it, who doesn’'t, how to wield it, and how to be sensitive to it. This is another one of those things that isn't taught in school.

So if our process of learning how to run meetings is by observation or being thrown in the deep end and asked to swim, is it any wonder that so many do it so poorly?

Interestingly enough, while the art of running a good meeting is a difficult skill to acquire, it is more easily acquired if you know the science behind meetings. By this I mean that if you are less worried about knowing the "mechanics" of how to run a meeting, you can concentrate on developing the "art."

Fortunately, there are plenty of guides on how to run a meeting, both public and private, formal and informal. Here are just a few:

There are dozens if not hundreds more from where these came from, and they all say pretty much the same thing. I recommend reading a few to make sure you understand the ground rules.

The next step is to put them into practice. Practice does indeed help you get to the next level. The more you lead or participate (not sleep through) meetings, the more comfortable you get with the procedure. Be critical of meetings (in your mind) and evaluate those you attend, based on what you know (in regards to process), and also the style in which they are run. You shouldn'’t have too much trouble identifying good meetings from bad – - it's usually pretty self evident.

Now for the "art" part: Some people are naturally better communicators than others. For  reasons too many to enumerate, some people have a built-in command of language, are sharp observers of their environment, and are attuned to the feelings and emotions of their listeners.

Even if you are not a natural communicator, resources to help you hone your talents are just a Google away, or just a visit to the self-help section of your local book store. My suggestion, besides reading, is to get a mentor to gently critique you. It’s easy to be too hard on yourself, but videotaping can be extremely helpful, along with coaching from a pro.

As for power and politics, here are a couple of good reads:

While reading on the subject is good, I certainly recommend paying attention to the power and politics in your own organization. Ask questions and learn more about who wields power, how they do it, and why.

Finally, "style" is hard to quantify or learn from a book. My suggestion is to find someone you admire and try to incorporate some of the things that they do best into your own style.

With the right attitude, you can improve your ability to manage a meeting. This is hugely important, since your effectiveness in meetings determines a great deal of things in the workplace – from funding to project management success. So for those of you who are "old" pros at managing meetings, you might want to take a step back and make sure you are as good as you think – -- there is always room for improvement.

And for those who haven’'t had much experience yet, I hope I have provided something for you to work with. Call it a life preserver. – It's probably more than most of us got to start with ;-)

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