The Best Meetings of My Life

This post originally appeared as a six-post guest series on the blog of Do, the solution for having better meetings.

What do meetings have in common with the following conversation topics?

  • Banks.
  • The weather.
  • Pollution in Beijing (for those living in China).
  • Facebook.
  • Taxes.
  • Politicians.
  • Your football team’s coach after a lost match.
  • Starbucks coffee.

Got it?

Right, everyone likes to complain about them. That’s why today, I’m going to take a stand in favor of meetings.

Yes, I had my fair share of bad meetings, just like you. However, I also had some incredible ones, so this post is to honor them:

The best meetings of my life.

Don’t worry, I’ll not bog you down with the exact details of each and every one of them. I’ll give some examples, but we’ll mainly look at the type and structure, examining what made them so great.

The three essential elements
Before we start, there are some essentials to be in place for guaranteeing a good meeting. Here the three most crucial ones, as recommended by Sean Blanda of 99U:

  1. All meetings must have a stated purpose or agenda.
  2. Attendees should walk away with concrete next steps or Action Items.
  3. The meeting should have an end time.

A lot of these basic requirements can be covered off simply by using Do. It helps you to structure the meeting, assign responsibility for agenda items, create follow-up items and much more.

With these basics established, let’s get going with the best meetings of my life!

1. The daily team huddle

meetings brainstorm

Bring the team together once per day for five to ten minutes. Sounds easy, right?

It’s harder than you might think. Not to bring the team together, but to do it consistently. Every day, without fail.

You’re busy, the team is busy, you have a hangover, you’re a bit ill, your wife yelled at you in the morning. Whatever it is, there’s always a reason to skip one day. And then there’s a reason to skip another. Before you know it, you’re hardly doing the daily huddle at all, and that’s when this one loses its effectiveness.

But boy, if you do this meeting every day, can it be powerful.

When I took over Marketing & Publishing at Happylatte (a mobile gaming company in Beijing), I immediately established a daily team meeting at 9:30 am. It was one of the most important things I did to improve productivity and motivation.

Agenda and requirements
Everyone gathers in front of a whiteboard and writes down their most important goal(s) for the day. They also share whether they met their objectives from the day before and can indicate if there are any blockers (feedback or info they’re waiting for from other members).

This setup is more or less a combination of a daily SCRUM meeting and The Rockefeller Habits’ daily team huddle. It accomplishes several great things:

  1. Team spirit. To feel like a team, you need to bring people together regularly. I’m always amazed how many (bad?) leaders skip or avoid their team meetings. Having people together (physically or digitally) to update each other on what’s going on, is one of the best things you can do to boost morale and create mutual respect and understanding.
  2. Forces prioritizing. By asking everyone to write out his or her goals at the start of the day, you force people to think consciously about their priorities, before beginning their work.
  3. Natural accountability. The other advantage of having the goals on a whiteboard for all to see, is that it instills automatic responsibility for achieving your stated goals.
  4. Reduces email. Since everyone knows they will see each other each morning, non-urgent questions can be taken off email and “parked” for the next daily huddle.
  5. Improved problem-solving. Missed daily goals make clear where bottlenecks are. Also, expertise from the entire team is easily shared, as everyone has an idea of what everybody else is working on.
  6. Weekly overview of progress. At the end of the week, the whiteboard gives a pretty rough, but useful overview of progress made that week (I took a picture at the end of each week and archived it in Evernote. This way, I could always go back to a certain week and have a reference of what everyone had worked on).

Besides consistency, it’s essential to keep this meeting short and to the point. If people have larger and more complex issues to discuss that take longer than a minute, put them on the “parking lot“. These are questions to discuss after the meeting with the relevant persons, while everyone else can get started with their day.

2. Two-day strategy retreat

When you run into stress during your day-to-day, often the best solution is counter-intuitive.

Instead of starting to work as hard as you can on all the different tasks you are facing, it is best to take five to ten minutes, to make a list of everything on your mind. Figure out what’s bothering you the most and blocks everything else, then get that out of the way first. This instantly releases the worst part of your stress.

A strategy retreat is to an organization, what that short pause is to an individual. Leaders should take regular time (at least two days every six months) to step out of the day-to-day hustle and bustle. This is the only way to take a fresh, helicopter view of what’s going on in the business. Else you are likely to get stuck and end up making costly mistakes.

Save it for a rainy day
Unfortunately, a strategy retreat is often viewed as a luxury the management team can only afford itself when times are good. In reality, it might prove most valuable when times are bad.

I’ve faced plenty of hardship during my leadership roles in various companies. Stepping out of the day-to-day to brainstorm and plot a (new) course, always turned out to be the best thing we ever did. Nevertheless, it is incredibly hard to convince yourself and others it is worth the time, just when you are struggling to keep the company afloat during tough times.

The best solution is to turn the strategy retreat into a habit. A recurring and holy event, to be held every quarter or six months without fail.

Agenda and requirements
Topics should depend on the particular challenges faced by the company at that moment. Most important is to go to an off-site location and restrict the use of devices, so everyone can think clearly without distractions. Inc.com has some practical tips on planning a retreat.

Last but not least, make sure the last 25% of the retreat is spent to define precise next actions. The worst strategy sessions are when you talk about a lot of big changes and grand ideas to conquer the world, but the next week everything goes back to normal, like no retreat ever happened.

3. Brainstorming sessions

meeting sketch

Brainstorming is an underdog in its own right. Many consider them overrated and fail to extract much value from such sessions.

This can undoubtedly happen if the meeting hasn’t been prepared right (remember Do? 🙂 . But when done correctly, brainstorming can be a source of inspiration and solutions, as you can tap the knowledge of a broad range of people.

A Chinese example
I remember a great brainstorming session in China back in 2009, where I was managing an online marketing company. We had to come up with a campaign for a new shopping mall.

On the one hand, I possessed the most knowledge about online marketing and creating successful concepts. The other participants, being Chinese, clearly had much more expertise on Chinese consumers.

By building a mind map around shopping from the input of the Chinese participants, I was able to extract all activities, emotions and trends, which Chinese relate to shopping. From there it was easy for me (the marketing expert) to come up with some possible campaign concepts, tailored to the Chinese shopper. These were then presented and discussed with everyone in a second meeting a few days later.

Note from this example that a brainstorming session doesn’t necessarily have to include finding a solution on the spot. It can also be useful to share knowledge, insights and connections around a topic between a variety of people. This can be helpful if the target audience of a product or service is very different from those who have to create the solution.

Agenda and requirements

  • Determine if your session is about coming up with actual ideas, or if you’re merely sharing knowledge around a topic.
  • Establish an environment where people feel comfortable sharing even their craziest thoughts.
  • Use a whiteboard where one moderator builds a mind map around all words and topics related to the subject at hand.
  • Don’t get stuck debating whether an idea is realistic or not. Often crazy ideas lead to insights for the final solution.
  • Discussing the viability of an idea can either be done in the second half of the meeting or in a separate session. Personally I prefer two separate sessions as opposed to one extensive one.

Further reading: for an excellent perspective on why, when and how creative people should get together for a brainstorming session, I highly recommend reading “Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”.

4. Coaching

Let’s first establish what we’re talking about: coaching is not the same as mentoring. A mentor acts as a role model and is considered more knowledgeable than the person being mentored. He might apply some coaching skills, but also gives advice.

A real coach doesn’t offer advice. Instead, he leads the coachee to his own solutions. For this reason, coach and coachee are not considered to be on different levels; they are peers.

When done well, coaching is a powerful way to gain new insights, dig yourself out of a hole and move forward. My Co-active coaching Trainer Jeff Jacobson, a senior faculty member at the Coaches Training Institute, had a great metaphor for describing the difference between excellent versus ineffective coaching:

“Let’s imagine a football match. The ball is the issue that the client needs to deal with. An ineffective coach might focus solely on the ball, and how to get it closer to the goal, but a good coach focuses on the player. The player needs to deal with the ball. The job of the coach is to make the player realize he can indeed deal with the ball, and to help him grow to be the best player possible.”

Agenda and requirements

The coaching session is the exception to the rule: as a recent convert to the Co-active Coaching methodology, I’m now convinced it’s best done without an agenda.

In Co-active Coaching, the coach believes the coachee holds the creativity and ability to come up with his own solutions. The coach is like a critical mirror. One who reflects back to you what you’re saying and sometimes asks those delicate and powerful questions others might think, but never say out loud.

For this reason, coaching is usually best done without a strict agenda. Of course, the coachee can bring specific topics to the meeting, but coach and coachee should be free to “dance in the moment” and travel to whatever direction seems most relevant.

5. Weekly town hall meeting

meetings townhall

As soon as your company reaches the size of over a dozen or so people, a weekly town hall meeting can be a great way for everyone to feel connected. Especially if size goes past 50 people, the town hall helps everyone stay in touch with the leadership and vice versa.

Just as I’m a fan of doing the daily team huddle at the start of the day and not at the end, I believe the weekly town hall is best done at the beginning of the week. Assuming the meeting is done well, it puts everyone in a great mood, sets goals for the week and aligns the organization. It can also be a source of inspiration, by celebrating achievements and sharing what others in your industry are doing.

Agenda and requirements

Every company is different, so the town hall structure should also be tailor-made. Here are some elements I found to work well in the town hall meetings I participated in:

  • Don’t just let the CEO take the stage. It’s a great moment for talents within the company to present an idea to the whole company or update their peers on what their team is working on; don’t turn it into a CEO-monologue.
  • Say thanks a lot. A lot of people value recognition at least as much as their salaries. Giving someone a public thank you during a town hall can be an excellent way to acknowledge someone’s hard work. It doesn’t always have to be closing a million dollar sales deal. A heroic effort during the weekend to fix a broken server, very hard work from the Marketing team to make an event happen; it’s all fair game for a town hall thank you.
  • Announce team changes, both good and bad. Welcome new hires during the town hall, as well as announcing promotions. But in most cases, it’s equally important to be open about people leaving, whether that’s through resigning or termination. Turning that into a habit creates accountability and transparency. It also avoids gossip and embarrassing situations, where someone’s departure hasn’t been officially acknowledged by leadership because it’s painful, but the entire company already knows.
  • Celebrating achievements. Clearly the town hall is a great platform for sharing results and accomplishments. Depending on the level of transparency your organization is comfortable with, it can also be a good moment to share quarterly figures and targets for the coming months.
  • Inspiring content. At Happylatte, we started every town hall with one or two video trailers of new games coming out. This is a fun way to inspire everyone, while simultaneously building awareness of what the competition is up to.
  • Q&A / open mic. Possibly the most important part of the town hall is the open mic, especially when your company is growing fast. Here anyone should get the possibility to ask the leadership team any questions they like. This makes everyone feel recognized. It can also lead to insights, ideas and feedback from all corners of the organization.

Keep in mind a town hall is expensive: you’re pausing the entire company from doing their work. For this reason, don’t feel the need to include all of the above elements every week. You want it to be long enough so it’s useful, but short enough that people don’t feel held up or bored.

I would say the ideal length is between 10 – 20 minutes. The Q & A can optionally be spun off into a separate gathering at the end of the week on Friday late afternoon (this mainly depends on the size of your company).

6. The one-on-one

meetings one-on-one

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: one-on-one meetings between boss and employee can be awful. The manager might lecture instead of listen, the subordinate might complain about colleague’s, the boss makes promises he doesn’t keep, and so on.

There are numerous reasons why this can happen, most of them have to do with bad management:

  1. The senior can easily abuse his power to influence the talk.
  2. There is nobody else present, so it’s easy for one party (especially the boss) to make promises and give reassurances he can’t or doesn’t keep later on.
  3. The junior sees the one-on-one as a great moment to complain about other team members. It’s up to the senior to not let this get out of hand. Complaints about others are usually best solved by bringing the two parties together.

All of this probably comes down to what Ben Horowitz describes as follows:

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”

Why I’m loving it
For the manager, because it provides a unique opportunity to get a feeling for how someone is really doing. Are they motivated? Do they have issues (work or personally) which need addressing? Are they developing themselves? Do they have feedback on the manager, the team, the company?

On the employee-side, they might not feel comfortable sharing some of these things in a group setup. At the same time, they might not deem their own problems significant enough to request a meeting with the boss.

Having a regular one-on-one lowers the threshold for them to share what’s on their mind. This is great for motivation, solving problems and having a feeling of ownership in the direction of the company.

Agenda and requirements

Again, let’s take a cue from Horowitz:

If you like structured agendas, then the employee should set the agenda. A good practice is to have the employee send you the agenda in advance. This will give her a chance to cancel the meeting if nothing is pressing. It also makes clear that it is her meeting and will take as much or as little time as she needs. During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10 percent of the talking and 90 percent of the listening. Note that this is the opposite of most one-on-ones.”

I fully agree with that suggestion, though sometimes it can help to “trigger” the employee with some questions, sent over in advance of the meeting, for example:

  • What can we as a team improve?
  • One thing you’re very happy about achieving this month?
  • One thing you definitely want to accomplish and/or change next month?
  • Something about your personal life which made you very happy recently?

Your best meetings?

Having shared all my favorite meetings, I hope they provide you with some inspiration and renewed respect for that underdog called meetings.

How about you? Do you have any favorite meeting-types which are missing from the above list? Some I mentioned which you absolutely hate? I would love to hear your experiences with meetings and why you loved or hate them in the below comments.

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