Meetings, while disliked by many, are an essential part of myriad business operations. They are often the best venue for communications to take place, for issues to be discussed, for priorities to be set, and for decisions to be made in various realms of business management. Because it is more common for responsibility to be spread out across an organization these days, and because cross-functional efforts are common at almost every business, meetings are the best method for achieving organizational participation.
Holding successful meetings, then, is essential. Poorly run meetings waste time and fail to generate ideas, and unfortunately, far too high a percentage of business meetings are characterized by ineffective processes. Indeed, some analysts estimate that up to 50 percent of meeting time is wasted. Entrepreneurs and small business managers should thus take the appropriate steps to ensure that the meetings that they call and lead are productive.
The most important step in holding a successful meeting is planning. This includes determining who should attend, who will run the meeting, and what will be discussed. Before the meeting, finalize a list of attendees. This is especially important for meetings where a quorum is needed to conduct official business. Without a quorum, it is usually best to simply postpone the meeting until more group members can attend.
When determining who to include in a meeting, several criteria should be weighed. Charlie Hawkins pointed out in Public Relations Quarterly that the most important personnel to invite are those people who can best achieve the objective of the meeting. This can be people who are affected by a problem, those who will be most affected by the outcome of the meeting, experts on the subject at hand, or people who are known to be good problem-solvers or idea generators. Inviting people solely for political reasons should be avoided, although experts recognize that this may not always be possible. Avoid inviting disruptive people unless they absolutely have to be there. Finally, some meeting topics may benefit from the inclusion of an informed outsider who has no stake in the issue; sometimes a fresh, objective perspective can be most beneficial.
Once the meeting's moderator has determined who needs to be in attendance, he or she should develop an agenda and circulate it in advance of the meeting. There are two schools of thought on how to order the agenda. One school recommends starting the agenda with less-important items that can be handled quickly and easily. The theory is that this helps to build a positive atmosphere and makes it easier to move on to tougher issues later in the meeting. The other school of thought, however, feels that this is a waste of time and that the agenda should be prioritized, with the most important items coming first. This means jumping right into the most significant issue. Regularly scheduled meetings, such as staff meetings, lend themselves to the "most important first" style.
Many consultants, managers, and business owners contend that the traditional agenda model of "old minutes, old business, new business, adjournment" does not really work anymore. Agendas need to be more fluid and dynamic, yet still need to be structured and effective. Adhering to the following tips can help ensure that the meeting agenda can be addressed effectively:
If other group members are to play a role at the meeting, call or visit them once the agenda is established so that they clearly understand their role. Assign a time limit to each of the agenda items. Having time limits helps keep a meeting on track and prevents rambling discussions. Never include the agenda item "Any Other Business." It encourages time-wasting at the end of the meeting and also serves as a method for a savvy (or sneaky) meeting participant to exploit the meeting by bringing up an item that is of importance to him or her alone.
Once an agenda has been established, many consultants recommend the appointment of a meeting facilitator in advance of the meeting itself. It is the facilitator's job to keep the meeting focused and on-schedule. He or she must remain "issue neutral" and encourage the free exchange of ideas without taking sides. The best facilitators are good listeners and communicators who successfully blend assertiveness with tact and discipline with humor, set a cooperative tone, and are achievement-oriented. The facilitator should remain focused and not allow side issues to distract from the agenda. Appointing a separate time-keeper who alerts the facilitator when agreed-upon time limits are approaching is recommended. Some professional meeting planners recommend using co-facilitators—this keeps one facilitator from falling in love with his or her own ideas. For small companies, this idea may not be feasible. However, if the company does hold a lot of meetings, perhaps several company members can be sent for formal training in meeting facilitation. This would make it easier to appoint co-facilitators.
For small companies, perhaps facilitators are not needed at every meeting. Indeed, small business owners often serve as facilitator, key information source, and chief strategist all in one. But some small businesses have successfully instituted systems in which meeting planning and leadership responsibilities are rotated among staff members.
Once the planning has been concluded, it is time to hold the meeting. Adhering to several simple rules can dramatically increase the likelihood that your meeting will be a productive one.
Despite the best efforts and the strongest facilitator, meetings can quickly spin out of control. Following are some common pitfalls that beset meetings, launching them into downward spirals of inaction and/or flawed decision making:
Many small businesses are family-owned. While it might seem that a family-operated business might not need to worry about holding successful meetings, that is not true. Family meetings can be an important means of keeping the business fresh, generating new ideas, and keeping grievances to a minimum.
Family meetings, when run properly, can help ensure business success and its continued survival into the next generation. The meetings do not need to be formal, but they should be structured and should be held on a regular basis. Because a family business affects all family members—not just those who are an active part of the business—some analysts contend that everyone in the family should be invited to the meetings. If everyone takes the meeting seriously and is willing to participate, the meeting can lead to greater cohesion, communication, and long-range planning.
Business experts say that the agenda for such a meeting can combine business and pleasure. Serious topics—creating a mission statement, strategy planning, setting a clear path of succession, professional growth and development, market analysis, and estate planning are some examples—typically need to be addressed during these meetings, but the agenda should also reflect a recognition of the family environment in which it is taking place. Meetings that include a meal (dinner, picnic, etc.) as a centerpiece are among the most popular options.
As with any other meeting, the family meeting should have a facilitator. An outside facilitator can be brought in if family members are concerned that objectivity might otherwise be hard to achieve, but be forewarned that hiring a facilitator can be expensive. It is possible to use a family member as a facilitator as long as that person is able to remain unbiased in the face of emotional discussions. Steering clear of longtime family conflicts is also a must if the facilitator is to succeed at his or her job, although admittedly this can sometimes be difficult. "Facilitating one's own family meeting can seem daunting because of the potential emotional intensity of family discussions," wrote John Ward and Sharon Krone in Nation's Business. "To be effective, a family member acting as a facilitator must overcome emotional barriers, dispel longtime family stereotypes, and curtail long-standing conflicts among family members. All are tough to do."
Ward and Krone provided several other tips for holding successful family meetings, including the following:
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