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Career Advice

How to lead a productive meeting

Be well prepared and set objectives.


Every academic, whether new or tenured, will have to chair a meeting from time to time. Meetings can be the bane of your existence, or they can be a forum where decisions get made and projects move forward. To make sure the meetings you run go smoothly, there are a few simple steps you can follow. University Affairs spoke to Anne Massaro, project manager in the human resources office at Ohio State University, who for many years has led workshops on organizing productive meetings for faculty members.

Step 1: Preparation

This is a crucial step to keeping your meeting on track. “For every one hour of meeting time you have planned, I would suggest one hour of preparation,” says Dr. Massaro. She also advises you not to leave the preparation to the day before the meeting because you’ll feel rushed and might forget something.

You should be very clear about the purpose of the meeting when contacting those who will be attending. Dr. Massaro proposes four distinct purposes for meetings, which she draws from Patrick M. Lencioni, author of Death By Meeting:

  1. Informational: You share updates, you answer questions.
  2. Exploratory: You gather ideas.
  3. Decision-making: You are going to select one alternative from many.
  4. Progress reports: You discuss how things are going with specific tasks, committees or priorities within the department.

The last step in preparing for a meeting is getting in touch with each speaker on the agenda, to give them background information and direction. “You need to lay out the groundwork for what will make this an effective conversation,” she sas.

Step 2: Set ground rules and objectives

An important skill that people need to learn is how to set some ground rules at the beginning of the meeting – rules that might not be the norm in academia. “Basically what you are doing is setting up some predictability: This is what you can expect when you come to these meetings, ” explains Dr. Massaro. Common ground rules can involve attendance expectations, cellphone use, respectful behaviour, how discussions will be led and how decisions will be made.

It’s also important for everyone to know the objectives for the meeting, a key step that is often skipped by the meeting planner. “What do we hope to accomplish during this meeting? What deliverables will be reached by the end of the meeting?” offers Dr. Massaro.

Most academics love to debate, and this can quickly derail a meeting from its primary purpose. By using actionable verbs like “discuss,” “finalize” and “decide,” you are letting people know exactly what is going to happen during the meeting. This really helps to narrow the conversation. For example, a poorly written meeting objective would be: “Hear recommendations from the selection committee about whom to interview.” Such a vague statement leaves the door open for interpretation, which can derail the meeting from your primary goal. If the objective is rewritten as: “Finalize list of interview candidates,” your colleagues will know immediately what will be discussed and decided.

Step 3: Dealing with strong personalities

Sometimes a participant will try to take over the meeting by bringing up their own topics, thus hijacking the meeting from its primary purpose. Dr. Massaro suggests two solutions if this happens:

  1. During the meeting, repeat what the person has said in a neutral tone and ask for other points of view. This shows the person that you have heard what they said, and at the same time lets others speak.
  2. Talk to the person privately and give them feedback about letting everyone voice their opinion during a meeting.

Step 4: Engaging your audience

Not everything rests on the meeting leader’s shoulders. “We all need to make a conscious effort to be engaged,” says Dr. Massaro. “The main goal of any meeting is to have people leave feeling as if a decision was made and there is now some action to be taken.” This, she says, only comes from having a well-structured meeting.

With so much pressure these days to use people’s time more wisely, departments are looking for meetings that are productive and have an engaged audience. “That’s the other thing to keep in mind: it’s not only about being efficient, it’s about engaging people in the things that matter the most.”

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