Meetings Management Best Practices: Tips for Running Successful Meetings
Managing meetings is a combination of art and common sense. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked in formal curriculum and training programs, and many people do not take the time on their own to think through the manner in which they handle meetings. Those who do it well have typically learned “best practices” through trial and error over the course of many years. New attorneys in solo and small firms do not have many years to learn these best practices as they begin managing meetings—with clients, other attorneys, office personnel, etc.—right from the start of their law practice. Although various types of meetings may require specific skills not applicable to all meetings, there are a set of best practices that will be useful in managing all types of meetings. This article begins by discussing guiding principles to keep in mind while making planning decisions, then discusses best practices for use during the planning, execution, and follow-up stages of meetings management. Following these suggestions—and brainstorming your own—will help more of your meetings run smoothly and accomplish your goals.
Two Guiding Principles for Every Meeting
Two key concepts underscore every successful meeting and should guide each decision related to managing meetings: respect and goals. In general, treating others with respect boosts your relationship and makes future dealings easier. In the context of managing meetings respect manifests in paying particular attention to decisions regarding the comfort, care and time of everyone involved in the meeting. Respecting “everyone” includes respecting yourself, thus respect does not necessarily mean total accommodation of others’ preferences.
The second concept that should guide each decision is achieving the goals of the meeting. Setting goals relates back to respecting the time of meeting participants, as well—if there are no goals to achieve at the meeting then there is no reason to have a meeting that wastes participants’ time! As a guiding principle for decision-making, however, keeping in mind the meeting goals usually leads to better decisions about tailoring the meeting logistics to achieve those goals.
Planning the Meeting
Before deciding to have a meeting a reason to have the meeting should exist, even if it’s just a fleeting thought in the back of your head. Prior to calling the meeting, however, the meeting purpose (e.g., initial client interview, settlement negotiation, committee progress review, etc.) and goals (e.g., retainer agreement signed, starting positions determined, budget approved, etc.) should be clear.
Once the meeting parameters are set the next step is to determine who to invite to the meeting. Meeting participants fall into two categories: key and peripheral. Key participants are members that must attend the meeting (e.g., the client, opposing counsel, committee chairperson, etc.), while peripheral participants are those members that may add value or have an interest in the meeting but are not necessary to achieving the meeting goals. Knowing the difference between key and peripheral participants is indispensable to successful scheduling, especially with a group as busy as attorneys!
The first consideration of scheduling is to choose a time when all key participants can attend. Don’t waste time and effort worrying about finding a convenient time for every interested participant who can get an update after the meeting—remember that the focus is on achieving the meeting goals. Set both a start and an end time for the meeting so that participants can plan accordingly.
Announce the meeting schedule at least one week in advance of the time and date—earlier is typically better—and don’t forget to inform participants of changes ASAP within the one-week window. The meeting logistics, i.e., location and agenda, can be communicated later, but should be done as soon as possible after scheduling. The timing of the communications should be based on the amount of expected preparation necessary to achieve the meeting goals. Never assume that the meeting participants can drop everything in the hours leading to your meeting to prepare; so if five hours of preparation are required before the meeting then allow at least three working days for that preparation to occur.
There are three important considerations regarding location to keep in mind. First, try to find a location that is convenient to all attendees. For ongoing meetings consider alternating locations to rotate the travel burden for key participants. Second, choose a space that is large enough to comfortably fit all attendees and resources to be used at the meeting. Third, make sure the location has the appropriate technology available (e.g., a projector and screen for PowerPoint presentation). If possible, test the technology before setting the location, otherwise plan to arrive at the location extra early on the day of the meeting to make sure it works properly and have a back-up plan in case it doesn’t (e.g., save the presentation onto a flash drive to use with the room’s technology, but also bring a laptop with connection cords and printed copies)!
Executing a successful meeting not only requires advance planning but also requires participants to show up to the meeting to fill various roles by performing related functions. Most meetings will benefit from a meeting leader who keeps the discussion flowing according to the agenda, a secretary to capture and later distribute the minutes of the meeting, and a timekeeper who may limit discussion or cue the meeting leader to switch topics when time is running short. Other roles to consider include a parliamentarian, especially with large groups, to keep a running list of those who wish to speak on a topic, a media technician who can set-up and trouble-shoot technology used at the meeting, a greeter to direct participants to the meeting room, and someone in charge of bringing agenda copies and other supplies. Take some time in advance of the meeting to decide what roles are necessary to accomplish the meeting goals, assign those roles in advance of the meeting, and don’t forget to prepare for your own role.
Set the Agenda
An agenda is the written plan for running the meeting. It can be as formal or informal as you want, but it should never be skipped. Even short meetings with a limited purpose and goals will benefit from a plan in the hands of the meeting leader. At a minimum the agenda should: 1) list topics arranged to achieve the meeting purpose and goals, 2) identify who is responsible for each agenda item, and 3) have set time allotments for each agenda item. Make copies of the agenda to bring to the meeting or tell people to bring their own (announce which method ahead of time) so everyone will be able to follow the meeting plan together. Don’t forget to give a copy of the agenda to participants early enough to allow adequate preparation for the meeting. It should be disseminated to participants no later than 24 hours in advance of the meeting, but if sent more than 48 hours in advance then send a meeting reminder 24 hours before the meeting to keep the date fresh in their minds.
Executing the Meeting
Begin the meeting with introductions if any participants are new to the group—go beyond name and title to facilitate trust and relationship-building.
Announce the bathroom location at the beginning of the meeting and invite participants to leave quietly at any time, which will help limit interruptions during the meeting.
Review the purpose of the meeting and the agenda to focus participants’ attention on the meeting goals. This will also serve to identify the appropriate time in the meeting for participants to raise particular concerns and comments.
Stick to the agenda and try to keep other discussions to a minimum. One method for managing distracting comments is to table topics that are important for the group to discuss but inappropriate to the current discussion and revisit them during New Business or other designated time. For example, “That’s an interesting point. Let’s set that aside right now so we can focus on X, and we’ll come back to it during New Business.”
Review open action items from previous meetings and discussions.
End the meeting on time or briefly pause to acknowledge the meeting will run over the scheduled time and give an opportunity for attendees to leave without disrupting the flow of business.
Remind participants of the next meeting date and time before concluding the meeting. If practicable, also review the list of new action items from the meeting and who is responsible for each.
Following-up the Meeting
Congratulations on running a successful meeting! You’re not done yet, though. The last step is to send minutes of the meeting, including the list of action items with the owner and completion dates listed, to all participants as soon as possible after the meeting. Try to send the minutes out within 48 hours of the meeting, but definitely with enough time for the action items to be completed before the next meeting or due dates.
In addition to the suggestions above, consider the following list of considerations to take your meetings management skills to the next level.
Decide in advance of the meeting how important relationship-building is to facilitate the goals of the meeting. For example, initial client consultations and meetings with new groups typically will call for greater attention to relationship-building than a routine staff meeting where relationships are already established. In the meetings with greater emphasis on building relationships it’s a good idea to take some time to get to know one another, ask quiet participants to share their thoughts or opinions, and be flexible in allowing the meeting to deviate from the agenda to meet this goal.
The reality is that your appearance is the first thing that people notice about you and you want to send a message with what you choose to wear. Despite the fact suits are required courtroom attire, they’re not appropriate for every situation—you wouldn’t wear one to the gym, right? In some situations a suit may initially cause others to distrust you. Take some time to think about your audience and your meeting goals before getting dressed.
Consider what materials will be useful to the meeting participants and what your budget will allow you to provide. Think beyond simply providing the agenda and consider providing paper and pens for note-taking, useful promotional items with your name or logo printed on them, and refreshments to keep participants awake and energized.
Many people do not ask for clarification if they don’t understand what was said or are unfamiliar with a particular term used. Therefore it is essential to avoid the use of legal jargon in meetings with non-attorneys, as well as other technical jargon in meetings with anyone who may be unfamiliar with it.
Take advantage of efficiencies provided by technology wherever possible, but keep in mind the principle of respect when doing so. Pay particular attention to subject lines and make sure you use relevant and descriptive language—the test is whether the recipients can identify the email content before opening the email, i.e., avoid subject lines that simply say “Meeting Reminder.” Also limit your distribution list to people who really need or have expressed a desire for the information to avoid needlessly clogging others’ inboxes.
After all of your planning is complete set aside your plan for a few hours or days. Then review your plan and take some time to assess whether anything else is needed or desired to accomplish the meeting goals.
Remember that these are not hard and fast rules—they’re guidelines designed to help you effectively accomplish the meeting goals. These tips may not always work, but meetings are usually more successful when the tips are used than when they’re not!
Nicole L. Concordia is a solo practitioner in Minnetonka, Minnesota. This article was adapted from a presentation Mrs. Concordia developed for clinical law students at the University of Saint Thomas School of Law, Minnesota. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.