Control Meetings for Maximum Effectiveness

Meetings should consist of three separate parts: the purpose, desired outcomes and follow up.

Jennifer StrawleyJennifer Strawley

Meetings have become so burdensome and ineffective that attendees often tune out or focus on other things. How can women leaders ensure that their meetings are effective?

What’s ineffective in a meeting as important as what is effective, said Jennifer Strawley. We’re all juggling a ton of duties and most of us would agree that our time is at a premium.

Strawley, the senior associate athletic director of administration and student excellence at the University of Miami, has participated in and led more meetings than she probably wants to count.

In her current position, she oversees a laundry list of athletic activities for the Hurricanes including academics, compliance and several women’s sports.

Prior to joining Miami, she served two tours with the NCAA, the last as the director of academic and membership affairs. Strawley was also the agency’s director of membership services and student-athlete reinstatement.

At the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Directors (NACWAA) conference, she spoke about how preplanning meetings and conference calls can lead to better results. The conference was held in San Diego in October 2013.
Prevent “meetings from hell”
We’ve all been there, trapped in the meeting from hell that we can’t — or shouldn’t — leave. These bad meetings all have similar components: having no action agenda or take-aways, having no idea about the point of the meeting, getting side-tracked by participants.

Other signs you’re in a bad meeting: no one knows what to bring. Of the agenda items, the one that’s most important is the last one discussed — usually with five minutes left.

Meetings should consist of three separate parts: the purpose, which can include delivering information and setting or reporting on action items, desired outcomes and follow up.

Another consideration that can turn an otherwise effective meeting into a nightmare is the environment. Pay attention to the little things — Are there enough chairs?

What are the temperature levels? Do people have room to spread out? — especially if the meeting could become contentious.

Other to-do items on the checklist include checking the technology ahead of time. Make sure the PowerPoints and the phone connections work.

Latecomers will only be late once or twice if you’re known for starting your meetings on time. If you wait for the stragglers, you’re actually penalizing the people who showed up on time.

If you’re having a lunch meeting, make sure lunch arrives when scheduled. People are generally more agreeable on a full stomach.

Get the information in writing out ahead of the meeting especially if the agenda includes discussions on an important issue. Figure out the potential roadblocks and plan how to handle them.

“This is incredibly important for me,” said Strawley. “I’m a relationship person.” If she doesn’t plan for those roadblocks, she risks losing control over the meeting or alienating participants.

For participants coming in from another location, take into account time zones and traffic patterns. Don’t allow the meeting to get off track or switch to a different subject.

Strawley’s desire to build relationships starts with introductions to make everyone feel welcome. She also tries to engage everyone in the discussions, making sure that all participants have input. Action items are identified; a summary of where to go is explained.

Sure, some of your participants may have to take important calls during your meetings. But otherwise they should be present and engaged, not spending the time reading and returning their e-mail.
Managing conference calls
With dead time and lack of eye contact, conference calls offer their own set of special challenges. Despite that, they serve a logical purpose and a cost savings in getting people together without flying them in from around the country.

Ahead of a conference call, Strawley encourages leaders to identify three items in response to the items they will discuss at the meeting to use as a prompt. Get people’s ideas ahead of time.

If you’re leading the call, you probably already know that specific participants will have opinions. During the dead air, encourage them to voice their thoughts about a particular item.

In a conference call, you need to try to engage everyone. But that can be difficult when participants are on their computers and not paying attention.

One solution: acknowledge the behavior. Ask if some of what’s being discussed can be handled in other ways.

Focus only on the topics that really need to be discussed during the conference call. Stabilize the agenda at the beginning and offer the option finishing it by e-mail.

What about difficult people or those who are argumentative? Strawley suggested talking to them afterward about their behavior. A good response: “Out of respect for everyone’s time, let’s stay on track.” If necessary, call in a mediator – a neutral, third party – to iron it out.

All of us, at one time or another, have been blindsided by people who are unwilling to speak up during the meeting but then undermine us after it’s over. Strawley suggested appointing a spokesperson and let them speak first. Or put it on the agenda as an item.
Follow-ups and take-aways
The most effective meeting or conference call is wasted without a plan for follow up. During the last couple of minutes, identify who is responsible for the items that need to be addressed before the next meeting.  Give them a deadline.

Other suggestions:
• Start first with important things.
• Put the details in the minutes.
• Use PowerPoints to validate key points.
• Identify what you’re trying to accomplish.
• List concrete tasks.
• Hold smaller meetings.
• Employ technology.
• Create minutes on iPads.
• Use apps like Evernote.

Remember that an ounce of prevention does save lots of trouble — and make meetings and conference calls more effective — in the long run.

Jennifer Strawley can be reached at

Santovec, Mary Lou. (2014, March). Control Meetings for Maximum Effectiveness. Women in Higher Education, 23(3), 16-17.

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