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ARTICLE: Why the first five minutes of a meeting shape its outcome


Meetings can waste precious time, invite poor decisions, add to exhaustion, and fray relationships. But let’s face it: meetings are a key aspect of your leadership repertoire, just like quantitative analysis or hiring and retaining top talent. Each step in the meeting process creates the inputs and conditions for those that follow and is critical to reaching your goal. To run successful meetings, design them intentionally. Ask yourself 4 questions:

  • Why are you meeting?

  • Who needs to be there?

  • What conversation needs to happen?

  • How can you create the conditions that will enable that conversation?

Leaders are often able to answer the first three questions with little effort, but they usually come up empty on the last one.

The problem starts before attendees show up or log on. Many people start out disengaged because they lack a clear sense of why the meeting is necessary. They are also distracted—they may have kids at home learning remotely or a relative to care for, or they may be anxious about economic upheaval and societal uncertainty.

Facilitators can’t resolve all these issues, but they can help people to be more present and productive by hosting dynamic, high-engagement meetings t set up conversations as opportunities for real work — regardless of the specific purpose, and cancel them if there is no real work to be done. This premise will tap into one of the biggest sources of team motivation: a sense of progress toward a worthwhile goal.

The most important moment, other than crafting your original invitation, is when you begin. Here are 3 ways to navigate toward your goal:

  1. Welcome people and help them connect. People need to warm up to get in the creative spirit. Neuroscience tells us that to do this well, people must feel welcome and connected. Although the details will vary with your purpose and your organization’s culture, as a general rule, the sooner people speak, the more engaged they will be throughout the meeting. Even just 5 minutes of speaking freely in the group on virtual calls — before you start your agenda — can change the entire dynamic of a meeting. Start with personalized greetings, play upbeat music, invite the participants to grab a refreshment. You might even send a simple treat in advance. Provide a lightly structured activity or ask a thoughtful question that allows each person a chance to speak.

  2. Bring the purpose to life. Too often, we don’t think about how a conversation fits with our larger mission, goals, or other groups' work. It’s the facilitator’s job to bring the purpose to life and activate people’s interest in the challenge or task at hand. One way to do this is to have an executive or senior member of the group briefly state the meeting’s purpose in the context of a larger dilemma that requires the assembled group’s expertise or creativity. Spend a few minutes discussing it, so that participants develop an understanding of why they are there and what you hope to accomplish. The goal is to spark the group’s interest; if people start diving into detailed problem-solving, you may need to gently intervene to keep things on track.

  3. Preview the journey. Finally, outline the work the group needs to do during the session. Walk through the agenda, being clear about when you will use any prework and how you would prefer people to contribute. Pause for questions or concerns, and adjust the agenda as needed. You may be able to combine specific activities or tactics to save time—for example, use a warm-up question related to the meeting topic or allow a few minutes for individuals to independently review and add to their prework during the call as ways to bring the purpose to life.


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