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How to lead more effective virtual (and not only) meetings

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

The challenge of running effective meetings, including remotely, has hit some leaders now, even though it’s a rather old challenge in the management world. This may be because there don’t seem to be many well-structured and well-run meetings around to naturally learn from. Us, humans, often like to blame the circumstances rather than take ownership and make a change.

What I've observed repeatedly in meetings is that participants read their emails, multitask, effectively pretending they are listening and not engaging, which in turn sabotages the purpose of them being there. One might say - nothing new under the sun. Is it fair though to let things be run to a poor standard when they have a negative impact just because they always have been done this way? It is of course a rhetorical question. Let’s have a look at an alternative approach where we can choose to proactively create a more effective meeting. Here are the steps.

#1 Purpose

Ask yourself why the meeting is needed in the first place. It will help you get the right people in the room (or, rather, Zoom!). You want to be inclusive, but at the same time, selective and lean in your choices. 

I recommend starting to challenge the flawed status quote by experimenting with different approaches and tools if running successful meetings is turning out difficult. The tools you would want to use for an effective virtual meeting will differ slightly from face to face meetings. The goal, however, remains the same – it is ultimately the change to happen as a result of the meeting, be it a decision that’s to be made, planning, a new design to be announced, or a solution to a problem.

#2 Reflect

As always, reflection on why our meetings are not effective will be needed. After all, not every situation will be the same. We may want to ask “why” and even five times before we get to the root cause, according to the Lean-methodology-based tool of “the 5 Why’s”.

For example, why aren’t participants in my virtual meetings engaged? Perhaps because many of them aren’t on video. Why do they not turn the video on? Because they may want to have the freedom to multitask. Why is that? They are meant to be participating - they are at work! Because no one holds them accountable for contributing to the meeting. Why not? Because no one really thinks about the consequences. Why? Because no one has raised it. Why? Because there’s no clear expectation, structure or rules for participating in virtual meetings. 

I think there’s emerging a clear action to be taken from the five why's. Why not to ask the team to come up with a standard or best practice for virtual meetings? After all, it looks like we may need to carry on holding meetings remotely for a while!

#3 The role of the host 

Whoever has summoned the meeting is in charge and responsible for the content and the performance of the meeting. If there’s a chairperson, it’s the chair's responsibility for the meeting to run smoothly and in a timely manner. If there’s no chairperson, it will be the person who has invited the participants (even if through their assistant). Regardless of the seniority level, the responsibility for running an engaging meeting is the host’s.

#4 A clear, well-structured and meaningful agenda

I really like the IPO model, which demonstrates how to propose not only an input (items to discuss), but also the process that will be best used to consider each item and the outcomes to be achieved from the discussion.

The rest of the structure is standard being at what time and who by the items will be presented as well as a list of actions and their owners. Clarity, structure and purpose are the three words to keep in mind while designing an agenda.

The IPO model ensures that you carefully consider who needs to be invited to this meeting and that the meeting has a meaningful purpose. 

For example, in this article, I am discussing a well-structure meaningful and clear agenda in #2 where the process is the article and the output will be the reader having the knowledge how to construct such an agenda as the output of this article. The IPO structure works well not on for meetings, as it appears.

An agenda in the IPO format, if this article was a meeting, may look like this.

How to lead more effective virtual (and not only) meetings

#5 Accountability  Participants need to know they are expected to produce a certain input ahead of the meeting, and of the expectation towards them to prepare and engage in others’ input. You could create some structured opportunities for participants to engage during virtual meetings, for instance, by using breakout rooms on Zoom. Some other ways to create more accountability and engagement are as follows:

  • Having all participants show up on video. This one is about the power of video and non-verbal communication.  If they don’t, simply ask them to, and explain the purpose of having everyone on video is higher level of engagement and a smoother flow to the meeting. 

  • "The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer", say Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. 

  • Assign participants different roles to increase engagement in virtual meetings – one person watches the time and order of the agenda, another writes minutes, another makes sure everyone participates.

  • Always have a chairperson role in bigger meetings. Ideally, whenever possible, let different team members be the chair so that everybody experiences the responsibility of running a meeting. 

  • Do use breakout groups in virtual meetings which prevent people from hiding and create an opportunity for more discussion in which everyone can get easily involved.

#6 Visibility Every leader, and especially company MDs, needs to be much more visible right now — through video conferencing or pre-recorded videos — to give people confidence in the company, calm them down, and be hope-givers-in-chief, as someone has put it. 

#7 Preparation Preparation can make a world of difference. Arrive a few minutes early as the host of the meeting to welcome those who have checked in early, or simply to check that the AV and the internet connection is working. Don’t forget about keeping eye contact and smiling as you run the meeting.

And a few other tips:

  • You could use an icebreaker to kick start a meeting, for example, depending on the subject, ask everyone to share a success or something they are grateful for. It builds positive atmosphere.

  • Have a 60-second rule for the speaker whenever someone speaks up (your time-keeper will help with that).

  • Be aware of the background of your video – it doesn’t actually always have to be formal. Sometimes the background of your home office is perfect. Zoom’s background or your company branding as a background are perfect for any occasion and easy to set up. 

  • Don't expect people to read very wordy slides if you use PowerPoint during your meetings.

  • Use the chat and read any comments that come up there – ask for explanation from the audience if a message seems unclear.

  • Call on people and ask them to share their opinion.

  • Ask for feedback at the end.

Leading virtual meetings (or any meetings) is a learned skill, so don’t get put off by initial sense of awkwardness and discomfort. Remember, your success will be proportional to the effort you make.

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