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The Magic of Meetings. No, seriously.

magic-meetings

Most entrepreneur stories have a “refugee-from-Big-Company” angle.  As an investor I often hear liberated entrepreneurs discuss escaping from the treadmill of eye-rollingly lame “meetings.”  In their company, they marvel at the absence of “meetings” – they just have high energy huddles before they “go get things done.”

My experience as a CEO confirms that this “no-meeting” model is necessary to survive the early infant-mortality phase of company-building.  There was nothing as invigorating and productive as iteratively gathering and mobilizing my team like a guerilla army, probing to find paths to conquer the world.

Having made it all the way to the other side as a big company, though, my judgement is that – paradoxically – discarding this “no-meeting” model is required to grow beyond the early phase of growth.

I’m not making a case for the value of TPS report-driven, Big Company meetings.  But at some point – usually around 20 employees – businesses need actual “meetings” with scheduled times and agendas and attendees with reporting responsibilities.  The reality is – despite celebrated efforts by Zuck, Larry, and Sergey to purge them – you can’t grow and avoid lots of meetings.

Take heart, though – there is a recipe to remove the Big Company parts of meetings (“bad bureaucracy”) and inject them with the critical entrepreneurial elements (“good bureaucracy”).  Below are five tips that, when implemented, will make meetings effective for rapidly growing organizations and tolerable to entrepreneur/founder CEOs.

1.  There are two types of meetings – founders should only be at one of them.

“Sausage-making” meetings are operational, detail-oriented gatherings required to execute specific tasks.  “Taste-testing” meetings are where decision-makers evaluate options and set plans that others execute.  The former make entrepreneur/CEOs want to stick pencils in their eyes, the latter usually don’t… at least for a while.

2.  Meet individually with people before every meeting.

This is the single most important thing a founder/CEO can do to create a culture of good meetings.  This model works when your company is <10 people all the way to when it’s >1,000 people.

Here’s why:  Every key executive wants to be heard, but it’s impossible to hear everyone to their satisfaction in a group setting.  You as the founder/CEO need to listen to everyone individually, so they know they’ve had their say with the Big Kahuna.

After the individual meetings, you then have a brief follow-up interaction – a quick call or stop by their office – to communicate the go forward plan you want to build around in the meeting.  Yes, that’s two mini-meetings in advance of the actual meeting.  While this seems unnecessarily redundant, it absolutely works because of the next point.

3.  Meetings are for getting leaders on the same page, not for making decisions.

All human beings – even your handpicked, ego-less management team – are susceptible to groupthink and face-saving behavior when their pride and credibility are on the line in front of their peers.

Your job as founder/CEO is to get your team’s honest and best efforts.  The most reliable way to get this is to discuss all their private thoughts, concerns, and vulnerabilities outside of and before meetings so you can get to a consensus and unified position inside of and during meetings.

The result is that in the actual meeting, each executive does not feel the need to fight for airtime and get in their nuanced two cents… because they’ve already had their full say with you, the founder/CEO.

With all that need-to-be-heard energy out of the way, you’ll spend the meeting on the most important parts – deciding which exec is responsible for which deliverables and in what timeframes.  This is getting their best efforts on the things that matter most so they can leave that meeting and “go get things done.”

Do an experiment – try your meetings the old way and then this new way, and I’ll bet you’ll reduce the common “let’s-take-this-offline-later” defense mechanism that mucks up the agility and focus of your management team.

4.  Founders should attend or lead meetings only when absolutely necessary.

Remember this – you’re the Big Kahuna, and despite your best efforts to be egalitarian and just another member of the team, you’re THE FOUNDER.  Your opinions carry more weight just because they’re… yours.  So when the founder/CEO leads meetings, they’re inevitably going to exert gravitational pull to their unconscious positions and undermine the team’s independence and authority.  That won’t get the team’s honest and best efforts.  Let others lead the meetings – you do your work before and after the meetings.  As far as leading, stick with the morale-boosting, vision-setting, charge-the-hill meetings.

5.  Don’t be in any meeting with more than THREE topics.

More topics mean either:  it’s a “sausage making” meeting and you shouldn’t be there; the later topics are not really important and should be managed without the meeting; or anything after the third topic will get short shrift and be poorly addressed or (gasp!) require another meeting.  You want your team to know that meetings will be short, sweet, focused, and about important things.  If they become the kitchen sink where you address every thing, you’ve got one foot in the grave of Big Company bad bureaucracy that you so hated.

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably an entrepreneur.  All entrepreneurs hate bad bureaucracy.  Bad meetings create bad bureaucracy.  You’re the founder – take control of your critical cultural infrastructure by establishing good bureaucracy through good meetings.  Good meetings won’t guarantee success, but bad meetings will guarantee failure.

An edited version of this was published at Inc.com and can be found here.