Use these 3 examples to send clear signals and improve your meetings

by | Oct 7, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

Picture yourself going to dinner at a restaurant or a friend’s home. More than likely when you take your seat, you’ll find the table already set for your meal.

This preparation sends at least three signals: 1) Your host is awaiting you; 2) You’ve got the basic tools you need to eat your meal; and 3) You’re now primed to receive your food. You in turn can start to anticipate eating and drinking in comfort and enjoying your meal.

Now contrast this dinner experience with your participation in a business meeting. When you’re invited to a meeting and attend, to what extent do you see signals of what to expect? For example:

  • Is there an agenda?
  • Are there introductions of any new members?
  • If the meeting is hybrid, do participants know who’s in the room and who’s online?
  • Is there a stated purpose of the meeting?
  • What about the context for the meeting?
  • Is it clear what’s expected of the participants? Roles for the meeting and actions afterward?
  • To what extent is everyone expected to speak?

All too often, meeting leaders do minimal preparation for business meetings and provide fewer signals than you receive in other situations, especially when you sit down for dinner at a restaurant. Instead, the meeting leader kicks off the meeting and jumpstarts the conversation without priming participants about what to expect or providing any direction.

As a result, meeting participants often view meetings as a waste of time with less than ideal outcomes. And let’s not forget, there’s also the possibility of meetings ending with increased friction among participants.

 Leaders and anyone else who’s convening meetings need to be much more intentional about meetings, including sending signals connected to a sound process. These signals are often akin to signals you use when driving, as explained in this recent blog post, Tired of communication chaos at work? Adopt these 5 rules of the road (Signaling is rule #3.)

The restaurant metaphor is also fitting, especially to emphasize the agility that leaders need to set the context for each type of meeting they’re convening and the participants they’re inviting.

These three examples show leaders who initially missed the mark with their meeting approach and how they course corrected with assistance from me and others.

Example 1:

Leader’s action: In team meetings, the leader always asked all the team members for their opinions.

The reaction: A few team members questioned whether the leader had any opinions. And if he didn’t, that would be even stranger and more troubling.

The leader’s new signal: When the leader now asks team members for their opinions, he adds that he has a point of view that he’ll share after he’s heard from everyone else.

Example 2:

Leader’s action: At a quarterly town hall conducted as a hybrid meeting, a new leader stepped to the mic and started talking about highlights from the past three months and plans for the rest of the year. Because the town hall was running behind schedule, the leader didn’t take any questions.

The reaction: The post-meeting pulse survey showed low ratings for the leader’s presentation. Write-in comments included: “interesting summary, not sure where we’re headed though;” “why no Q&A?”; and “no big picture.”

The leader’s new signal: The leader, with the help of communication team members, now recognizes the importance of framing future talks. The leader has adopted sharing an agenda and using the framework of “What?”, “So what?” (why you should care), and “Now what” followed by a question and answer period. At least every other quarterly meeting, the leader also talks about “Next”–what seems to be on the horizon for the next 18 months.

By scoping the conversation for employees, including providing more context, the leader is better positioned to ensure employees are literally and figuratively following the talk and the call to action, and are able to ask questions for increased clarity.

Example 3:

Leader’s action: In preparation for his first meeting as board chair, the leader met with executive staff and outside advisors, including me. The leader asked us to suggest agenda items yet vetoed almost all of the topics we suggested.

The reaction: We then asked him what he wanted on the agenda. The board chair first stated disappointment with us for not being able to read his mind. He then shared the agenda he had created in his head but had not yet written, as well as what he wanted to achieve during his term as board chair.

As tactfully as we could, we explained to the board chair that we were not professional or even amateur mind readers; our working relationship with him was new; and we needed to talk with him to support him in his new role. We added that we could help him set the direction for his term as board chair, including shaping the impact he wanted to make on the organization. He took us up on his offer, and we helped him identify and articulate what he wanted his legacy to be.

The leader’s new signal: At the first board meeting, the leader shared his vision for his term. He also explained how the meeting agendas for each meeting would support his vision plus other necessary business items. The board chair and his advisors, internal and external, then adopted a cadence of meetings, which we called “meeting of the minds” sessions to stay on track with his vision. We regularly reminded him as well as provided support to keep all stakeholders informed. We also encouraged him to gather feedback from key stakeholders, since he couldn’t read their minds.

The upshot? Signals matter. Be agile and set the context for your meetings. And also enjoy your dining experiences—food, company, and atmosphere alike!




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