164: How to Run Meetings Your Team Actually Wants to Attend with Elise Keith

Ep164 how to run meetings your team actually wants to attend Elise Keith TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

For many, team meetings are the bane of corporate existence. Too often, it feels like everyone’s time is wasted and very little is accomplished. So what are leaders doing wrong? On this episode of The TalentGrow Show, author and co-founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings Elise Keith joins Halelly to discuss how to get high performance and engagement from your team at meetings and run meetings that your team actually wants to attend. You’ll learn what should and shouldn’t be a meeting at all and why Elise recommends making all meetings optional. Plus, Elise shares two questions leaders should ask their employees every single week. Listen and don’t forget to share this episode with others!

ABOUT ELISE KEITH:

Elise Keith is the co-founder of Lucid Meetings and the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization. She leads Lucid Meetings' research, publication, and product management efforts, constantly seeking the best ways to make it easy for people to enjoy meetings that get work done.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • Elise shares what inspired her to found Lucid Meetings (3:40)

  • What are most leaders getting wrong about the way they hold meetings? And what does Elise mean when she says we need to get more specific? (4:21)

  • What shouldn’t be a meeting at all? Elise talks about common wrong reasons for scheduling meetings (8:39)

  • Halelly and Elise discuss the 16 types of meetings, and the three broad categories that they all fall into (11:18)

  • Elise tells a story about the research that’s being done on successfully running meetings, and shares two questions leaders should ask their employees every week (12:53)

  • Tools and techniques for leaders to make meetings better (16:50)

  • Being the team manager doesn’t mean you have to run the meeting (20:39)

  • Halelly puts on her devil’s advocate hat and questions how viable it is to make meetings optional like Elise recommends (22:02)

  • What’s new and exciting on Elise’s horizon? (24:21)

  • One specific action you can take to upgrade your leadership effectiveness (27:12)

RESOURCES:

Episode 164 Elise Keith

We talk about how people have this mindset, like, “Meetings are a waste of time. I hate meetings.” Then they go to them and they sit on their phones in a back corner, grumping, about how their time is being wasted. Meetings are not a spectator sport. This is not the sort of thing you’re meant to show up and see if the other monkeys perform for you. If you’re in the room, you should be actively working to make that time successful for your team.

Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

TalentGrowers, are meetings the bane of your existence? A lot of the people that I meet say yes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and this is the TalentGrow Show and this week I have a guest who is going to help you make your meetings meaningful. Her name is Elise Keith, and she is a meetings maven. So, we talk about ways in which you can make meetings successful by being more specific, mistakes that people are making in how they run meetings, especially as leaders, different meeting types and why you should be mindful of the purpose of the meeting and how you design it, and how to get more people on your team involved and engaged in making your meetings more meaningful. I look forward to sharing this with you and to hearing what you thought about it afterward. Without further ado, let’s take a listen to my conversation with Elise. ...

TalentGrowers, this week I have Elise Keith on the TalentGrow Show with me. She is the co-founder of Lucid Meetings, and the author of Where the Action Is, the meetings that make or break your organization. She leads Lucid Meetings research, publication and product management efforts, constantly seeking the best ways to make it easy for people to enjoy meetings that get work done. Elise, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

I’m so delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.

I’m glad you came. This is a topic that comes up a lot. I’ve blogged and podcasted about it before and people always talk about meetings, usually in derogatory terms, so I’m looking forward to enlightenment today. But before we do, I always ask my guests to describe their professional journey briefly. Where did you start and how did you get to where you are today?

Ever since I was a very small child, I wanted to grow up and focus my whole life on meetings. No, not really. I started actually as a performing arts major, and spent some time working in that world until I realized that wasn’t going to make for a sustainable diet, so decided to move into the software world. I spent 10 years working in the software industry in all kinds of capacities. Working with international standards organizations and nonprofits and the legal community and throughout all of that, saw that where the decisions were getting made and who got to make the decisions and whether the team seemed to enjoy being together or whether they just couldn’t wait to leave the office as quickly as possible was all made very, very clear and changed by the way that group met. When we looked and realized – my co-founders and I – that in every environment that we went to, the teams that had designed their meetings to be places where they shared, where they connected and where they were very productive were outperforming all of the rest. We thought, “That’s worth trying to bring out to the rest of the world,” and we founded Lucid Meetings.

About how long ago was that?

Lucid Meetings was founded in 2010, so we are, golly, nine years? And over nine years we’ve made a lot of changes. Done a lot of learning, done a lot of research, because it turns out it’s a really, really complex topic.

It’s true, and one that is so full of emotion for so many people. I’m glad that you’re helping people sort this out. You wrote the book Where the Action Is, and I enjoyed reading it and you say in there – I pulled out a quote I like – “You must get specific if you want successful meetings.” That is something that I think sounds easy but it isn’t. So, what do you think most of us in the work world are getting wrong about how we’re doing meetings in such a way that we all hate meetings, or so many people hate meetings, and what do you mean by this statement? You must get specific if you want successful meetings.

I think the big thing that we’re getting wrong, by and large, is treating meetings as meetings, in general. Just starting that conversation. Let’s talk about your meetings. Instantly pulls appall of generic sort of distaste across the conversation. So, the first and most important key to having a better relationship there and getting to a point of success is to completely change your starting spot. When I talk to people about their meetings, they tend to say “Ugh.” But if I talk to somebody about, “Hey, tell me about how you like to run a podcast interview, or tell me about how you interview new employees or tell me about what it’s like when you’re talking to investors,” and you make that conversation specific, the entire game changes. I think actually “game” is a really good metaphor to use here, because what you see in the places they are successful, consistently with their meetings, and where people don’t go, “Blah, meetings,” but people go, “Hey, yeah, my meetings really do work that way and let me tell you all about it,” and they sort of light up is that the organizations have understood that how they meet differs, depending on what the team is trying to do and which part of the business they’re serving and where they are in their project or lifecycle. That way it’s not that different than when you look at sports team, running through a season. The sports team has specific ways in which each person on the team is going to come together and move the ball down the field. Not everybody kicks. Not everybody blocks. And the way that we come together and move things down is very, very different when we’re close to the goal line than when we’re on our heels and they’re coming at us. Each of those plays is a very specific thing and the way that works is that everybody in that situation knows the rules of the game, they know the part they’re meant to play, they know which plays they run in which order to succeed.

The same thing is entirely true in successful meeting environments. When we look at a leadership team, they will now, “Here’s the day where we talk about our strategy, and here’s the day where we talk about performance on our strategy, and here’s how we make decisions.” These aren’t mysteries. They’re not just meetings on the calendar. They’re very specific conversations they know how to run.

I like that. You’re reframing the term that has just become so catchall and generic to become useless and renaming it to make it specific as we said. That game analogy really clicked – in a sense, a game is a meeting. There’s a goal and there’s a group of people achieving it together with a plan.

Absolutely. And you would never go onto the field with a bunch of people who don’t know the rules, and as a coach or a leader, you would never go onto the field and expect to do all the playing yourself.

And you would never have people running around on the field, not sure why they are there.

Exactly. I’m like, “I’m going to invite everybody to play in this play, because we want the whole team to feel included.” You would not do that.

They’d be standing there on the grass, like dodos, going, “Okay, what?”

Exactly! There are a lot of things we are doing in our meetings because we’re not thinking of them as work tools that we use to help move our projects or our teams or our mission forward that are more like what we do when we gather in sort of just basic tribal ways, where we get everybody together, sort of talk about what’s going on.

I’d love to hear what you think. I think there’s a lot of meetings that should not be meetings in the first place. I wanted to ask you about the different types of meetings. In your book you describe 16 different types and you sort them into these three broad categories. Before we go there, I suppose, what should not be a meeting?

Basically anything that doesn’t fit into those categories probably shouldn’t be a meeting. So, things that are not great candidates for meetings are information updates, just “I am telling you things,” unless it’s literally a broadcast. There’s that one type of meeting where the CEO of the giant company gets up and he tells the entire company the big picture once a month. Beyond things like that, which are really about setting and maintaining cultural standards, there are very few meetings that work well where somebody is just talking at everybody else.

The other one that happens most – and there is some really good research on this one about the kinds of environments that create this phenomenon – is the “I’m not sure what to do now or how to make progress, so let’s get everybody in the room and meet.” The environments that create that are those environments where people know there are high expectations, they know they’re supposed to be performing to a standard, but they’re not entirely confident that they have the agency or the control they need to meet that standard, and so they freak out a little bit. Like when you have a lack of agency and control and the expectations are high, it just completely stresses people out. When people are stressed out they take action. One of the really common actions that people take are they start sending a lot of email, updating everybody, and they’re scheduling meetings. Because they’re doing something to be on top of the situation.

It seems like progress and momentum and productivity, but it may also be sort of a “cover your assets” kind of thing, where maybe the other people in the room will say something that will give me a clue about what I’m supposed to do.

And I’m taking action. I’m seizing control of the thing I can control. Unfortunately, those meetings, because they’re not entirely sure what they even can create because they’re not confident in how to play the game, they end up being very, very wasteful. You don’t know who to invite, you don’t know how to structure it, you don’t know what it’s supposed to create.

And then everybody else joins you in not knowing. So, I’ll link to your book and everybody can get a copy so they can read lots more about the different types. You have 16 different types, which makes me think the 16 Myers-Briggs types, but I know that isn’t all. Just the number 16. But the categories you’ve got – cadence meetings, catalyst meetings and learned/influence meetings. Why do you think there are so many different types? And if you can speak broadly, what distinguishes them, one from the other?

I think there are so many different types of meetings because when you look at what a meeting is, it’s a group of individuals, with all of their wonderful idiosyncrasies – their personalities and their skills and what they do or don’t know – coming together to make some decisions about the next steps for their common future. So, given the range of possible next steps and the range of possible common futures and the range of all of the stuff going on with people, that’s about as complex a situation as you can get. It’s like you take everything in Thanksgiving dinner and all of the dynamics we have with families and notch it up a couple of levels because you don’t have some of that shared history to build on, in terms of complex dynamics. To manage complex dynamics like that successfully, there are fundamental patterns of things that work well because of the way the human brain works and the way work can move forward, and then there are things that don’t. So the 16 types help break the different kinds of meetings into ones that work at different stages of projects.

The cadence meetings, that first bucket, those are all of our meetings that we use to keep our teams moving forward. We know who the team is, we know what we’re trying to accomplish, and we want to stay alive. We want to make sure we have common meaning and goals and that we are engaged in making progress. They’re all about momentum and forward motion and continuous improvement. And there’s really cool research being done right now by some of the big companies about how to design those meetings very, very specifically to get big impacts. Can I tell you a story about that?

Yes, please.

I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with the work of Marcus Buckingham and the strength finders?

I am definitely very familiar. I love him.

Right, so he and Ashley Goodall just collaborated on a new book called 9 Lies About Work. I interviewed, they had talked in there, they said, “The scope of the number of people that you can manage is the number of people that you can have a one-on-one check-in with every week.” I thought that was an intriguing finding. So what’s behind that? I interviewed Ashley about that and what he said they did is at Cisco they were looking for the most powerful, practical lever they could find for increasing engagement. Because employee engagement is directly and very strongly correlated with overall team performance, if people feel trusted and like there’s meaning, they outperform in their work. How do you make more of that? They started running experiments, and over the course of three years, what they found is when the team member answers two questions every week in writing, and then the team leader comes and has a one-on-one meeting with the team member about their answers to those questions every week, engagement goes up.

Are you going to tell us these questions?

Yeah, and they’re really simple! The questions are, what are your priorities this week, and how can I help? But the key here is that the impetus, the need for attention and the need for what I want to talk about are coming from the team member, not from the leader. And then the leader is responding with how they’re going to help in response to that. It’s very much a servant leadership as a weekly habit. They have a technology – because they’re Cisco – so they were able to take this and scale it across 15,000 teams and measure the performance. They found yes, indeed, that reliably that goes up. To the point where they built in an expectation for all their team leaders to respond to at least 80 percent of those check-in requests every week. That’s performance criteria in their company, and their compliance is actually closer to 92 percent because the teams themselves found that they enjoy it when they perform better. They enjoy liking each other and their work better, and that practice really, really helps them do it.

Cool.

It’s totally cool, and that’s one of the 16 types of meetings, the one-on-one. So designing the one-on-one and making really clear expectations about it, making it a system, takes so much of the guesswork out of how do you effectively lead high-performing teams. That's possible for every single one of those 16 types of meetings.

You can design them to specifically meet their objectives because you understood what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.

Absolutely. And then the great power for the most high-performing organizations is when they’ve done it not just for their one-on-ones, but they’ve done it for also how they make decisions, how they solve problems, how they run interviews. They have clarity about the way in which when people get together, they’re going to work through these really complex things to get the results they want. Once you’ve got a system, you can start to implement and work on that system and you’re not asking people to do things like become more engaging or be more inclusive. How do you go back to your desk and be inclusive? It’s very, very difficult. But when you design in mechanisms that include other people – because that’s what you do in your meetings, that’s how they run – that’s a totally different starting place.

I think that’s a great segue to something else I wanted to ask you, which is it makes me nuts when people ask me for techniques and tactical things and they don’t think about the mindset first, but having discussed the fact that you have to make sure that your meetings are purposeful and designed specifically for their unique purpose, and that there are so many different types of meetings, what are some of your favorite tools and techniques that maybe anyone listening can put into action to free themselves from the terrible, terrible meetings and make meetings better?

Talking at a leadership level, yes?

Yes.

Okay, because I get that question quite often from the “what if you’re not in charge of the meetings at all” and the answer there is very different. But at a leadership level, I really like to begin, if you’re looking for a lever point to get into a culture where you haven’t done the work yet to find your magic two questions for one-on-ones and you’re not there yet, what can you do to get there as quickly as possible? I think there are three agreements you can put in place that start to change the game really quickly. The first agreement is that every meeting is optional. I just make that a rule across the entire company, right off the bat. Every meeting is optional.

That puts the pressure on the leader of the meeting to make sure people don’t experience it as a waste of time.

Absolutely. It puts the pressure on the leader to say, “You know what? People don’t have to come to this so I better make sure I’m making this something that’s compelling.” It also works the other way around. So, we talked about how people have this mindset, like, “Meetings are a waste of time. I hate meetings.” Then they go to them and they sit on their phones in a back corner, grumping, about how their time is being wasted. Meetings are not a spectator sport. This is not the sort of thing you’re meant to show up and see if the other monkeys perform for you. If you’re in the room, you should be actively working to make that time successful for your team. By making meetings optional, you also set the expectation that if you’re going to show up, you’ve shown up by choice. Stop complaining and start working. Let’s make this valuable together.

I love that.

That’s the first agreement. It freaks people out – I don’t think we can do this – but you can do it. Let’s be honest. Every meeting is already optional.

Because you’re not indentured slaves!

Exactly. And if you’ve ever been a meeting with a bunch of people who say, “Gotta go, I’ve got another meeting starting,” they’re basically saying, “I can make any excuse I need to, to get out of this one. I will use my trump card that some other meeting has started.” People bail all the time. They’re already doing it. Make it explicit.

The second agreement to create is one that says meeting performance is job performance.

This is not the thing we do in between work. It is the work.

It is the work. We are here collectively. It’s a team sport to make sure that we’re getting some good value out of this time. And if you’re in this room, was it Steve Jobs who said, “We don’t hire smart people and tell them what they do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” You’re in the room. You’re there to contribute. So contributing well in meetings should be an expectation we have for all of our team members. That’s how you get that kind of performance. You look at the environments, like Pixar or the Navy SEALS or any of these folks who do really rapid innovation work and their meetings are highly, highly engaged and collaborative. Everybody is taking a turn assessing the situation and providing input. That should be the expectation across the board. Saying, “Guess what? How we perform together here is not optional. It’s something that's important to all of us.” And with meetings being optional to begin with, that stands for the leader and employee.

The final thing I recommend and love is – and something I saw in one of my favorite, favorite organizations – is that everyone takes turns leading.

During the meeting, or at different meetings?

Different meetings. If you have a team that meets every week, maybe in January, Sally runs that meeting, and in February Joe runs that meeting. So there is nothing about being the team manager that says you need to run the meeting. When you turn that over and open that up to your team, it does a whole bunch of things. First of all, it gets rid of that spectator sport thing. Second, it allows you to participate better, because if you are the decision maker in the room it’s hard to both lead a conversation and make the decision in a way that’s inclusive and neutral, so that takes some of the burden off you to try and do too many things at once. Third, it’s a fabulous way to do leadership development across your entire team.

That’s right. You’re giving them a chance to learn new skills and perfect them in the job.

Absolutely. Between those three things, all the sudden you’ve got an entire team of people who is saying, “Wait a second. How do I run that meeting well? What kind of meeting is this? What is it we need to achieve? I saw Joe was tuning out – was he tuning out because this is a waste of his time or what’s going on?” All the sudden you’re engaged in the design problem together, which are those three rules. That’s where I’d start.

I like it. TalentGrowers, sometimes my devil’s advocate hat comes out and then I say ridiculous things that may be going into people’s heads as they’re listening to us. So I wonder if the devil’s advocate would say, “Yeah, you can make them optional, but come on, if your manager invites you to a meeting, you can’t not show up.” True?

I think it’s not an automatic. You have to be authentic in the agreement. Like any new agreement, it requires some “prove it.”

Do you kid or are you just saying?

Exactly. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. So leaders who are doing this for the first couple of times can help prove it by opting out of other meetings that they don’t need to be in. They can also change the way in which they are doing the invitation. One of the keys to making a successful meeting, just in general but especially key if you’re doing something like making them optional, is being really, really clear about the purpose of the meeting. Right in the name of the meeting itself. Don’t call it “team meeting.” Call it “Decide on logo color.” Underneath that you can say, “Hey, if you have nothing to add here, opt out.”

Be more explicit.

Invoke it. Any agreement, no agreement works if it’s not evoked.

Right, and I would add, my additional answer to me would be that, to build on what you said, you walk the talk and you model through your reaction. So people are watching how you react and people are watching what you say, what you do and not just what you say. It may take some time to convince them that you really mean it, if they think this is some kind of a trick. What do you mean, optional?

Right. And those are certainly just steps. The real goal is to get to a place where everybody understands what kind of meetings your team runs, when they’ll happen, what happens in them, and they’ll know when they should show up and when they shouldn’t, because they will understand how the game is played by your team. It’s a starting spot.

There’s so much more, I’m sure there is so much more we could say, and just that thing you brought up earlier about what do you do if you’re not the one running the meeting, then what? There’s so much we could share. So, I’m going to ask you to share one specific action tip, but before that, what’s new and exciting on your horizon these days Elise?

Oh my goodness. My company does a whole bunch of stuff, and throughout the process of working on the book and working through with clients and on, we have a software platform, working with folks, we found these underlying frameworks. What does meeting performance maturity look like at all the different levels and what are the 16 types and all of that kind of thing. Those have all been published and there are online courses on my website and all kinds of things like that, which has given us a great foundation to go to the next step. And I’m super excited about that. It’s where we go in and work with organizations to either uncover or design those very, very specific practices. Buckminster Fuller said this great thing and I think it’s so true in this case. He said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. Instead, you want to create a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And that seems like a great idea, but when it comes to meetings people are like, “That’s lovely, but what are these models?” They have no clue what it looks like.

Our big project right now is working with international experts and with other teams to help show what those models are. We talked about the Cisco example, but how do you show people, literally, do it like this to start with? Starting there, it’s a much better place to start from when you say, “Okay, the way you create engaging teams is you run a weekly meeting that looks like this and a one-on-one that looks like that and you do a monthly check-in that looks like this.” Starting place.

It makes sense. It’s like anything else, if somebody says, “I want to get more lean and lose weight,” you can tell them general principles, but most of the time health coaches say that people tell me they want me what to do everyday. What should I eat? When should I exercise? What kind of exercise should I do? It makes sense if you want to fix how meetings are, you can tell them principles, but they probably are just dying for you to just hold their hand and give them recipes.

Absolutely. That’s a big piece of work for our company over the next year is helping pull out more of the recipes. We already have recipes for leadership teams and some agile teams and other really common patterns in our library, but developing the coursework so that people can learn in all kinds of different specialized domains and also to teach others how to go into organizations and help them develop those things themselves. It’s a big project, very exciting.

Wow. It does sound exciting and good luck with that. What is one specific action that TalentGrowers can take today, tomorrow, this week to help them make meetings better in their workplace?

They can implement, if they haven’t already, the bookends to every effective meeting. The bookends in every effective meeting always start by greeting other people and connecting as a human. Treat people as people, always, every time you get together, and always end by reconfirming your decisions, your action items – making sure you actually accomplished something and everybody in the room knows what it is – and most importantly, expressing appreciation so that folks know that the time there was valuable and that you care.

That is super actionable. I like it! Thank you Elise.

Anytime.

I am going to link to your book in the show notes, and where else can people stay in touch and learn more about and from you? On the web, on social, where should they go?

Website is LucidMeetings.com, and from there you can find all of the things.

Thank you very much for taking time to meet with me today and with the listeners and sharing some of your insights with us.

TalentGrowers, I hope that you found this valuable. Of course I really want to know what you thought, and I have news – something really cool. Elise thought that you might benefit from taking one of the courses that is in her meeting school and she is offering TalentGrowers an exclusive 20-percent discount on any meeting school course when you sign up using the code TalentGrow. Elise says, “When you know how to meet well, you have a distinct competitive advantage” and I happen to agree. I hope you’ll check that out. I’ll link to it in my show notes page and that’s the place where you can find all of the information about what we talked about, the time stamps, the transcript, some sharable quotes, graphics and of course a way to get in touch with me by commenting on the show, in the comments section, or by leaving me a voice mail using the black tab on the right of every page of my website, TalentGrow.com. It’s the place to go. I’m really glad you spent some time here, developing your leadership skills. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, my company, and TalentGrow is the generous sponsor of the TalentGrow Show to keep it free for you every Tuesday. I’m so glad you listened. Thank you, and until the next time, make today great.

Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.


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