Is it the sound of your staff meetings, sucking the life out of its attendees?  How was the last staff meeting you attended?  Afterwards were you satisfied that you had learned something and that your time was valued, or was your time and that of others, simply wasted?

In one of my former “lives”, the CEO of our company had a meeting of the management team once a week.  It started at 9:00 and ended sometime between 12 and 1 in the afternoon.  There was never an agenda, and often we spent time talking about our favorite teacher in school or what kind of animal we would be if we weren’t human. These meetings were brutal because most of us were working 60+ hours a week and to sit in a 3-4 hour, non-productive meeting was gut-renching.  Our CEO thought he was “team building”, but by the time the meetings were over, most of us were ready to annihilate the team and its captain.

How do you avoid this kind of meeting?  How do you make your meetings purposeful and productive while using that time to foster a better working relationship among you and your staff members?  It’s not hard, but it requires a little discipline on the part of the person leading the meeting.

Let’s start with scheduling.  Impromptu meetings happen all the time, often out of urgency, and that’s ok.  But if your goal is to relay certain information to, or get feedback from, several people at once, it’s best to schedule meetings in advance and regularly.  That is not to say that you should have a meeting just to have a meeting as was my former CEO’s methodology.  Your meeting must have purpose and relevance.  In the absence of those two items, you are wasting your own time and that of your co-workers/staff.

Your meeting needs an agenda.  An agenda keeps you on task but it also helps you remember all the items you want to cover.  I encourage all those attending the meeting to keep their list of items for discussion and send it to me the day before the meeting is to be held, so we can get all issues on one common agenda.  As things come up that you want to discuss, keep them on a list somewhere to later be transferred to the agenda.  The agenda doesn’t have to be formal, just a list of topics is sufficient, but make them specific enough that they can be tackled productively.  If it is getting fairly long, group items together by similar topics.

Keep your meetings to one hour or less.  Several studies have been shown that an adult’s maximum attention span is around 55 minutes.  After that, restlessness sets in and the latter part of your meeting is often lost.  If you anticipate your meeting will go longer, take a quick break, or better yet, save some of the agenda for a future meeting.

There’s nothing wrong with a little small talk at meetings.  It’s helps people learn about each other, usually provides some much needed levity, and can often lead to new innovative ideas.  It’s up to the leader of the meeting to know when it’s time to get back on the agenda and get everyone re-focused.  This doesn’t have to be a downer, just a quick “hey guys, let’s get back to our agenda” is enough to get everyone back on track.

Keep good notes at your meetings.  If tasks are assigned to others, make sure you document what was assigned and what the deadline is for completing the task.  Notes don’t have to be formal, as in standard meeting minutes, but it will be to your benefit to keep notes to refer back to at a later time rather than relying on memory.

Meetings should have an element of fun too.  Set the tone of your meeting by being upbeat and energetic right from the start.  There are lots of ideas of how to interject some fun into your meetings.  I most often used food to lure people in, but sometimes we would play a quick game or I might ask someone to bring in a favorite cartoon.  I’ve also started a meeting by playing music, something to get things moving.  Do what’s inspiring to you or better yet, assign the fun piece to someone on your staff to spark their creativity.

Meetings can be the kind that suck the life out of you or they can be the kind that lift everyone’s mood and put energy back into the space.  Spend some time thinking about how you can make your meetings the place where new ideas are generated, problems are solved and people feel as though their time is valued.  A productive, collaborative, mood-elevating meeting will have a positive effect on your work environment and bring out the best in your staff.