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3 Tips to Make the Most of Meetings

Q: How can I make the most of company meetings?

A: Anyone who has sat (or snoozed) through too many interminable staff meetings might be surprised to hear management consultant Mike Richardson gush on about the value of such gatherings.

"Don't look at meetings as a bad thing, a time-consuming thing, a work-generating thing," says Richardson, author of Wheelspin: The Agile Executive's Manifesto--Accelerate Your Growth, Leverage Your Value, Beat Your Competition. "They can be a good thing, a time-saving thing, a work-flow thing."

Agile is an important word in Richardson's vocabulary. The quicksilver business world demands agility in any successful entrepreneur, he says, and often the inspiration for this is an effective meeting. "If the driver of agility is conversation, then meetings are the drivers of conversation,"

Richardson says. "Better meetings equal better conversation equals better agility."

Richardson cites one client, a $50 million technology company, whose CEO conducts a "daily huddle"--a morning meeting of top execs. "They recognized that their No. 1 challenge is to organize chaos," Richardson says. "That's why I push the idea of daily huddles. If I run a good morning meeting, every other meeting becomes more productive, because I don't have to handle chaos."

Richardson offers three points of advice for anyone leading a meeting.

1. Set the mood.
"It's letting everybody know this is going to be a focused, energetic meeting," Richardson says. "For me, doing something at the front end of a meeting can do that. It creates an urgency, in that people don't want to miss the opening of the meeting."

Richardson recalls the CEO of the aforementioned tech firm starting a meeting by discussing "productive paranoia" as described in Jim Collins' book Great by Choice--the idea that great business leaders are "hypersensitive to changing conditions" and continually asking, "What if?"

The CEO got his staff's attention.

"I want people to be productively paranoid," Richardson says. "If you look at Kodak, BlackBerry, American Airlines, all these companies, maybe a little bit more productive paranoia in conversation in the past would have improved cash flow in the present. It's about never allowing any complacency in your conversation."

2. Generate input.
The vice president of marketing has just presented branding strategies for the big trade show. You ask if anyone else has any thoughts. Blank stares. Crickets. Your meeting is dying a slow death.

Instead, Richardson suggests, ask everyone at the table to take a minute to write down ideas. Then ask who wants to go first. This way, he says, "I'm much more able to get a flow of input and sustain the energy level. Covertly, I have set the expectation that everybody will have something. Nobody gets to be a passenger."

3. Leverage the wall space.
Visuals matter. They also give you an excuse to get out of your chair. "If we walk into the control room of a nuclear power station or the cockpit of a commercial airliner or the command center of a military operation, there isn't a square inch of wall space that's not dedicated to some kind of real-time information or planning framework," Richardson says. "Plus, as a chair of a meeting, to sustain the energy level, I want to be up on my feet."