When Your Boss Is Terrible at Leading Meetings

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If you think that your boss is ineffective at leading meetings, you are not alone.

Few managers or supervisors have mastered the art of meetings and even fewer organizations have made it a priority. Add to that the fact that leaders are busy — and often don’t have the time to prepare adequately — and you’ve got a recipe for ineffective meetings.

The question is, what can you do about it?

Three broad perspectives are available to you in every meeting:

  1. You can offer to do things to support your boss in preparing, leading, and following up after the meeting.
  2. You have a right to ask for whatever you need to be effective in the meeting.
  3. You can choose to be responsible for the experience of other people in the meeting.

Let’s look at each of these options individually:

1. What might you offer to do?

I love this perspective because it allows you to be supportive without making your boss wrong. A key aspect of influence is the ability to state a problem without blaming anyone. Offering to supply elements that are often missing is a powerful way to do this. Here are some things you might offer to do:

  • Collect agenda suggestions from the group and then prepare an agenda for your boss to review and edit
  • Find team members to lead the different items that are on the agenda or offer to lead the meeting so the boss can more fully focus on the conversation
  • Handle all of the room arrangements — and be there early to make sure it’s all set
  • Help bring the conversation back when it wanders away from the intended path
  • Notice who isn’t yet in the conversation and invite them to speak
  • Take notes so that a written summary can be prepared quickly after the meeting
  • Chart complex conversations on a white board as they unfold so the group can stay on track and see what has been said
  • Listen for commitments/actions that are voiced and then review these during the closing for each topic
  • Write and distribute a summary within an hour of the meeting ending

Stepping up and offering to do something will usually be appreciated and respected. However, we all know that our ability to speak frankly with our boss is determined by the level of trust and respect that exists between us. If your boss values what you bring to the group, you can be straightforward: “Sam, I think we can raise the quality of our meetings by doing a couple of things differently. If you agree, I would be willing to do the following…”

If your boss takes offense at your offer or says, “No thanks, I’ve got it under control,” then respond with, “OK, and if you change your mind let me know. I just want to do whatever I can to support you.” None of us are as open-minded or coachable in the moment as we think we are. There is a good chance that your boss will continue to think about your suggestion during the next few meetings. Without your offer, nothing will change: with your offer, they just might.

2. What do you need to be effective?

What are your most common complaints about these meetings? What could you ask for that would resolve each complaint? Here are some common issues and suggestions for how you might ask for what you need.

For an agenda: I know someone who, upon joining a Fortune 100 company, made himself a promise not to attend any meeting for which there was not an agenda published ahead of time. He quickly learned that he would never attend a meeting. It’s unlikely you will be able to change a culture, but you can ask for the smaller piece that might be most helpful to you. Say something like: “Most of the time, I think we do just fine with learning what is on the agenda when we walk into the meeting. On a few topics, like the budget, however, I would appreciate knowing ahead of time so I can prepare in a way that I can add value to the conversation.”

For a proper set-up for each topic: “Before we start this conversation, I’d like to know what input you are looking for from us and where you want to be at the end of this discussion.”

For broader participation: “I realize we are a bit pressed for time, but there are a couple of people I’d really like to hear from in this conversation. So I’d appreciate if we could stay with this topic a bit longer so Sarah, Ganesh, and Tori can give us their views.”

For clarity: “I have two questions that I’d like to ask. I might be the only person struggling with this conversation, but I need to get clear on where we are with this and what we’ve said so far.”

To stay on track: “It appears that we are now talking about something different than what we intended. I want to check and see if we want to stay with this new topic or go back to our intended discussion.”

For alignment: “It seems the group has settled on a direction. I’d like to ensure the decision works for everyone.”

For next steps: “This was a great conversation and I want to be clear about what, if anything, I need to do as a result. I would appreciate it if we nailed down what actions will be taken next and when we should have them completed.”

Bottom-line: If you need something to be both present and productive in a meeting, find a diplomatic way to ask for it. Other people will probably be having the same experience and will welcome your initiative in asking for what you want.

3. How can you affect the experience of other participants?

Usually we go into a meeting thinking about one person: ourselves. Fair enough, but an easy way to add value and impact in an organization is to be looking out for others.

Consider these questions:

  • Who is not yet in the conversation and might have something to say or ask?
  • Who is affected by the decision and has not yet voiced their concerns or ideas?
  • Who might not be able to attend and would like you to take notes or represent them in the meeting?
  • Who would appreciate your collaboration on small-group work that is assigned during the meeting?

What if you’re the boss?

If you’re the boss, and running meetings is not your forte, it’s time to consider giving up leadership for your meeting. Here’s why:

Organizations need effective meetings — it matters less who leads them. The ability to run meetings is a core competency, and someone in your group needs to be good at it. Even if you do have time to prepare for your meetings and your conversational style is excellent, think about who might be the best person to run the meeting. Who in your group might wish to and be ready to run future meetings for you?

Consider allowing others the opportunity to lead your meetings for several reasons:

  • If you have to focus on managing the conversation, your attention is diverted from listening in a profound way.
  • You have the default power position already, so if you lead the conversation, you are in essence doubling up on power and control, which usually lessens participation.
  • Your attention to each and every person in the group matters, especially when they are speaking about something they feel passionate or upset about.
  • You have an organizational perspective that others don’t have. If you are participating rather than leading, you’ll have a better sense of when adding this perspective would be useful.
  • When you add your thinking to the wrap-up for each topic, it gives you the opportunity to capture the value from the discussion and influence what happens next.
  • People need feedback. Sharing with them what you notice in the moment is always useful, and if you are not leading the meeting, you’re able to notice more.

I once worked with the dean of a college and his staff, and the dean’s meetings were terrible. He was a wonderful guy, but extremely busy because he was in demand across the university and across the state. He also had a slow, easy-going, detailed speaking style that made him wonderful to be with but meant his meetings accomplished little and always ran over.

When the group finally spoke up and asked if they could take over the design and leading of his meetings, he was thrilled. This allowed him to come in at the last minute, sit back, listen, and then add value to each conversation. Things began to move.

Whether or not you’re in charge, there’s always room to improve meetings. It’s worth thinking through who’s the most effective person to lead your meetings, so the whole team can get more done.

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