Key Traits of Inspiring Meeting Leaders

By Jamie Davidson · January 28, 2019

What makes a great meeting leader? Are they easily recognizable? Do you leave a meeting or collaboration feeling pumped? Do you walk out feeling smarter than when you went in? We’ve all had the opportunity to experience genuinely motivating meetings that set us on a path to success and pride in our work. We’ve also suffered under the leadership of those who have left us unimpressed and apathetic about the work ahead.

Great meeting leaders aren’t gurus who offer grand insights then sit back while their team converts that brilliance into action items. Nor are they taskmasters keeping a team on task and on point. A gifted meeting leader has that enviable knack for blending the big picture with the day-to-day and bringing a carefully tempered balance of strategic oversight and human insight.

Rob Jeppsen, CEO of corporate coaching firm Xvoyant says, “Average leaders use meetings to pass on information. Great leaders use them to engage and inspire.” So how do we mere mortals make meeting magic happen?

Each person travels a different journey to reach the apex of their leadership greatness. However, there are four basic strategies that CEOs and senior managers turn to as the foundation for best meeting practice.

  1. Acknowledge the Importance of Empathy
  2. Relentlessly Pursue Understanding
  3. Look for Teachable Moments
  4. Know Your Team

Let’s take a look at these ingredients, uncover why they’re so highly regarded, and learn how and when to incorporate them into your next meeting.

Acknowledge the Importance of Empathy

The old school system of effective workplace interaction was that, as employees, we should set our emotions aside from 9 to 5 and focus on the serious business of strategic knowledge exchange. Though robots may be all the rage in some industries – we aren’t robots. We want to feel seen. We want to feel included. We want to feel appreciated.

No matter what position a team member occupies in the corporate hierarchy, if we don’t feel involved and that our perspective is understood, there’s a high likelihood we won’t feel invested in a company’s shared vision and outcomes. The challenge many meeting managers face is how to encourage and nurture empathy within the boundaries of meeting protocol. After all, it’s easy to let mutual understanding and common goals fall by the wayside in the structured reality of corporate life where individual success is highly admired.

The good news, from a psychological perspective, is that studies suggest empathy can be learned and fostered, just like any other skill. The tricky part is, how?

Don’t Interrupt

Seems simple enough. Practice basic politeness. Oddly, this is an unusually difficult piece of advice to adopt into real life, much less a meeting environment.

It’s not that we’re all rude. (Ok, some of us are rude, and you’re not invited to my meeting.) But, it’s probably fair to assume the vast majority of people implicitly understand that it’s unacceptable to step over another person conversationally and that this basic tenant also applies to the workplace. Despite our best intentions, the problem persists, partly because the tendency to interrupt is a difficult habit to accurately identify in ourselves when it happens—especially amid the flurry of exchanges characteristic of energized meeting environments. At times we can feel as if we are fighting for our voice to be heard.

I hope your meetings aren’t as unruly as the Turkish Parliament. (If they are you’ll need more than advice from this article. Our conference call etiquette article will help.) Personalities can bubble up against each other while vying to express priorities in the short window of available time. Inevitably, some team member’s insights get lost.

Of course, technology, or the lack thereof, is also partly to blame. With today’s increase in video conferencing replicating face-to-face meetings, it is more beneficial than ever to be aware of and sensitive to conversational give and take. Without quality online meeting software, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain a smooth flow of conversation with other office locations or remote team members. The best practice for a meeting manager is to lead by example. Consider if you routinely interrupt others. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Am I dismissing colleague’s concerns before fully understanding their point of view?
  • Am I rushing to advise without considering if my opinion is valid or necessary?
  • Am I merely changing the subject to better reflect my own priorities?

If you find that you are doing these things repeatedly, an effective solution is to backtrack the discussion. Slow down, apologize and give each team member their time to shine. As you more frequently exhibit this behavior in your own meeting practice, your team members will likely follow suit. If not, it’s time to add a meeting etiquette item to your next agenda.

Perfect the Art of Encouragement

If avoiding interruption makes it easier to get a richer appreciation of ideas, encouragement is the secret sauce to obtaining the whole team’s most valuable insights again and again.

The important thing to bear in mind is that encouragement needn’t be so obvious as loudly praising someone for all the room to hear (although there is a time and place for that). One of the easiest ways to create a culture of encouragement is through active listening. An attentive nod may be all it takes. Or a simple word of thanks followed by some well-chosen follow-up questions.

This body language philosophy may sound somewhat “pie in the sky,” but there’s a substantial collection of evidence to suggest that an encouraging demeanor doesn’t just create a productive attitude, but also a slew of basic physiological, emotional and even cognitive benefits for the recipient. Active listening is surprisingly effective. The key isn’t to achieve perfection, but to be mindful of allowing people their moment. It may take more meeting time. It may be less efficient in ways. But it ensures your meeting is built around getting the most from everyone around the table.

Relentlessly Pursue Shared Understanding

Achieving understanding might seem so intuitive and apparent that it doesn’t warrant mention. But if you reflect over the course of your career, my guess is most of us could list an endless number of meetings in which no useful ideas were exchanged, no workable strategies were devised and no solutions or next steps agreed upon. Instead, the meeting was a routine gathering and a waste of precious productive time.

Meetings are too often a regularly-scheduled, obligatory backdrop to our corporate lives. They’re seen as a slightly unfortunate necessity of working together as a team, and in short, we can regrettably resign to “phoning it in”. How does an inspiring meeting leader change this dynamic? By instituting a more productive way of thinking about meetings—as a key tool to relentlessly pursue a more legitimate and strategic shared understanding.

Build a Corporate Culture Wherein Time is Valued

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has a rulebook for effective meeting practice, in which a key component is preparation. (And whatever works for Jeff Bezos, is what I’m gonna do too.)

Everyone sitting in on an Amazon meeting is required to read all meeting materials at the table before the meeting can commence. The goal is simple — to ensure all participants are focused, on-task, and fully prepared to contribute. This means meetings do require more from workers. But, it also means that there’s a far greater probability of getting the most out of every meeting. It reinforces that meeting time is valuable.

What full meeting preparation looks like will vary from team to team, but the underlying principle applies across the board. A great meeting leader will seek to build a team and company-wide belief that meetings aren’t a waste of time, but instead a necessary and beneficial source for developing successful outcomes. If the universal assumption is that a meeting is a dynamic discussion aimed at saving time and building strategy, it will become far more effective and useful.

Design Outcome-Oriented Meetings

A related meeting leader goal is for every meeting to establish actionable intelligence—or in other words, something tangible to build on moving forward. What that looks like will, again, vary. It may be a list of the next steps. It could be key lessons learned. It could simply be a clear allocation of responsibilities. Whatever the outcome is, the ultimate goal should be a contribution to answering the key challenges the business is facing.

Marissa Mayer, the former and sometimes embattled President and CEO of Yahoo! has no ego about asking questions of her colleagues. This way she ensures that the meeting topic is valuable, well-researched and that everyone in the meeting has the same understanding of the topic, the action item, and the next steps. You cannot achieve positive outcomes from a foundation of faulty assumptions. This pragmatism provides a clear link to what the meeting produced, the expected outcome, and if those outcomes were achieved. Setting the precedent of preparing and questioning in search of solutions should be a no-ego, corporate-wide cultural expectation. Expect your team to be prepped and then fire away with constructive queries that move the meeting forward.

Look for Teachable Moments

Knowledge is one of your team’s greatest assets, and one of the best ways to produce that knowledge is to provide a safe space for people to share their experiences. A simple way to achieve this is to build a general “lessons learned” agenda item into regular team meetings. By formalizing a space for that conversation, it’s more likely to be seen as part of the fabric of how a company gets things done. Scott Mautz, a Procter & Gamble alum and current faculty member at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business lists these 8 teachable moments to keep an eye out for:

  1. When reality doesn’t match expectations.
  2. When, during a conflict, perspective is one-sided.
  3. When the “A” game is not present in an “A” situation.
  4. When someone falls short on a risk taken.
  5. When there is no perception of the impression being made.
  6. When you have the chance to share the view from the window seat.
  7. When you can identify gaps in preparation or thinking.
  8. When tempers are lost or excuses are made.

Remember, reviewing lessons learned is not a rehashing of failures, but an opportunity to expand teachable moments to your entire team.

Know Your Team

Finally, the inspiring meeting leader knows their team. They understand each team member’s strengths (and weaknesses) and how those attributes combine to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are a few important aspects to knowing your team.

Discover Talent

Every team is going to have someone who shines in a specific area. Maybe one of your team members will excel at consensus-building. Perhaps another will be adept at analyzing a problem and breaking it down into simpler parts. Whatever particular skills or persuasions your team members possess, any talent is a valuable asset, and it’s something you should be aware of and nurture.

With this awareness, you have a keener insight into who should be tasked with what. Of equal importance, it’ll yield great interpersonal dividends. If you find ways to encourage that talent, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be helping that team member feel motivated, engaged, and—most importantly of all—valued. That’s irreplaceable.

Learn What Drives People

Meetings are a great opportunity for managers to keep their eye on one simple, important (and actually-kind-of-wonderful) fact. Everyone is different. Yes, I’m stating the obvious, but our corporate world sometimes discourages individuality over toeing the party line or adhering to the company way of doing things. While you may have four people working together to achieve a goal, there’s a good chance one of your team members will be particularly invested in a positive outcome. Find that person!

By understanding what uniquely drives your team members to turn up to work every day—whether it’s family, ambition, the thrill of helping others, or even simple monetary necessity—you gain a better insight into how everyone came to be sitting together at the table. Knowing where your individual team members come from will give you a better understanding of where your team can go, collectively.

A Rewarding Challenge

Jeppsen’s quote that an average meeting leader uses meetings merely to pass on information but a great leader uses them to “engage and inspire” sets a pretty high bar. But like every skill worth having, the journey to mastery becomes a lot simpler once it’s broken down.

Believe that being a great meeting leader is achievable. Encourage empathy, pursue solid and measurable outcomes, highlight those teachable moments and acknowledge the uniqueness of everyone working for you. Investing in your team’s talent is an investment in your—and your company’s—future.

Share with us the secret sauce that makes you or one of your colleagues an inspiring meeting leader on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.


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