How to Hold Productive, Tolerable Meetings: 5 Tips (Alan Ying)

Once you have about 20 employees, meetings are a fact of start-up life. Here’s how to make them worth your time.

Most entrepreneurs’ stories have a “refugee from Big Company” angle. As a venture capitalist, I often hear liberated entrepreneurs discuss their escapes from the treadmill of eye-rollingly lame meetings. In their start-ups, they marvel at the absence of meetings–they just have high-energy “huddles” before they “go get things done.”

This “no meeting” model is necessary to survive the early, infant-mortality phase of your company. When I was an entrepreneur, there was nothing as invigorating and productive as gathering and mobilizing my team like a guerrilla army, probing to find paths to conquer the world. Having made it all the way to the other side as a Big Company CEO, though, I can see that you need to get rid of the “no meeting” model if you want to grow beyond the start-up phase.

I’m not making a case for report-driven, Big Company meetings. But at some point–usually around 20 employees–businesses need actual meetings with scheduled times and agendas. The reality is that, despite celebrated efforts by Zuck, Larry, and Sergey to purge them, you can’t grow and avoid lots of meetings.  

What you need to do, then, is remove the Big Company parts of meetings (“bad bureaucracy”) and add critical entrepreneurial elements (“good bureaucracy”). Here are five ways to make your meetings both useful and tolerable.

1. There are two types of meetings. Founders should be at only one of them. “Sausage-making” meetings are operational, detail-oriented gatherings required to execute specific tasks. “Taste-testing” meetings are where decision makers evaluate options and set plans that others execute. The former make entrepreneur/CEOs want to stick pencils in their eyes. The latter, you can handle–at least for a while.  

2. Meet individually with staff members before every meeting. This is the single most important thing a founder/CEO can do to create a culture of good meetings. You need to do this when your company is fewer than 10 people and when it’s more than 1,000 people.

Here’s why: Every key executive wants to be heard, but it’s impossible to hear everyone to his or her satisfaction in a group setting. As the founder or CEO, you need to listen to everyone individually, so each employee knows he or she has had his or her say with the Big Kahuna. After the individual meetings, you then have a brief follow-up interaction–a quick call or stop by the person’s office–to communicate the plan you want to advance in the meeting. Yes, that’s two mini meetings in advance of the actual meeting. Though this seems unnecessarily redundant, it absolutely works because of the next point.  

3.  Meetings are for getting leaders on the same page, not for making decisions. All human beings–even your handpicked, egoless management team– are susceptible to groupthink and face-saving behavior when their pride and credibility are on the line in front of their peers. Your job is to get your team’s honest and best efforts. The most reliable way to do this is to discuss all employees’ private thoughts, concerns, and vulnerabilities outside of and before meetings so you can get to a consensus and unified position inside and during meetings.  

The result is that in the actual meeting, each executive will not feel the need to fight for airtime and get in his or her nuanced 2 cents, because he or she has already had his or her full say with you. With all that need-to-be-heard energy out of the way, you’ll spend the meeting on the most important parts–deciding who is responsible for which deliverables and in what time frames. This is getting your people’s best efforts on the things that matter most so they can leave that meeting and “go get things done.”

Do an experiment. Try your meetings the old way and then try one this new way. I’ll bet you’ll reduce the common let’s-take-this-offline-later defense mechanism that mucks up the agility and focus of your management team.

4. Founders should attend or lead meetings only when absolutely necessary. Remember this: You’re the Big Kahuna, and despite your best efforts to be egalitarian and just another member of the team, you’re the founder. Your opinions carry more weight simply because they’re yours. When the founder or CEO leads meetings, the leader is inevitably going to exert a gravitational pull to his or her unconscious positions and undermine the team’s independence and authority. That won’t get the team’s honest and best efforts. Let others lead the meetings–you do your work before and after the meetings. When you are leading a meeting, it should be a morale-boosting, vision-setting, charge-the-hill meeting.

5. Don’t be in any meeting with more than three topics. Otherwise:

•It’s a sausage-making meeting, and you shouldn’t be there.
•The later topics are not really important and should be managed without the meeting.
•Anything after the third topic will get short shrift and be poorly addressed or require another meeting.

You want your team to know that meetings will be short, sweet, focused, and about important things. If meetings become the kitchen sink, where you address every single thing, you’ve got one foot in the grave of the Big Company bad bureaucracy you so hated.
 Take control of your critical cultural infrastructure by establishing good bureaucracy through good meetings. Good meetings won’t guarantee success, but bad meetings will guarantee failure