How to Plan Successful Meetings

Are you tired of sitting through unproductive, poorly planned, meandering meetings that move your organization sideways . . . or even backwards?

At times, you may leave a meeting wondering why you met in the first place. Or perhaps you have felt that you were misled: “I thought we were meeting to make decisions collaboratively, not just to be told what had already clearly been decided.”

Over the course of my career in the education field, and having served in many roles before retiring as a superintendent, I participated in literally hundreds of meetings. In many cases, I was a meeting participant. On many others, I chaired the meeting or was part of the team that planned it. I can readily acknowledge that not every meeting went perfectly.

If you aren’t prepared to spend adequate time preparing for success, don’t expect great results to follow.

Having said that, I am also confident that applying the advice my father-in-law gave to me when I was in my early twenties greatly improves the likelihood that people will leave your meetings feeling it was a worthwhile use of their time:

One day, my father-in-law Jim dropped by for a visit and noticed me scraping away at my “flakey” garage door, getting ready to apply a new coat of paint. He could see an open paint can off to the side, a scraper in my hand, and could tell that I likely wasn’t going to invest nearly enough time in preparing the surface so that the paint would properly adhere. His words were not original, but they have stayed with me over the years: “Mark, learn from my experience – proper preparation prevents poor performance.” The message: If you aren’t prepared to spend adequate time preparing for success, don’t expect great results to follow.

Taking Jim’s advice will give you the best opportunity for success when you lead meetings. There is no substitute for taking time to plan with the right people. However, it’s important to use proven planning practices if the goal is an engaging, productive meeting that promotes organizational clarity and moves strategy forward. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

I have provided a meeting planning template to help you facilitate a planning session for high-stakes or recurring meetings. I encourage you and your planning team to customize this guide, and determine what’s relevant and if anything needs to be added. This will ensure:

  • Desired predetermined outcomes drive the meeting plan
  • The right people attend your meetings
  • The meeting is appropriately focused
  • Problems are anticipated and mitigated
  • Feedback and learning lead to continuous improvements in the leadership and quality of your meetings

Beyond improving the quality of the meeting, there are five direct benefits of convening a team to properly prepare for success using the template that has been provided:

  1. To develop strong leadership across your organization, consider the messages that are conveyed when you invest time in proper planning and invite others into the process:
  • Success doesn’t happen by chance, it takes discipline and time.
  • Leadership and meeting success aren’t the responsibility of the chair alone.
  • Feedback and idea sharing are part of learning and continuous improvement.

Equally important, think of the messages that are conveyed when you wing it. Everyone can see that the chair entered the meeting with a flimsy, poorly planned agenda and no clear goal.

  1. Discussing an upcoming meeting with a team means the meeting chair can receive direct feedback on what participants really think about the relevance, productivity, efficiency, and value of past meetings. Water cooler conversations, sarcastic emails, and pent-up frustration rarely translate into improved meeting quality. On the other hand, open sharing and assurances of safety allow meeting chairs to hear helpful feedback that can lead to practical change and strategies for addressing concerns and building on success.
Strong leaders always plan for the day when they can (or will need to) hand leadership over to others.
  1. Strong leaders always plan for the day when they can (or will need to) hand leadership over to others. Developing the necessary skills required to effectively lead meetings doesn’t just happen. Convening a planning group allows meeting chairs to share their thinking, identify challenges, and model approaches that others can use when it’s their turn to lead a meeting. When this practice becomes an organizational norm, it creates a context for coaching others to lead meetings with confidence, practical strategies, and a sense that they are not expected to lead alone.
  2. Those who help plan a meeting are inherently invested in its success. They are more likely to be engaged, responsive to past concerns, and sensitive to meeting norms. Further, those on the planning team may be given pre-assigned duties (for example, leading breakout discussions) and adequate time and information to support their success.
  3. The most important question that needs to be asked before every meeting is, “How does this meeting advance the work of our organization’s mission, vision, key strategic priorities, and core values?” Having a group that is committed to planning meetings means it’s more likely that there will be an honest assessment of the meetings’ value, and that unnecessary meetings will be eliminated.
The most important question to ask before every meeting is, “How does this meeting advance the work of our organization’s mission, vision, and values?”

My father-in-law gave me good advice that hot summer day many years ago. I have applied it in many areas of my life. I believe it can also make a difference for you as you plan to lead your next successful, focused, and engaging meeting.

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Mark Schinkel

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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