Everyone is just… sitting there.
Six of you. All managers who report up to Evan, your boss, who decided two weeks ago that “it’s probably a good idea for this leadership team to get together on a regular basis and talk about what is up.” He dropped an agenda-less, sixty-minute recurring meeting on everyone’s calendar and that meeting is now.
Six of you. You know these humans. You work closely with two of them every single day. You’ve had occasional projects of significance with two others. The last two are friendly first names.
Evan kicks off the meeting repeating exactly what he told each of you face-to-face and in the meeting invite. It’s probably a good idea for this leadership team to get together blah blah blah. He finishes his bland opener and everyone is just… sitting there. Saying nothing.
Welcome to your first staff meeting.
An Unacceptable Amount of Crap
I’m solidly on the record as 1:1s being the most important meeting of the week. A very close second is the staff meeting. I find that 1:1s beat staff meetings in two important categories: trust building and quality of signal. But, there are ongoing compounding benefits to a regular well-run staff meeting. Team building, efficient information dissemination, and healthy debate are three I can think of off the top of my head. There are more.
Definitions first. I define a staff meeting as “the correct collection of leadership gathered together to represent a team, product, company, or problem.” Lot of words. A simpler and perhaps more immediately applicable version is, “a meeting of your direct reports.”
Great! You have directs which means you should have a staff meeting, right?
The decision to start your first staff meeting requires judgement. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How many direct reports? 2? Yeah, no staff meeting necessary. 3 or more? Keep reading.
- How many of your directs spend time working together? If it’s more than half, consider a staff meeting
- Do your directs have direct reports? You needed a staff meeting awhile ago.
- How much has your team grown in the last six months? A lot? Have a staff meeting.
- How much of the crap that you’ve dealt with in the last month smells like it could have been resolved if people on your team were just talking with each other? If the amount of crap is unacceptable to you, have a staff meeting.
- Did something recently organizationally explode? Have a staff meeting.
A Well-Intentioned Hatred of Meetings
A new staff meeting is understandably a pretty quiet affair. It’s a delightful combination of unfamiliarity combined with a well-intentioned hatred of meetings. In our hypothetical example above, Evan set horrible initial meeting tone because he committed the worst meeting sin: no agenda.
Here’s an initial agenda:
- The Minimal Metrics Story
- Rolling Team-sourced Topics
- Gossip, Rumors, and Lies
Before I dive into these agenda topics, let’s talk about two essential meeting roles. 95% percent of the activity in a well-run staff meeting is healthy conversation and debate. Keyword: “healthy.” It’s a clear signal that a staff meeting is working when attendees jump into conversations and drive those conversations in unexpected directions. It’s a clear sign that no one is curating those conversations when those unexpected directions are not revealing insight or value.
The Meeting Runner has two jobs: set the agenda and manage the flow. We’ll talk agenda shortly, so let’s first talk about managing flow. The Meeting Runner is responsible for making the following call throughout the meeting: When is this particular conversational thread no longer creating enough value? It’s a nuanced job, but without this human curating the conversation, a staff meeting can turn into directionless heated vent session. Fortunately, as we’ll learn shortly, the Meeting Runner has an essential driving force at their disposal – the agenda.
The role of Meeting Runner is traditionally the human who called the meeting. It’s usually the he or she accountable for the team, which allegedly gives them the context to run the meeting efficiently. Usually.
The second role is Meeting Historian. This non-obvious role is not required in the first few get-to-know-you meetings, but is essential long term. Their job: capture the narrative of the meeting. We’re not looking for every single word, we’re looking for major themes and points that are discussed. Action items, relevant thoughts, jokes, it’s all captured by the Meeting Historian.
Two guidelines for Meeting Historian. First, it can’t be the Meeting Runner because this human has their hands full keeping this meeting pointed in the right direction. Second, the Meeting Historian is not responsible for editorial or curation. Their job is to capture everything. This seems like a no-brainer until you understand that your next job is to send these notes to the entire company.
Humans have complicated relationships with meetings. If they’re in the meeting and it’s not meeting their expectations, they’re mad. If they’re not invited to a meeting where they believe they should be present, they’re mad. Combine this slippery situation with that fact that meeting efficiency devolves as a function of the number of humans greater than seven and you’ve got a maddening set of complicated constraints. The simple but perhaps controversial practice I’d recommend is that every single meeting have a Meeting Historian and the work of that Historian is broadcast to the whole company.
If you’re a frequent meeting denizen and the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you imagine the notes of your meeting being shared with the whole of your company, my question is, “What are you talking about in that meeting that can’t be shared?” Of course, the Meeting Runner will remove confidential information about individuals as well as other clearly confidential company information before sending. If that doesn’t calm you down, I’m still curious what you think is being said in this meeting that can’t be shared with your team?
Meetings create power structures. Intentionally or not, they become a measure of status. Are you in that meeting? No? Well, I am. If you found sound reason to have a staff meeting in my list above, I’m not worried about the first three month of this meeting’s existence. It’s year two when that good reason may have vanished and now you have this formerly important meeting purely out of habit.
The rule is: in the absence of information, humans fill the gap with the worse possible version of the truth. Two years into your meeting when you’re not sharing the notes, the humans not in the meeting tell the most interesting and untrue stories about what happens in your meeting. I guarantee it. This isn’t out of spite. They aren’t being malicious. They just don’t know what is going on, so they’re going to tell their version of the story.
Share your notes. Every time. The act of doing so will force you to ask the following question before you share them “Is what we are doing here valuable?”
A Three Point Agenda
The Minimal Metrics Story is the list of essential metrics this group must review on a regularly basis and I recommend leading with them because they frame the whole meeting. Not knowing precisely why you chose this precise time and situation to start a staff meeting makes it tricky to recommend what type of metrics you need to review.
What are the key metrics this group is responsible for? Revenue? Application performance? Security incidents? Number of critical bugs filed? The list is endless and it’s ok if your first meetings don’t have these defined. But after a month, if these haven’t shown up, I’m wondering why you pulled this group together? What problem are you trying to solve? I’m not saying you demonstrated poor judgement by calling the meeting, but if a concrete set of measurable things hasn’t shown up, why is the group meeting on a regular basis?
You’ll know you’ve found a good initial set of metrics when they tell a story and leave you with questions. Total billings in the last week were X millions. Recurring revenue added was Y thousands. Last week they were X and Y? That’s a big change. What do we think happened? The questions and the debate that surround the story both align the room and frame the rest of the conversation. There will be weeks where the metrics story is, “Tracking. Nothing to discuss,” but if it’s been three months and that’s the only story, you’ve either got the wrong metrics or the good reason to have this meeting has passed.
A Rolling Team Sourced Agenda is the heart of your meeting. For the first iteration of this meeting, you’ll need to build the agenda yourself. This shouldn’t be hard because there are pressing reasons for these humans to be together. Once, twice, or perhaps three times you can set the agenda for the meeting to address that pressing reason, but at end of the first meeting you say, “Here’s a document I’ve shared with everyone, please add any agenda topics for next time.”
The social fabric and the sense of team that you are building with this meeting will take time to form and you’ll need to be more involved in both building the agenda and moving the narrative along for the first handful of meetings. You’re looking for two important developments over the course of the first three meetings:
1) Unexpectedly useful conversational detours. You’re going to do a lot of talking in the first few meetings because you’re the leader, you’ve identified some problem, and you’re attempting to solve it. Good job, but very quickly you need to stop talking. Introvert leaders of the world will have no problem with this advice. Extrovert leaders. Listen to me. It’s not your meeting, it’s their meeting. You need everyone in the room to bring their experience, their questions, their curiosity, and their drive to the table and they each need to feel comfortable sharing these thoughts. If you don’t stop talking, they won’t start.
2) A similar positive health sign is the arrival of unsolicited agenda items by the rest of the room. I’m not talking about the ones you ask for, I’m talking about the agenda items that just appear. These random new additions are emerging proof that the rest of the room is beginning to see that this is a meeting where work is done.
Staff meetings are an hour. It feels like a lot of time, but when this meeting is working you’ll effortlessly fill the time.
It’s a rolling agenda because the steady healthy state for this meeting is that you never get through the agenda – there are too many topics to discuss.
Gossip, Rumors, and Lies is the final permanent agenda item. With the last five to ten minutes of your meeting, you’re carving off time for communication error correction. I’ll explain.
The reason you’re having this meeting is because of a seismic shift. Your team suddenly grew, your company changed direction, major responsibility shifted, or maybe a reorganization occurred. The knee-jerk move when a shift occurs is to call all the relevant parties into the room and ask, “WTF?” This feels good. People talk and explain their feelings regarding the shift. Information is shared, we nod, and feel aligned, but other than the therapy, we didn’t solve whatever problem existed that precipitated the need for this meeting. Meetings are a symptom of a disease, they are not the cure.
The metrics framing and rolling agenda should give you an actionable narrative. They should give you the opportunity for the airing and discussion of grievances. They should create a set of follow-up work that is far more likely the cure. However, you should still be asking, “WTF?”
This final section of your staff meeting is a safe place for all participants to raise any issue, to ask any random question, or to confirm any hallway or Slack chatter. Chances are, whatever seismic event caused this meeting to occur is still being organizationally digested and often the stories being told are absurd. Gossip, Rumors, and Lies is time to get that important absurdity out in the open, so you can begin to construct a healthy response.
Meetings are a Symptom, Not the Cure
High on my list of professional pet peeves is the emergence of corrosive politics within a company. Politics are a natural development in a large group of humans working together. Corrosive politics give me rage: taking credit for other’s ideas, hoarding information, or not allowing the best idea to win. The list goes on and on and when I discover this type of politics where I work there is rage, so I’ve spent a good portion of my career understanding the root causes.
Seismic shifts within your company or team create change, and humans attempting to get work done consistently, of high quality, and at velocity don’t like change. It harshes their productivity buzz. The intensity of their response to change is a function of their discomfort and that discomfort increases exponentially the longer their discomfort remains unresolved.
The reason meetings have evolved as an acceptable first response is because they do address one key issue: they give the team an opportunity to discuss their perceptions of the change. This feels good. The reason meetings are often hated is because while talking feels good, it’s not true progress.
If you’ve called the meeting for the right reason, if you’ve discovered story-filled metrics, if you build a compelling team-sourced agenda, if you give everyone time to discuss the absurd, and if you share the insights from this meeting with everyone, you’ve given the team a chance to collectively resolve the core issue. The sharing of this work will decrease miscommunication, it can help inoculate against politics, and it will create unexpected serendipity.
No one is going to just sit there when they understand the problems at hand, they trust they can be heard, and they can count on resolution.