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How to Make Every Meeting Strategic

Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one's sights and pushing toward the horizon. 

– Daniel H. Pink, Drive

Great executives lead a group of committed people to a destination on the horizon. They keep their head up. They trust each other. They’re probably not marching in formation, but they’re strategically aligned because they’re heading to the same place. What matters most is that everyone is looking forward.

People enjoy being part of a group like this, and they’re most easily engaged when they feel like they belong. But “pushing toward the horizon” doesn’t require the same thing of everyone. The work each person is doing while traveling together varies dramatically.

Skillful leaders use this to their advantage, and to see how, we’ll look at how they run meetings for two very different types of professionals: Managers and Makers.

Managers and Makers

Both types have a lot of needs in common. Today, more than ever, each employee needs to know that they’re strategically aligned, and no matter how solidly professional they might seem on the outside, inside they need constant reassurance that the work they’re doing matters to the company. Leaders with a clearly defined strategic plan (not the same as a set of goals) reassure their people by referring to it at every meeting. When any team gets together, leadership points to the horizon and assures everyone that they’re heading in the right direction.

Obviously, since Managers and Makers have completely different work lives, they have completely different perspectives on what that entails.

Managers think in terms of people and throughput. They motivate their staff, they help them help the customer, and they spend a lot of time discussing psychology. They need to move people through processes and they need to do it in such a way that everyone involved is happy and ready to do it again. They’re motivators and tactical thinkers who enjoy pivoting in real time to solve problems and bring people around.

Because of that, meetings for Managers can quickly and easily run out of control. They’re so good at talking and convincing that they’ll lose sight of the horizon altogether while they wrestle an idea to the ground. Most know that they have that tendency, so they rely upon leadership to keep their meetings within scope.

Managers and Metrics

Agendas and pre-populated notes accomplish that most effectively. Studies have shown that even when Managers appear fully engaged in a meeting because they’re talking so much, they will still rate it as a waste of their time if there’s no set agenda, no solid data, and no focused objective. If the meeting’s just a chat session, they’ll sit there and chat – but afterwards, they’ll wish that they’d been reassured that their work is strategically aligned. When there’s data to review in a thought-through agenda, and when everyone has added their notes to the agenda in advance, they still might chat a lot, but they’ll leave the meeting knowing that they’re contributing. That makes them more effective, because they can assure their people that they’re aligned, too.

Leaders can often handle Managers in stand-ups or other brief, focused meetings because leaders, generally speaking, are more like Managers than they are like Makers. They jump from one thing to the next all day long, often organizing their day into 30- or 60-minute periods of time, so tossing a meeting into the mix is usually not a problem. Leaders and Managers often speak the same language and can communicate a lot in little time.

Makers are harder to draw out. They’re not getting to the destination on the horizon with other people’s throughput; they’re getting there by personally constructing one milestone after another. They’re the ones writing code, measuring materials, pouring over figures or drawing blueprints. They need long periods of uninterrupted time be creative or to solve complex problems. Meetings loom ahead of them like unwanted distractions that will ruin their flow.

Makers and Notes

One of Google’s product marketing leaders wrote an email to his coders that gives us great insight into what a Makers’ life is like:

Monday: Energy ramps out of the weekend  – schedule low-demand tasks like setting goals, organizing, and planning.

Tuesday, Wednesday: Peak of energy  – tackle the most difficult problems, write, brainstorm, schedule your Make Time.

Thursday: Energy begins to ebb  – schedule meetings, especially when consensus is needed.

Friday: Lowest energy level  – do open-ended work, long-term planning, and relationship building.

Notice that the Maker’s peak energy is used for “Make Time.” For meetings, ebbing energy is fine.

Interestingly, the research shows that Makers need exactly the same thing Managers do at their meetings: reassurance that they’re strategically aligned and making a meaningful contribution.

Thankfully, the same tools also help Makers, but they work in a different way. Makers generally understand alignment in terms of data and results. Without data and pre-populated notes, the meeting looms threateningly over their “Make Time.” With it, Makers know that measured progress will be reviewed and that their ideas be published – even if they never say a word.

Pre-populating data and notes keeps the Manager's discussion in scope. For Makers, the data and notes are the discussion. Knowing this, leaders can run more effective meetings for each group by switching their tactics. With Managers, it’s about staying focused on metrics that matter. With Makers, it’s about thoughtful consideration of their notes. 

When both are in the same meeting together, the studies found that if the agenda contains hard data and pre-populated notes, then communications between Managers and Makers opens up. A well-structured encounter lets everyone shine in their own way, focuses everyone’s eyes on the horizon, and assures them that, working together, they’ll get there.