How To Make Meetings Not Suck When You’re Not In Charge
If you Google “meeting”, you get over 2 billion results. That’s twice the combined number of results for “poverty”, “inequality” and “climate change”. Let that sink in for a minute.
And what are most of the “meeting” search results about? How to run better meetings, of course. There is just one problem:
Most of the time, we’re not the ones running the meeting.
Unless you’re the big boss, you probably spend more time running away from meetings (and failing), rather than actually running them. More often than not, it’s someone else’s meeting. It could be your boss. Or your department. Or that stakeholder that just likes to “touch base” and “sync up” every other day.
The point is this: we don’t get to choose most of the meetings we attend. And we’re usually not the ones in charge. But does this mean we are powerless to make them better? I don’t think so.
In fact, there are at least four ways to contribute to any meeting, whether or not you’re in charge of running it. Here’s an overview:
Use the framework like a toolbox
Think of each quadrant as a tool to improve a meeting. All of these tools — Prepare, Build, Share, Steer — are useful in their own way. When choosing which one(s) to deploy, think about how you can use your unique position to help others. Pick the tool for which you are best equipped, but keep an eye on how you can ‘graduate’ to more sophisticated tools over time.
Quadrant 1: Prepare (Less complex role, lower personal risk)
For ‘Prepare’, the goal is to help others free up their resources (time, energy), so they can focus on the riskier or trickier aspects of the meeting — like getting buy-in or managing disagreements.
- Take lots of notes, including verbatim ones. Put down whatever you managed to capture. Format it well. Make it orderly, and easy for someone else to use it as a reference? You can even take down what is said verbatim (and by whom). This can be handy once things are forgotten long after the meeting has ended (usually not very long at all). It also reduces bias; it’s harder to dismiss a quote than, say, a summary of what another person said.
- Help administratively. Schedule the meeting for the team. Check the invitation, and make sure everyone who needs to be there is invited. Organise the materials — make them easy to find before the meeting, as well as for immediate use during a meeting.
This is the easiest way to contribute. Do the basic but necessary things, and do them well. It’s suitable when you are new or inexperienced; the stakes are low, so is the downside. More importantly, you don’t need any complex skills — just a good attitude.
The suggestions sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how useful they are. They are also not as common as you’d think! As a team leader, I find it deeply assuring if I know that someone has thoroughly covered the basics — no matter how operational or administrative — especially if huge stakes are at play.
It also builds trust and credibility over time, because you can only do this consistently if you’re a conscientious and genuine team player. People will recognise that about you. That kind of reputation is priceless.
Quadrant 2: Build (Less complex role, higher personal risk)
For ‘Build’, the goal is to help maintain the momentum of a meeting. It involves being an active participant in the meeting, by making simple — but timely and relevant — interventions.
- Support the meeting lead by presenting pre-defined areas. Volunteer to present a predetermined agenda item, or a section within a broader presentation. To make it manageable, try to focus on something less contentious and well-defined (e.g. providing a factual overview at the beginning of the meeting).
- Support the meeting lead by answering questions. Position yourself as the point of reference on certain issues or even facts (e.g. data) that are relevant to the meeting. Where information gaps emerge, step in to fill them.
This is a good way to hone your craft, while contributing to the meeting and possibly getting yourself noticed. It’s slightly more challenging than ‘Prepare’, but not by much. Consider this if you’re still in a junior role, but are starting to grow into your role — and the expertise and skills that come with it.
Do your homework, internalise the key insights you want to deliver, and focus on communicating them clearly (worry about communicating persuasively later).
Quadrant 3: Share (More complex role, lower personal risk)
For ‘Share’, the goal is to help others make sense of the meeting from behind the scenes. So, it’s a safe strategy… but with potentially huge upside.
- Synthesise what was discussed in writing. This is different from having a blow-by-blow record of the meeting — which, while useful, is more time-consuming for someone to digest. Instead, it’s about capturing the essence of what was agreed upon, what remained unclear, the considerations that were discussed, and what the next steps are (if any). It doesn’t necessarily have to be done at the end — it can be done in intervals throughout a meeting (or even in real-time).
- On top of the synthesis, share your views or ask meaningful questions. This goes beyond what the meeting discussed; it highlights what we may want to think about, given what was discussed. This could be issues relevant to your team, or organisation-wide priorities. It enriches the outcome of a meeting by making it more strategically relevant.
- Share relevant information during the meeting. In meetings, there can be important questions that go unanswered, or decisive assumptions that go unexamined. Being on the sidelines frees you up to look into these things and surface your findings to others (preferably someone whom you trust to intervene effectively in the meeting).
Understandably, ‘Share’ is more demanding than ‘Prepare’. Most meetings are messy (as illustrated in this comical — but tragically on point — Yes Minister skit). Knowing how and when to deploy this tool is about discerning between noise and substance in a discussion. You need to be able to piece together fragments into a coherent whole. Given this, it is usually more suitable for if you have more experience with the people in the meeting, as this allows you to read the room better.
Do it well, do it consistently, and you will be indispensable to any decision-making process in the organisation.
Quadrant 4: Steer (More complex role, higher personal risk)
For ‘Steer’, the goal is — quite simply — to help the meeting achieve its objectives. There will be occasions when you’re not in charge of a meeting, but nobody is taking charge. This is where the ‘Steer’ strategy comes in.
- Moderate the discussion so that others can reach landing points. People often talk past one another, especially in big meetings where different interests and biases may be at play. Help recap these perspectives, but frame them in common objectives that are shared by the parties in conflict. Caveat your interventions; give others the opportunity (and dignity) to reposition their views in a more constructive manner.
- Lead the synthesis of the discussion. This is the same as Quadrant 3 (‘Share’), except you’ll be doing it out in the open and in real-time. Do it at critical moments of the meeting. There are at least two such moments: one, after a prolonged period of complex deliberation; two, at the end.
Strictly speaking, these are the duties of the meeting lead. Because of this, ‘Steer’ comes with high personal risk, even when it is necessary. It has to be executed with finesse and respect. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as being disruptive or even rude. Legitimate or not, that kind of reputation is not easy to reverse.
This is suitable if you have the following attributes:
- Experience in dealing with the people in the room
- Competent with the subject matter being discussed (preferably, perceived to be competent by others as well)
- Clear and concise communicator
- Able to think on your feet, especially to rapidly identify where people have common ground, where they clash and how this relates to the problems that the meeting is trying to solve.
It’s all about being team-oriented
You may notice one common theme across all four quadrants. It’s all about how you can use your strengths to help your team.
- How can I contribute meaningfully to the team? Am I doing that already? What kind of ‘player’ am I? What’s my position (‘quadrant’)?
- What does it mean to take on ‘bigger’ responsibilities within the team? What does this mean for the skills and attitude that I need to nurture? (‘complexity’)
- What kind of impact do I want to strengthen the team, and what are the inherent risks that come with those aspirations? (‘personal risks’)
Map this out every now and then. Over time, it’ll give you a more structured way to think about your professional growth — in a way that is tied not just to your own progress, but to the value that you are bringing to the team.
Try it out. I’d love to hear what you think.