- Wise Words -
In the Zoom?
How to get real results from a virtual meeting
by martin leuw
I was watching the superb stage production of Hamilton the other night (on a screen of course!) and two particular lyrics struck me as more relevant than ever with so many of us living and working at a social distance:
“I wanna be in the room where it happens”
“I’m not throwing away my shot”
It made me think about that perennial topic of meetings and how, with most of us participating at a distance and typically over video, it is now harder than ever to be effective in them. By effective I mean getting what we want out of them and using our time effectively. Getting our shot!
Taking the theme of a remote “production”, I have learned as a CEO and now a company Chairman some of the simple hacks that help me run an effective meeting. So, whether it’s the first meeting you’ve chaired or you are a seasoned performer, I hope these 6 tips are useful to you in your remote work life when you take the (meeting) “lead role”:
Setting the Stage: Ok, so we don’t need to pretend that we are at the office when setting up at home, but… we can do our best to present ourselves professionally even if we don’t have a separate home office and are taking the call in our bedroom to escape our housemates. What we can do is make sure our stage is set as appropriate as possible.
From talking to people who have to juggle this (I am lucky I have my own space at home), what really helps is investing in a laptop stand so that they can get the camera to the right height.
There’s no need to have a corporate background, but you can use a virtual one and have a think about how your background will look before starting the call (you don’t want to have your back to the window and look like someone in witness protection, or have wall art that doesn’t make you look professional etc, etc) and… remember not to leave your dirty laundry in the background!
The Programme: The agenda determines everything and must reflect what people need to discuss and get out of the meeting for it to be of real value, so if possible, ask them in advance. If you are running the meeting, you will definitely want to build an agenda, even if just two bullet points.
While this sounds obvious too often meetings happen without enough thought on the agenda. If the agenda is too full, then focus will be diluted, so better to have a small number of key items to discuss. If this is a regular meeting, ask yourself whether it has a scope and purpose?
What was agreed last time, has it been dealt with as agreed and if not, why not and when will it be?
If you have a report or presentation that you want to discuss, make sure to circulate in advance (and if you can, attach the document or link to if they are on virtual docs to the invite). Try to make them short and if you can, graphical, so that they will be read in advance (for more on business writing see here).
A good Chair ensures that everybody participates and has a voice, so it is not just the noisy ones that get heard, particularly as the quieter people often have the best ideas. Sometimes Non-Execs (NEDs) need reminding they are there to advise not direct. Both in a physical as well as a virtual meeting, there are times when a breakout can be used to stimulate ideas and help get stuff done.
Timing and intervals: Start on time. Some people are psychologically wired to always be late but that is their issue and it’s not fair for everybody else to be left hanging around. Allow enough time for each item so you are not rushing through and squeezing the time allowed for the last items – a bit of contingency time built in helps. Deal with the meaty topics early.
If the meeting is a long one (above 60 mins) attention will flag so allow enough breaks. No other mobile devices on and if it is a video meeting, ask participants to leave their video always on, but muted if they are not speaking.
The cast and their roles: You can have the best agenda in the world but unless everybody is clear about the part they have to play, the production can be chaotic. The size of the cast can make a big difference too and as a rule of thumb, more than 8 people can get challenging if you want a decent discussion and decisions to be made.
At the minimum you need a Chair to moderate and a Scribe to document. While no one likes to be the scribe, you can ask a colleague to be your scribe while offering to be theirs at a later date. If you have a team, you can always rotate amongst your team members so none feels like the “junior”.
Two books: The light-hearted Winnie the Pooh on Management and the more serious Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats are worth a read. For the best decisions I think you need a diverse cast and aim to maximise “healthy tension” to avoid “groupthink”. These are useful to understand the psychology and behavioural traits of the people you work with. Early in my career I pitched to the Board with what I felt was a great proposition and it got rejected primarily because I hadn’t understood the politics well enough. So on that occasion, I lost my shot!
RAPID Action: If you try to make too many decisions there is a high risk of dilution and poor delivery. I prefer a small number of key ones where there is clarity on why, what, how, who and when by. A RAPID or a RACI framework (best to look this up online) cascaded throughout the organisation can provide real clarity on where decisions lie to ensure they don’t all flow upwards and there is clear accountability.
Critical review and feedback: Did everybody get value out of the meeting and if not, where can improvements be made? After some years of “it’s not the Spanish Inquisition” by my Private Equity majority shareholders (they owned the company and sometimes felt my destiny too!), I remember being shocked when one of my NEDs (Non Executive Directors) asked me as CEO if I had got value out of a Board meeting as that was the point of it.
So next time you are in a meeting, virtual or physical, chairing or participating, make sure “it’s the one where it happens” and that you “don’t miss your shot”.
Related columns: "How to be effective working from home" and "Calendar Collaboration".
For inspiration around what to wear for your next video meeting, see: "The Video Call Is Starting. Time to Put on Your Zoom Shirt" by Joel Stein of The New York Times.
Martin Leuw is Founder of Growth4Good, which invests in high growth purpose led businesses in the digital technology sector, principally in social and environmental change.
He is also Chairman of Leathwaite, an international human capital specialist and Ground Control a leading environmental maintenance services provider. Earlier in his career, Martin was CEO of IRIS Software and grew it from small beginnings to become a market leader in each of its sectors and one of the UK’s largest private B2B (SAAS) software houses, with £50m EBITDA pa, exiting in 2007 at $1bn EV.