The NFL is an excellent case study in competition: 40 percent annual layoffs, new management strategies every 18 months, stiff competition, disgruntled employees, and constant pressure to increase ticket sales. We used meetings constantly-on the field, in the locker room, and all week long. During the game, we called them huddles-20 seconds of streamlined strategy communicated to 11 players about 110 times every game. Solutions sought, learning shared, and decisions made. Communicating with speed and agility allows a team to exploit its opportunities instantly. It's what gets winners into the end zone.
In the 1990s, the front-runners in all industries will excel in communicating with their people. They will harness the power of creativity, enthusiasm, and loyalty-by-products of shared values and shared goals. In short, they will perform as a cohesive team. All winning teams communicate well, and the lion's share of the responsibility for quality communications sits squarely on the shoulders of those in charge of planning and executing the company's meetings.
Highly successful organizations use their meetings to shape the thinking within their firms quickly and efficiently. I once had an opportunity to talk with President Clinton on the subject of speaking and meetings. "A large part of what I do," he said, "is keeping people in the right frame of mind." Like the President, organizations use meetings not only to increase productivity and achieve bottom-line results, but also to enrich the company culture and build relationships.
To get more out of your meetings, here are a few practical tips from my experience in the huddle-both on the field and inside corporations.
Small Groups Standing meetings are extremely effective and productive. Agendas are trimmed to the essential and everyone gets quickly to the point. Standing is a "take immediate action" position, while sitting is reflective, passive, and hierarchical. In the traditional sit-down format, there's less sense of connection, no "skin in the game." I call this the meeting trance, where ingenuity, urgency, and ownership are left at the door.
In competitive times, you will always see people standing, communicating, and connecting. I've never seen a standing meeting last much longer than about 18 minutes. Removing comfort infuses energy. You can create this environment for your meetings by taking the Spartan approach. Remove the table, forget the chairs, and leave the coffee and doughnuts in the lunch room.
Attendees should be obliged to leave if they can't contribute. I've watched companies take some of their most talented reps away from the phone, clients, and contacts to join a meeting where they add no value. What is particularly foreign to me is that once in the meeting, attendees remain, even when they've determined that they can't make a substantive contribution. If your attendees can't make a difference, they should leave.
This practice forces meeting sponsors-especially when they begin to witness the departures-to take a disciplined look at the purpose of their meetings. I've seen organizations trim their meetings by as much as 70 percent while at the same time improving overall performance and communication.
Start on time and close the door. There is an unspoken affirmation of mismanagement when meetings start late. The conclusion is drawn immediately: "What a waste." Time and loyalty are precious competitive resources.
To improve attention, start the meeting a few minutes before the top of the hour or a few minutes after. My clients report prompt attention and focus from their sales forces when meetings are scheduled at 8:57 or 9:03.
Post clearly defined meeting goals that acknowledge individual responsibility in the learning process and in the success of the organization. Drafting such a "communication constitution" is itself an important exercise. Creating goals as a group goes a long way toward eliminating "malicious compliance," that is attendees who come to the meeting as required but keep their creative ideas and talents to themselves because of some unresolved conflict.
Large Groups In larger meetings, especially those with more than 100 people, the dynamics are different. Complex ideas are not easily digested, but there is no greater forum for creating a single shift in thinking. Whether it's motivating the agent force with an annual sales incentive, launching new products, or healing organizational wounds, a large gathering is ideal for reaching individuals on a profound level.
Contrary to what you might think, large meetings can be more intimate than small ones. Individuals are safe to consider new ideas without feeling exposed. The laughter, silence, and interaction of large meetings are each instrumental in creating thinking shifts that need time to settle in.
A large meeting can become the force that unites, builds allegiances, and aligns visions. Consider the following when planning large meetings.
The opening must galvanize the group. When you fill a room with your championship team, you are competing with everything else in each person's mind: phone calls to be made,to be written, financial issues, personal issues. In order to get results, the minds in the room must be brought together quickly. I am a big believer in the giant video projection screen. Bring down the lights, roll the multimedia, and let its drama draw everyone into the current of the meeting.
Invest in an excellent sound system. It's the chocolate sauce, the difference between vanilla ice cream and an ice cream sundae-in short, all the difference in the world. Sound staging is as important as platform staging. Be kind to your audience; make listening effortless.
Schedule speakers when they're most effective. Schedule your powerhouse first, the speaker who has the credibility and presence to pull everyone in. Mid-conference, when concentration is peaked, is the best time for high-content technical, in-house, and how-to speakers. The after-dinner or closing speech should be light and last no longer than 25 minutes. At this point, most attendees are exhausted, filled to their intellectual capacity. Respect this and nourish them with something fun and engaging. If your work isn't done at this point, don't try to fit it in. This suggests mismanagement.
Don't let leadership hide behind charts, graphs, and industry studies. A frank, gut-level communication style reaches people when most blue-suit corporate strategies fail. There's nothing so convincing as openness, truth, and integrity. Action can begin once we peel away resistant layers of justifications and excuses. It takes courage, but courage is necessary to compete.
I'm reminded of an experience I had with the New England Patriots. The offensive play selection had become predictable and therefore ineffective. We had to face the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Stealers, and Los Angeles Raiders in upcoming games. No one talked about it openly, but everyone was dissatisfied and conversations were filled with toxic undertones. We questioned the team's direction, leadership, and strategy.
Coach Raymond Berry knew his team well enough to take on this issue directly. He called a full-team organizational meeting, including players, coaches, and front-office administrators. "I have made a mistake. I can do better," he said. "We need to change direction, and it starts with me." That was the end of the meeting, and we could all feel the energy and enthusiasm fill the room-our potential was unleashed. Total meeting time: five minutes.
The Transformational Moment Like Berry, Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi, and other great competitive strategists from whom I've learned much, the goal of my presentations is singular-to unleash the power in the meeting room.
With the stories I tell, I carefully expose the self-limiting belief systems that tend to sabotage the success of most people. This process builds openings-pathways to deep consciousness-that introduce new facts about my listeners' performance possibilities. At this point I ask four powerful questions: Who says you do not have a right and a claim to success? Who says you cannot be the very best in the world? Who told you that you can't win? And, most importantly: What if they were wrong?
Many in the audience experience both excitement and uneasiness with this question. But it's the kind of unrest that can have positive consequences for the company and the individual.
My "Wait for Nothing" keynote offers more than the short-lived enthusiasm of a pep rally or a simple catchphrase. It delivers a lifestyle choice. I invite listeners to take the competitor's declaration of excellence-to Wait for Nothing. This commitment says that they will no longer allow themselves to surrender their personal power, creativity, and energy to obstacles presented by adversity and change in our competitive marketplace.
Effective meetings, small and large, must produce results by communicating honestly, creatively, and efficiently. Too many companies that use the cliches of organizational change-cross-functional learning, empowerment, outside-the-box thinking-without understanding that these philosophies need to be introduced and reinforced through their meetings. No wonder so many companies find themselves constantly searching for a better way.