Leading Exceptional Online Meetings

leader having meeting from home

The question that dominated my recent free zoom session on leading exceptional online meetings was, “how do you stop meetings from being boring?” I had asked participants to submit their top two questions, and everyone had asked that question or a version of it. It is a great question, and too few leaders recognise their meetings are boring or irrelevant to participants.

If your own meetings don’t excite you, and you aren’t looking forward to getting together with those in the meeting, you are headed straight for the boring track.

People are bored when:

  • They don’t know their purpose of being there
  • Their experience and contributions are overlooked
  • They don’t leave the meeting with a gem or two to assist them in their work
  • They don’t make a good connection with one or more others in the meeting

So, what can leaders do?

Firstly, leaders who have a clear purpose and outcome for every item draw people in. If the purpose doesn’t fill you with vitality, it won’t be good for anyone else. Here is an example: “The purpose is to share our experience, and the outcome is everyone is clear what our next steps are to return to work.”  
Typical outcomes statements are; by the end of this meeting we will have:

  • Established…
  • Clarified…
  • Implemented…
  • Have a way forward …
  • Resolved…
  • Taken the next step towards…
  • Agreed…
  • Found…

Your best preparation investment is five minutes to confirm the purpose of the meeting, the outcomes you want from meeting, and the outcomes participants want. Let everyone know this at the beginning of the meeting. Every participant should leave your meetings with one or two tips to focus their next steps, have made relevant contributions, and have made progressive connections with others in the meeting.

Leaders can use these 13 specific tools in online meetings to help people participate:

  1. Visuals. Be camera-ready including how you dress. Dress as the leader. Mute everyone. Look into the camera and be personable, inclusive and welcoming. Attend to the lighting, avoid having a window or light behind you, it makes your face dark. Face the light. We don’t have the usual visual cues in online meetings, learn to read the more subtle signals that people are ready to talk.
  2. Confidentiality. Ensure everyone wears a headset or at a minimum, earbuds or earphones to ensure personal and business confidentiality. Those in your home or bubble, should not hear others speaking.
  3. Use variations in introductions.  Keep introductions brief. “Introduce yourself in te reo, or your favourite language, where are you, and say the best movie or documentary you have seen on Netflix in the past week” or  “what you are reading”, or “what is one innovation you’d like to see your organisation make going forward?” Choose something relevant to the group, how well people already know one another, or not and the meeting purpose. To keep interactions moving, invite people choose who they want to hear from next. 
  4. Meeting times. Online meetings are shorter. What usually takes an hour might take a lead team 25 minutes online. If you plan three-hour meetings, take 10 minutes breaks every 55 minutes. Encourage people to use free apps to chat in between meetings. Don’t be afraid to end the meeting early.
  5. Meta communicate. It is essential in online meetings to let people know what is going to happen before it happens. E.g. “Shortly I’ll ask each of you to introduce yourself. For this item, I’ll speak for 6 minutes then invite each of you to contribute. Shortly, I’ll invite each team to make a mini-presentation on these three areas.” Always have a process for participation so people know how they can contribute.
  6. Avoid boring meetings. Have both the purpose of the meeting and the outcome clear for yourself and the participants. Leaders need to talk less and listen more. If your purpose isn’t clear, people tune out.
  7. Participation methods. Use break out rooms in Zoom for smaller groups to meet and talk. Give people a specific time and task. Use MURAL or Whiteboard for participatory tools. Have people write their questions in the chat function and then take time to respond simply to each question during the meeting. Consider having a meeting leader for the context, and a jazz conductor to manage participation to ensure everyone contributes. Ask small groups of two or three to work informally and prepare something for the meeting.
  8. Expect distractions. Expect to see family members and pets on screen. Our personal and professional lives merge in disruptive times and working online.
  9. Encourage participation. Set one or two questions for people to think about before the meeting and invite brief responses. Set the responses to a maximum of two minutes. Don’t drone on, and don’t let others drone on. Learn how to interrupt – look into the camera and say, “Let me interrupt you to see If I understand what you are saying.” Ask teams to prepare mini-presentations and present – max six minutes. Be purposeful and intentional. Invite questions before the meeting and take time to respond to these during the meeting.
  10. Use leadership language. Shift from crises language – unprecedented, interesting, and shock, to the language of inspiration – move through, dynamic, accelerate, innovation, collegiality, strengths, together, communal, learning and opportunity helps people move forward.
  11. Encourage people to have small groups of confidants. These groups can chat regularly or use free message apps and discuss organisation intel they tune into. This helps regenerate informal connections and relationship networks.
  12. Late entry to meetings. Give five minutes of tech arrival time for meetings. Not everyone has high-speed Wi-Fi or is tech-savvy. When people come in late, say hello X, we are discussing XYZ. Repeat nothing. Assign a buddy to people new to the team, or new to the technology.
  13. Keep social interactions separate from business. In a crisis, boundaries merge. Working online means personal and business merge. Keep social interactions out of business meetings except in the breaks. Arrange specific social catch-ups; a 15-minute stand-up sharing – the best innovation I’ve seen, burning issues, what I’m looking forward to, one thing I have resolved from this experience is…Your list is endless.

Be known for exceptional meetings, ones you can’t wait to lead, and others will benefit from participating in.

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