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Your Meeting Culture Needs to Change — This Strategy Can Improve Your Team Dynamics With Less Work and Time Meetings are boring for nearly everyone involved. Here's how to change the culture of your meetings.

By Dionne Van Zyl

Key Takeaways

  • There needs to be cultural permission for people to say no to meetings.
  • In the long term, giving culture permission for people to decline meetings profoundly affects the team's productivity, culture and efficacy.
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For most organizations, meeting culture is a real challenge. For many, it feels like meetings consume all available productive time, especially our most productive workday times.

The real challenge is not the meetings themselves but the culture of meetings, who gets invited, their frequency and efficacy.

I first learned how to address meeting culture when I became the president of a small company with an extraordinary amount of meetings, given that we only had 25 employees. To create awareness of the actual cost of meetings, we calculated the average dollar cost per person per hour.

Related: Why Meeting Culture is Draining your Employee's Strength and Productivity

Secondly, we did an audit over two weeks, in which we asked leaders to track the number of people in their meetings and the length of the meeting. As you can imagine, there was an immediate decline in the number of meetings and duration due to the awareness the exercise created. At the end of the two weeks, we calculated the average cost of a meeting. The team was genuinely shocked by the actual cost of these meetings.

Thirdly, we changed the units from dollars to product sales by calculating how many products we needed to sell to pay for a meeting. We took our most popular and largest-selling product as the unit of measure. We said, "This meeting cost 18 product A's." We found this was much more effective than simply giving the dollar amount since the team had an excellent appreciation for what it takes to sell that product.

At the end of the month, I told the team, "We spent 284 Product A's on meetings this month!" Doing this exercise once a year or every six months.

Related: 'Meeting Culture' Is Costing Companies $101 Million a Year

Using the modes of meetings to change the culture

The first thing we had to understand was that there are three modes of meetings:

  • 1:1 meeting (one-to-one)
  • 1:n meeting (one to many)
  • n:n meetings (many to many)

This led to a framework in which we were able to ask each person calling a meeting to choose the most effective mode of the meeting that would be most effective.

If we were having a one-to-one meeting, it would be highly effective if both people knew how to manage distractions and stay focused. If it was a one-to-many meeting, the most effective way to do this was a webinar-style meeting. This meant having one person "host" the meeting and another presenting the content. If the meeting was on Zoom, the host managed the comments and questions in the chat while the presenter presented.

We found that "many-to-many" meetings were clearly the least effective, least respectful and often the default mode. We reserved the ability to call these meetings to only senior-level people in the company. We intentionally restricted the frequency and kept them focused as an example of how meetings should be run.

Related: What Your Company Meetings Say About Your Culture

Introducing FIRE meetings

So, this led us to change our meeting culture. Fire is an acronym for "Focused, Informative, Respectful, and Effective."

When setting up a meeting, we start with Focused, in which we train leaders to ask:

  • What is the right mode for this meeting?
  • What will make this meeting successful?

The next component is Informative. We train leaders to think through the information they want to present and divide them into three categories:

  • What must they know?
  • What is the key point?
  • What additional information can I add to make the meeting more interesting and engaging? (including a great story, fun facts, etc.)

Keeping meetings Respectful means giving people enough warning before a meeting is called to give them time to prepare or reorganize their schedules. We encourage everyone to be on the call two minutes early so that the meeting part starts on time. This is a keystone organizational habit that creates respect in the culture.

People who run meetings right to the last minute do not leave time to arrive two minutes early to the next meeting. For this reason, we teach leaders to wrap up the meeting with five minutes to spare and end two minutes early. Once this becomes part of the meeting culture, everything changes for the team. There is a more calm and peaceful atmosphere when moving from meeting to meeting.

Finally, we get to the element of being Effective. We encourage leaders to keep the discussions focused and to minimize rabbit trails. At the halfway mark, they can state, "We're halfway through our meeting, and we still need to reach our objective." At the end of the meeting, leaders need to state if the objective has been reached clearly. They need to give clear next steps as to who is doing what and by when. If the meeting ends early, don't prolong it.

I once ran a meeting with the team on the call three minutes beforehand, and since everybody was present, we started the meeting. We reached our objective in under two minutes and were able to end the meeting before it officially started!

Related: How to Create a Meeting-Smart Work Culture

Building a culture to empower FIRE meetings

Encourage leaders to invite people based on the right time, not "just in case." By this, I mean we often invite people "just in case" they need to be there or may need the information. This is not respectful of their time and undoubtedly ineffective for the organization. Some people need to know at some point, but the real question is whether the meeting is the right time for them to be part of the discussion.

There needs to be cultural permission for people to say no to meetings. When a leader is willing to give that cultural permission to their team, they will find a much more productive and effective team member who feels respected and empowered. In the long term, giving culture permission for people to decline meetings profoundly affects the team's productivity, culture and efficacy.

FIRE meetings can dramatically change the meeting culture of any organization. It makes every team member feels respected as well as informed. Meetings are taken much more seriously when they are called in the right mood, with the right frequency, with the right people in the room, started and ended with a two-minute margin.

Every organization can enjoy this much-needed meeting culture shift.

Dr. Van Zyl is an author, conference speaker, business leader, executive trainer, and student of the best management practices for over 30 years. He specializes in creating high-performance teams for emerging businesses.

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