Hate Meetings? Why Most Are Complete Failures

Do you hate meetings? Do you feel like most of them are a waste of your time?

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Well, join the club, sunshine: Executives consider more than two-thirds (67 percent) of meetings to be failures, according to research by Rick Gilbert, an executive coach (www.powerspeaking.com) for companies including Apple, Adobe, Cisco, eBay and Oracle and the author of “Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations.”

“Maybe the numbers weren’t right or the data weren’t good,” Gilbert said. Maybe the subordinates giving the presentation didn’t understand what the executives were asking for. “The meeting had to be rescheduled and it took up a lot of time.”

And a lot of valuable time at that: If you figure that the average CEO is paid $12 to $13 million, that’s $6,000 an hour. Imagine you have more than one high-level executive at that meeting and failure becomes expensive.

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By Gilbert’s estimates, failed meetings waste about $3.1 million every year.

Here are some of the key reasons Gilbert says meetings fail:

  • Being terrified of the executives at the meeting and going in expecting it to be confrontational instead of a collaboration.
  • Not doing enough homework in advance — who’s going to be in the room, what are their hidden agendas, etc.
  • Not getting to the point quickly enough. Next thing you know, the executive in the front row is checking his email, or worse — just left the room.
  • Bad attitudes. Maybe you’re a tech person who assumes that the executives sitting in front of you “just won’t get it” or maybe you’re just looking at your slice of the pie and not realizing the 360-degree picture that the executives sitting in front of you have.
  • Boring the hell out of people with PowerPoint slides. Gilbert calls this “Death by PowerPoint.”

“This is no joke — I have literally seen people’s careers come unglued and go down the tubes because they had too many slides!” Gilbert said. “Executives want discussion, not slide-driven presentations. If the presenter cannot speak off-slide, then I don’t think they know what they’re talking about.”

For sure, there’s something to be said for preparation and having some visual aids but Gilbert says you have to approach a meeting like a jazz musician or a stand-up comic. Have a presentation ready but then be ready to improvise — shifting and crossing out some of your original agenda.

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Dave Clarke, the founder of AuthenticMatters, a digital strategy shop that helps companies with user acquisition, said one of his biggest pet peeves and chief culprits of meeting failure is over-invitation.

“When there are too many people in the meeting, it becomes almost physically impossible for everyone to be an active participant. That alone creates wasted time,” Clarke said. “Yet over-invitation happens all the time in a cover-your-own-a** sort of way. It’s like when someone cc’s the entire team on an email that’s only relevant to, say, three people. There’s a line between ‘keeping everyone in the loop’ and overkill.”

Hey, you in the back row on the iPhone — eyes up here, please!

Multi-tasking by checking email mid-meeting may seem innocent — even admirable — to you, but in fact, Clarke said, it’s another contributing factor to meeting failure.

“If you’re fiddling with your phone, you’re not 100 percent in the meeting,” he said.

And you know what happens next — you miss something that was said, and the people paying attention have to repeat themselves.

Nice going, Slick.

Gilbert offers a few “nightmare” scenarios that you have to be ready for, lest they derail your meeting:

  • Having your time cut. Maybe they told you you’d have 20 minutes to present and you walk in the room and it’s cut to seven. You have to have a five-minute version and a 30-second elevator pitch ready so no matter what time you get, you get your point across.
  • The executives change topics in the middle of your presentation.
  • The executives in the room get into a food fight mid-presentation — a turf war that has nothing to do with you or your presentation.
  • Condescension. Maybe a sales person snarkily says, “People at R&D have no idea what it takes to sell this stuff!”
  • Side talk. Nothing can get a meeting off-track faster than side conversations. Gilbert suggests finding a way to turn the main conversation to the side talkers to rope them back into the conversation. Particularly if those people are higher up than you, you want to rope them back in by saying something like, “What do you think about this?” instead of embarrassing them. Or, maybe you turn to the CEO or other high-level person in the room, confirm that the topic is important and say, “We need to make a decision on this. Do we have everybody’s attention?”
  • The decision maker leaves the room. Gilbert suggests trying to catch the person before they leave and say, “Bob, before you go, real quick – do you want us to wait until you come back or go ahead and make a decision without you?”

The best way to make sure your good meeting doesn’t go bad is to keep your energy up, be excited about what’s going on and energize the discussion, Gilbert said. And don’t just do your homework on the topic of the presentation, do your homework on the people in the room.

And, one very important lesson Gilbert learned first-hand during a presentation he gave while working at Hewlett-Packard in the early 1980s: It’s not about you.

“I presumed the meeting was all about me, and a big deal in [HP executive] Dick Anderson’s day. After all, I was a manager and what could be more important than my quality training program? Well, a whole lot, actually,” Gilbert, then the manager of HP’s training programs, wrote in “Speaking Up.”

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And, don’t go in there expecting to be lavished with praise for your brilliant presentation.

In the book, Gilbert quotes Felicia Marcus, an executive at the western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former regional administrator at the EPA:

“If you come in and seem angry or are being a ‘suck-up’ looking for a reassuring pat on the head for doing a good job, then you are still working out your childhood authority issues. When we have to deal with all of that it is just a waste of time,” Marcus said.

What? I’m telling Mom!

Like any good comedian, you should also know your audience. Jokes that work at the bottom don’t always work at the top.

Did I ever tell you the one about the boss who was so clueless …

Whoops! Sorry, wrong audience.

That being said, remember that executives are people, too — and they like to laugh.

In Gilbert’s book, Dan Eilers, a partner at Vanguard Ventures, an early-stage venture-capital firm, recalls how former President Ronald Reagan kept his cool – and his sense of humor — even in the most trying of circumstances.

“Looking up from the gurney after being shot, he said to the ER physician, ‘Well, Doc, I sure hope you’re a Republican.”

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