What did I do to James?

I have not yet met a single manager who would not complain about ‘boring’, ‘endless’ and ‘useless’ meetings they have to host or attend on a daily basis. And yet most of them are literally just a few words away from making their meeting a really effective communication and teambuilding tool.

I once worked with a senior leader, let’s call him James, who had daily ‘planning’ meetings with his extended team, first thing in the morning.

He would come to work a few minutes before the meeting, close the door and open his computer. His reports, almost 20 people, would gently knock on his door at 7:59, quietly trickle in and swiftly take their chairs around the conference table and alongside the wall, in compliance with their position in the corporate food chain.

At 8:00 sharp, without turning his eyes away from the big monitor, James would say “Let’s go!”

The attendees would then, usually in clockwise order, tell him about the events of the past 24 hours, and James would grill them if their story was different from what he’d just read in the emails.

Everybody, including James, hated his meeting. It was scheduled to start 30 minutes before the regular working hours and was long, boring, almost meaningless, and often overwhelmingly frustrating, typically running one hour. Luckily, 8:59 was a hard cutoff: James had a daily meeting with his boss.

James was convinced that the need to run this meeting is an integral part of his senior position and he would not expect a different outcome, “so there’s nothing we could possibly improve.”

“How about wishing a good morning to everybody?..”

My irresponsible suggestion almost insulted James. He informed me that “this is not a daycare,” that he has already seen some of them in the lobby and that “we had just left the office at 10 P.M. yesterday.”

Indeed, they often stayed late and had this gathering on weekend as well, rain or shine.

A couple of meetings later, when I was away, James took the plunge. His greeting caused a momentary confusion but it transformed the meeting atmosphere right away. James would not admit the change but was more receptive from now on, and more positive changes followed.

Without much trouble, James trimmed the list of mandatory attendees. People who would normally have nothing of value to add were requested not to attend the meeting. Now everybody was seating around the table facing each other. There were no backbenchers anymore.

To those who remained on the list, James suggested a very focused reporting format: (1) important events that happened since last communication, (2) key activities planned for the immediate future, and (3) the overall status: green (everything under control), yellow (problems will be resolved internally), or red (please help). As a general rule, the speakers were instructed NOT to repeat what was already reported in the emails, discussed previously or had no impact on the operations. Once a month, their respective KPIs were added to the standard report.

Soon the meeting length was down to 20 minutes, with just 8 people present. Quick math confirms that these changes have saved close to 80% of the initial meeting cost. Multiply it by 300 times per year, and the return on the “good morning” investment will be very impressive.

As the new meeting format would inevitably trickle down the hierarchy, the actual ROI of the change is even higher. That’s how the corporate ‘culture’ evolves: everybody copies their boss.

For me, the biggest reward came from James’s team, when they cheerfully asked me, “What did you do to James?”

The change must have impressed the big corporate boys: Within a year, James was promoted to the top position at another subsidiary.

James did not call to say ‘thank you’ though. His progress was so rapid that we had not had the time to get to the ‘thank you’ part implementation. Otherwise, the meetings in the company would have been even more effective and efficient.

Do you always sincerely greet your team? What about ‘Thank you’?