Become a Meeting Guru: The During and After

In a recent post I talked about the difference an agenda can make in a meeting. Agendas are created before the meeting starts, but what about during and after the meeting? In this post I want to talk about the importance of committing to a standardized system during and after every meeting. By definition a system is something that happens the same way every time. For that reason it is important that your system be as simple as possible. Elaborate systems will be abandoned during simple meetings, but simple systems can also be used for elaborate conferences. So make your systems simple and then use the heck out of them. Here are the basic elements your system must have.

Capture information during the meeting

You already have an agenda so the simplest thing to do is use it as the outline for notes you take during the meeting. And please, please take notes. I am sure there are power tripping, Gordon Gecko types that relish the grand entry of plopping down at the conference table with a self confident greeting like "so, what can I do for you today?" If you can, get up and leave these meetings before they have a chance to get started. The best meeting is one where everyone starts with pen over paper and an agenda in front of them. If you don't take notes it comes off as disrespectful. You can take notes on a legal pad, in a notebook, on your iPad or laptop. It does not matter. Ideally your system should be technology agnostic.

If there is a whiteboard or flip chart in use during the meeting take pictures before it gets erased or flipped to the next page. I do this all the time with my iPhone and it works brilliantly. If the meeting is happening in my conference room I will send these pictures straight to the color laser printer so we can refer back to them and pass them around the table easily.

The challenge when it comes to capturing information is striking the balance. You are not trying to take dictation. But at the same time you do not want your notes to be so cryptic and concise that they are of no use days or weeks down the road. Don't be so concerned about months and years down the road. We are going to cover that later. Taking good notes is as much art as science. You may vary the level of detail you try to capture based on the type of meeting. In some meetings I scribble furiously. In others my notes are spartan. It just depends. Find the style that allows you to be most engaged, and that also allows you to record details that must be recalled later.

Keep track of action items

I believe the secret to effective note taking is being able to pull action items out of the text at a glance. You need to develop some method so that action items jump off the page, and it is readily apparent who needs to do what next. There are lots of ways to do this. My own system is very simple. If there is something that I am going to need to do as a result of the meeting I put an empty check box in the left margin of my notes. If I am taking notes in a text file I begin the line with two square brackets like this []. If someone else in the meeting is responsible for some followup action item I put an empty circle in the left margin. In a text file I use opening and closing parentheses like this ().

I have seen people draw a vertical line dividing the page into two columns with the left column taking up two thirds of the page and the right column one third. The smaller column on the right is used for action items. This method is similar to a format I like a lot from Behance called the Action Method. But as cool as their fancy paper is I can't use it because it doesn't meet the most important criteria. It is not simple enough to be ubiquitous.

This is the main point. It does not matter which method you use, but keep it simple. You need some type of format for marking action items in your notes, and it must work no matter where you are or what medium you are using. I like my system because it works in my Moleskine notebook, a text file in Byword, a picture of a whiteboard, an agenda prepared by someone else or the back of someone's business card. Remember, keep it simple.

Communicate the action items after the meeting

As soon as possible after the meeting confirm with each attendee the specific action items agreed to during your time together. A quick email is the best way to do this. It only takes a few minutes if you do it right after the meeting is over. But if you wait, even fifteen minutes, the time it takes to complete this step can grow by a factor of 10. There is a good chance that you wrapped up the meeting with a quick recap of action items. If you did the recap it takes only a couple of minutes to review your notes and get those items into an email.

If you wait there are a couple of problems. First, you must locate your notes. Second, if your notes were less than complete there is a good chance you will not notice a missing action item that was agreed to early or late in the meeting. Third, and most important, one of the attendees may have forgotten that they consented to carry out an action item. Now, you have to spend even more time negotiating with someone's bad memory. And rather than argue with a client you will probably end up adding this item to your own list. So procrastination not only results in inefficiency on your end, it also tangibly addsd to your work load.

When scheduling your meetings go ahead and block out 15 minutes afterward to recap your open items and followup with attendees. Then, once everyone has left the conference room resist the urge to go refill your coffee cup or wind down with a stroll around the office. Take your butt back to the conference room, spread out your notes, open up your laptop and bang out the email so everyone gets it before they have a chance to get into their next appointment. It will only take you three minutes, and it will save you loads of time down the road. I know, I know. I said fifteen minutes. I'll tell you what to do with the other twelve later.

Your action items need a system of their own

Any action items from the meeting also need to get entered into whatever system you use to keep track of todo items and tasks. My favorite system for this type of stuff is David Allen's "Getting Things Done.", but you can use whatever system works for you. Law firms have traditionally used tickler systems. Some businesses use project management software or unified task management applications. It really doesn't matter. You can use index cards, a notebook, your smartphone, whatever. Just be sure you use a system that you follow religiously. That is how you keep things from falling through the cracks. I am a Mac nerd so I like OmniFocus. There are dozens of task management applications out there. Find one, buy into it and use it every day.

Your system also needs to account for items that others are responsible for completing. This is critical. It is very likely that several weeks later someone from the meeting may ask you for something that was actually on their list. When they see your blank look don't be surprised if the response is "you do remember promising to get that, don't you?" The GTD system avoids this kind of miscommunication by keeping such items on a "waiting" list. Every so often you review your "waiting" list and send reminders to the people who have outstanding tasks to complete. Over time, your colleagues begin to understand that you track this stuff every day, you can tell them the date they agreed to do something, and you stay on top of them until they get it done. Pretty soon they don't question you anymore, they just do it.

Recording your action items and the items you are waiting on others to finish will use up another three minutes of your post meeting time. You have nine minutes left.

Archive your notes for future reference

There is a very good chance that you will never need your notes again. After all, the purpose of the meeting was to decide on next actions and the focus after the meeting was on getting them done. If you need to go back to your notes it is most often because something that someone said they were going to do did not get done. For instance, an insurance agent is asked for a quote and during the fact finding meeting the client says they are not really concerned with flood insurance. The agent agrees to work up a quote excluding flood coverage and does so. After the quote is received the client complains that the quote does not include flood coverage.

If all the steps above were followed the client received an email shortly after the meeting stating that a quote would be forthcoming that excludes flood coverage. If the client missed that email the agent could go back and review his notes with the client covering the part of the conversation that dealt with flood insurance. But this is rare. Here is what I suggest.

Archive your meeting notes in their original form. If they were taken on the back of a cocktail napkin scan the napkin into a filing system that makes sense for you. If you took notes on your computer save the file using the same filing system. This is where the other nine minutes come into play. It will take you less than one minute to scan in or save your notes. Take the rest of the time to write up a short paragraph recapping the meeting. This is the meeting in your own words and it is invaluable in those cases where you have to go back six months or more and review notes. The absolute best tool for this is dictation software. I use Dragon Dictate when I am in the office. In less than ten minutes I can dictate 500-1000 words that succinctly capture my impressions of the meeting. When I am out of the office I use a dictation service that is saved to speed dial on my phone. I dial the number, enter my PIN and dictate up to four minutes of notes. When I get back to the office these notes are in my email and I save them to the appropriate file.

A lot of work

This sounds like a lot of work, but it really is not work. It is a system. Systems are challenging to setup. You need to carefully select your tools and develop the habit to use the system. But once the system is running it does not create work, it saves time, and it adds to your effectiveness. If you are struggling with meetings or if you cannot seem to get your arms around one meeting before the next one starts I encourage you to setup a system and use it.


Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish

This month's Axiom Book Club event featured Verne Harnish's book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. Axiom founder, Joey Brannon gives a one hour overview of the book and the key points necessary to put Harnish's planning principles into effect immediately.


An Agenda Can Change Your [Meeting] Life

There is an old saying that “no man is an island unto himself.” This is certainly true in the world that I live in. I am nothing without my clients. So when we have time with them it is important that we use it to maximum advantage. And having an agenda in place well before the meeting starts exponentially increases the productivity and value of the experience.

The fact is that we have become so dependent on asynchronous communication that we have forgotten what it means to prepare for, execute and followup on face-to-face or virtual conferences. Email requires no preparation to read or answer. The same is true for text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. Professional firms are using all of these venues for client communication and increasingly I think it is causing the quality of real time client interaction to suffer. In the interests of full disclosure and confession I will admit that this is an area that I am resolutely focused on improving. More than that, I plan to make this one of my core competencies. I believe it is such a neglected area in our profession that the opportunities to differentiate from the competition are huge. Everything I am going to say applies to both “live” and “virtual” conferences. I am a huge fan of tools like GoToMeeting and Skype. I also firmly believe that electronic meetings can suck just as bad as in-person meetings. This post is about making them exceptional.

It all starts with the meeting before the meeting. In their book, The McKinsey Mind, Ethan Rasiel and Paul Friga talk about how ingrained the interview guide has become in McKinsey’s culture. The authors interviewed former McKinsey consultants who had moved on to lead key positions inside other companies. In these interviews the alumni were often astounded at how frequently their colleagues came to meetings poorly prepared. The interview guide is the McKinsey consultant’s secret weapon.

It is basically a list of the questions the consultant would like to discuss with the client. In other words, it is a detailed agenda. What makes the interview guide particularly effective is that it gets sent to the client at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. There are three things happening here.

First, the consultant is NOT procrastinating when it comes to meeting preparation. I know that there are people who say they work better under pressure, but this is crap. What they really mean is that they stop procrastinating and START working only when they are under pressure. It has nothing to do with working better. It just means that it takes a deadline to get them into gear. Given the proper amount of time to prepare we all do better work when we don’t wait until the last minute. McKinsey consultants prepare their interview guides days in advance of their meetings. They have thought about what they want to ask, they have vetted their questions, they have gone back and taken out the irrelevant, and they only present the most important issues to the client. In other words the quality of the pre-meeting work is stellar.

Second, the client is given the opportunity to properly prepare for the meeting. When was the last time you were called into a meeting and had no idea what the conversation was going to cover? Or maybe you just had a vague idea based on some other things that were going on at the time. Remember how unsettling and stressful that experience was? But we do this to our customers on a weekly, if not daily, basis. At the very least sending your customer an agenda before the meeting reduces the stress and anxiety they experience leading up to the meeting. But it can do a lot more than that.

The best decisions are made on the basis of good data and good analysis. But if we don’t tell the customer what types of data we need there is little chance they will bring it to the meeting. This is inefficient and uncalled for. You should give the people you are meeting with the opportunity to gather their facts and study them. You should set an expectation that if data is needed as part of the meeting agenda it will, in fact, be brought to the meeting. You can greatly enhance the quality of decisions made during your conferences if you give everyone a chance to come properly prepared.

Third, an advance agenda sets an expectation that real work will get done during your conference. People expect that options will be debated. They know that decisions will be made. They know that projects will continue to move forward. If you send out an advance agenda people will take you more seriously. You will find that attendees arrive on time. They come expecting to be engaged and they are primed for action. There is nothing like an audience eager to get down to work.

Much of the negative talk about meetings stems from situations where organizers do a terrible job leading the conference. I have never heard someone say, “Jill did a fantastic job prepping us for the meeting, and she really kept us on point. But that meeting sucked!” It doesn’t happen. As you go, so go your meetings. If you want people to accomplish great things under your leadership do them the favor of preparing an agenda. And get it to them at least 24 hours before go time.


Don't Compete with Your Customers

Not all businesses are created equal. Some products and services are perceived as being more valuable than others. Usually the higher value accrues to the product or service that cannot be be built, produced or performed by the customer. For example, tax planning is generally regarded as requiring the experience, skill and professional tools available only to CPA's and tax attorneys whereas TurboTax can prepare a moderately complicated tax return for less than $50. Fifteen years ago both of these services were considered off limits to the layman. Today only one of them is considered the exclusive territory of degreed professionals.

Another example is the difference between a pool service company and a professional plumber. The pool service company provides convenience for a fee. If the homeowner is retired or has adequate free time it may not make sense to pay for convenience and a knowledge of pool chemicals. That knowledge can be acquired (possibly after the trial and error of recovering a green pool or two) and the time can be sacrificed. But a plumber is another matter. If one does not know how to detect a leak or how to acquire and use the tools to fix the leak no amount of time or trial and error will suffice to get the job done.

In your business you need to take a fresh look at your product or service through your customers' eyes. Is what you do something that your customer could do on their own with enough time or trial and error experience? If the answer is yes you will may face competition from the worst possible place, your customer. But that is not all. Competition will also come from other businesses who increasingly commoditize your product or service.

Ask yourself what features or modifications you can make so that there is little possibility of your customers being able to compete with you. The dry cleaner that is worried customers may start laundering their own shirts needs to find a way to make the service so convenient and worry free that leaving would be horribly inconvenient for the customer. Two ladies in my neighborhood have done this by creating a service that picks up the laundry every Thursday and delivers every Tuesday. I can't compete with that. Even if I wanted to do my own shirts there is no way I can match the convenience or time savings.

We have done this at Axiom by focusing on clients that desire strategic planning services instead of just tax returns. Sure they may be able to do the returns themselves eventually. Who knows what QuickBooks or some other software provider will innovate in the future. A day is probably coming where you can pay an extra $100 and have your accounting software prepare a business tax return for you. But can it help you put together a plan of attack and accountability to meet your 5 and 10 year goals? Probably not. That is something inherently suited to outside help. So we have invested heavily in it.

In the services world competition from your customer base can be just as fierce as it is from other businesses who do what you do. That is your fault. Build things that your customers value, but which they have no desire or ability to build themselves.


Your Customers Need You to Grow

When I worked in my dad's family business we had a guy who handled all of our computer and networking needs. In fact we had several of them because we always ran into the same problem. Our network was not exotic. In those days the only people with exotic networks were schools and 50 plus workstation businesses. From time to time a network connection would fizzle or a piece of software would stop working or a printer would go on the fritz. We would call our guy and wait for him to show up to fix the problem.

During the first year or so after hiring a new IT guy things would go great. We would have the occasional problem, place the call, suffer through the afternoon, and he would come fix the problem. But as word got out and the IT guy's client base grew it would take longer and longer to get a response. This pattern became so predictable that I remember asking the last IT guy that I hired "are you committed to growth, because if you are not going to grow your business we are not going to hire you."

We needed him to grow. I knew we were always going to be small potatoes. Our network might add one or two machines, but we were never going to rival the bank across the street or the HR company across town. These were the clients he wanted to work with down the road, and when he did I needed to know there would be someone else on his team to take care of us. Your customers expect the same of you.

Most small businesses start out with owner/operators that handle critical customer facing roles. As the owner's business and managerial skill sets develop he eventually wants to move out of some of these roles and on to what are perceived as bigger and better things. These are good things. They are the things that entrepreneurs do. But while the owner's skill sets have grown the business as a whole may not be ready to move forward. The owner has to make sure that there are people who have been trained in those tasks that he or she is leaving behind. Or the business has to make a strategic decision not to serve those customers any longer.

Take the example of a real estate agent. At first the average home sale of this agent is $150,000. As experience, skill sets and referral networks grow there comes a day when the last three listings are for homes in the $500,000 - $600,000 range. Now, when a homeowner with a $175,000 listing calls in the agent has a problem. If the new listing is taken the customer may experience the second-class citizen problem of poorer service and less responsiveness. Even if service doesn't slip the agent may feel like the listing is a waste of precious ability and resources.

To solve this the agent can commit to growth by bringing on a junior agent. When the junior agent comes on board do you think he will be spending time on the $175,000 listings or the $500,000 listings? It makes the most sense for the veteran to let the rookie replace him on the lower end of the business. This frees up capacity to serve the higher end of the market, and it helps insure the veteran agent's skills will continue to improve as more time is spent in the more challenging market.

But the agent has another choice as well. He could make a strategic decision to tell the $175,000 listing that he cannot take any new business in that range. This is not a growth strategy as much as a niche or specialization strategy. It still allows the agent to spend more time in the higher area of the market, but it also has the disadvantage of failing to capitalize on all the goodwill previously created serving customers in the lower end of the market. And, in truth, it is the less entrepreneurial strategy. It is not the one current customers prefer because there is a very good chance that the agent's ability to sell a more expensive house is going to outpace the customer's ability to buy a more expensive house.

If you are good at what you do this will usually be the case. You will grow and develop skill sets faster than your legacy customers can take advantage of them. This means that you will rarely get to use your best gifts on the customers who have been with you the longest. You owe it to those people to leave a wake of well trained, conscientious employees who are eager to serve them in ways that will honor the start they gave you.

If you feel like you are being held back because you have not yet committed to growth here are some things you can do.

  • Make a list of the customers or customer types that you are serving now that are also holding you back. These are interactions that are not increasing your professional competency even though they may be contributing to the bottom line.

  • Figure out how much you would have to pay someone to take care of these customers for you.

  • Sets sales targets at the lower end of your market or service spectrum that will allow you to hire that person and spend more time where you should be.

  • Execute against those sales targets, hire the person, train them to take over the customers at the lower end. Rinse, repeat.

When it comes to the numbers many people have a hard time getting their head around the concept so I will provide an example. Let us say your company makes custom boats. To date you have sold mostly 18-24 foot models. You believe the future of the company lies in higher margin hull designs in the 32-40 foot range and wish to purchase two molds to move into this market. The only thing stopping you is time. You do not have the capacity to sell to existing 18-24 customers while prospecting or the 32-40 foot buyers.

Instead of trying to split your time you need to focus intensely on increasing sales in the 18-24 foot category. With help from your CPA you determine that eventually you will need a $60,000 per year sales position to handle the 18-24 customers full time. With benefits and taxes this comes out to about $6,000 per month. The average gross profit on an 18 foot model is $2,500. Therefor you need to increase sales by at least three units per month to be able to afford the new salesperson.

You assemble your team and determine the best strategy to increase unit sales an average of threes units per month, and then you execute like crazy. When you have hit the mark three months in a row you pull the trigger on the new hire and dedicate yourself to getting the new 32-40 foot models into production.

This is not rocket science, but it does require some forethought and some discipline. With proper planning and execution you can make sure that all of your customers are being taken care of and that you are continually advancing your professional competency.