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.