Leadership Oct 13, 2023
5 Steps to a Complete Meeting Overhaul
Sick of PowerPoints and rehashing the past? Here’s how to make meetings future-focused and engaging.
Next time you’re in a team meeting, look around. Listen. Are people engaged?
They’re likely not, says Sanjay Khosla, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of marketing at the Kellogg School and trained executive coach.
Most leaders don’t realize that the way they run meetings—from senior leadership meetings chaired by the CEO to business or functional unit meetings run by managers—can be harmful, he says. Instead of focusing on progress, leaders tend to dwell on past performance and reviewing what went wrong with this or that initiative. As a result, most meetings either put people on edge or encourage them to disengage.
“Many companies waste a lot of time,” Khosla says. “Participants wade through long PowerPoint presentations that go into excruciating detail on why deliverables were not met. Too much time is spent analyzing the past rather than focusing on the future. This creates an atmosphere of fear, where the primary objective is often just to please the leader.”
Khosla coaches clients to abandon the standard “business review meeting” in favor of a future-oriented approach. Below, he walks through the five steps on how to do it.
1. Focus on the future, not the past
The “business review meeting” spends too much time bringing others up to speed on things that have already happened.
Khosla estimates that leaders tend to focus 70 percent of meetings looking in the rearview mirror at recent goings-on at the company. This can lead to a Monday-morning-quarterback mentality, where participants are less likely to problem solve or contribute new ideas because they feel scrutinized.
To make the conversation more forward-looking, Khosla recommends that leaders flip the meeting’s focus so that only 30 percent is past-focused while 70 percent addresses priorities ahead: in other words, a “Business Outlook Meeting,” or BOM.
Leaders will need to communicate the rationale behind the switch with their team. After all, the name change is more than semantic; it signals to all participants a new way of working together. “Rather than asking “What happened?” the question “Now what?” matters most in these meetings,” Khosla says.
By aiming for a 70/30 split between agenda items oriented toward the future versus the past, leaders create more space for team members to brainstorm, ideate, and collaborate—all of which are more motivating than reporting about the past.
“The big change is future-focused, which is discussion-oriented and creates more positive energy,” Khosla says.
2. Replace slides with prep work
To keep regular outlook meetings efficient, Khosla offers a hard and fast rule about slide presentations: ban them.
“We don’t need them,” he says. “They minimize conversation and tend to waste too much time on topics that could have been reviewed beforehand. Banning slides sends a very clear message that just sharing information is a waste of time.”
In their place, Khosla recommends assigning BOM pre-work for every participant. This is not a data dump for team members to sift through, or a PowerPoint presentation in disguise. Instead, participants should send their colleagues crisp, synthesized pre-reading a few days in advance. The reading materials should include scorecards, with clear metrics that show the progress that’s been made on various projects since the last meeting, along with commentary about what’s working and what needs adjustment. In the process of compiling their pre-reading materials, each team member is required to identify and be prepared to discuss specific areas with which they need help.
The packet’s simple templates remain relatively consistent over time. This simplicity limits the amount of time that is spent in preparing and pre-reading.
“Doing this advance work makes it very clear what we’re going to achieve and what success looks like in this meeting,” Khosla says.
3. Start with what’s working
In his role as executive coach, Khosla once sat in on a meeting where a leader commanded his team’s attention from the start, grilling the team on missed targets and delayed projects. It was a stunning performance designed to get his team back on track—and, says Khosla, it was completely ineffective. Instead of engaging, the team stayed quiet; instead of feeling energized, they felt demoralized.
Because focusing on the past can bring tension and negativity into the room, Khosla recommends instead starting meetings with what’s working. “By celebrating successes and talking about positive stuff, you build up teams and people,” he says. “This gives your team an immediate burst of energy because people like talking about what’s good.”
“The bias here is toward action and asking, ‘So what? Now what?’”
By identifying specifically what is going well and why, your team also has a chance to apply those insights to other areas in the business (where things might not be going well) by asking, “How can we build on that?”
Following this advice, then, doesn’t mean glossing over areas that need attention. Rather, it reframes them as an opportunity to make adjustments. It also encourages leaders to ask “How can we help?”
“The bias here is toward action and asking, ‘So what? Now what?’” Khosla says. “You do analyze the past, but rather than defending what happened, you take lessons and turn them into actions. The leadership’s role in this process is to listen, nurture, and essentially create a safe environment for people to speak their mind.”
Khosla cautions that this approach can’t reverse poor business results immediately—after all, shifting a team’s culture takes time. But a more-positive culture bolsters engagement in enduring ways, which drives performance.
“People know when things aren’t going well, but it’s better that they feel nurtured rather than fearful,” Khosla says. “It’s always easier to build on what’s working.”
4. Listen to your meeting’s “conscience”
To keep everyone on the same page—and keep conversations from drifting off track—Khosla also recommends that leaders identify one individual to be the “conscience” at each meeting.
This person has several responsibilities: to make sure the pre-reading is delivered clearly and on time, to make sure the meeting maintains its 70/30 focus on the future, and to reserve time at the end of the meeting for leaders to make sure that each person understands expectations and accountability. This of course includes the leaders themselves, who will need to address any bottlenecks or resource gaps before their teams can proceed.
Having a “conscience” will help teams avoid having discussions derailed by “shiny bright objects,” Khosla says. For example, a team member may be asking for help with a marketing problem. A colleague might respond with a suggestion to try ChatGPT for ideas, which then devolves into a group tangent about the pros and cons of generative AI.
“If you don’t have a “conscience,” it’s easy to get distracted,” Khosla says.
An added bonus? The “conscience” role is a great development tool for aspiring leaders looking to prove their mettle.
5. Build a BOM rhythm
Before adjourning a BOM, a leader’s final task is to set out the next BOM’s agenda, which should be distributed to members shortly after the meeting concludes. This helps teams better coordinate their efforts, allowing them to work backward to understand what they’ll need to accomplish before the next meeting.
“Once you establish a rhythm, people grow to know exactly what the team’s priorities are,” he says.
Knowing the agenda in advance also helps build buzz for the next meeting. But just because you set the BOM agenda a month ago doesn’t mean it has to remain fixed. Adjusting to changing circumstances is not disruptive if your team is communicating clearly.
“Keep a stream of contact so there’s no radio silence in between meetings,” he adds. “The whole idea is that there is always a better way. It’s a journey. There’s no end to any of this. Every BOM can be better.”
Susan Margolin is a writer based in Boston.