Leigh: Hello, and welcome to the Better Business Podcast, brought to you by Employsure. I’m your host Leigh Johnston, and in this series we tackle the big issues in small business, with the industry’s brightest minds. This month, we’re going to help you have better meetings, because right now somewhere in Australia, someone’s soul is slowly being crushed by another pointless meeting. Yes, they’re unavoidable, and yes they can be super unproductive, but meetings are standard practice in workplaces across Australia.
Leigh: But is there a way to get more from our meetings? Joining us this month is renowned author and coach Donna McGeorge. Donna is one of Australia’s leading business thinkers and coaches, having worked with companies such as Nissan, Ford, Jetstar, Telstra, and Qantas. She’s also the author of five books, including The 25 Minute Meeting, which as the title suggests, says that you can have powerful and productive meetings in as little as 25 minutes. It may seem like a bold claim, but Donna says that when done well, meetings can be short, sharp, and productive interactions that drive your business forward.
Leigh: In this episode, I ask Donna about the secrets of better meetings, whether they still have a place in the modern workplace, and if it’s ever okay to leave a meeting early. And if you’re one of the many people who just rolls your eyes every time you get a meeting request, or think they’re just massive time wasters, then keep listening, because this episode is for you. And with that, here’s my interview with Donna McGeorge.
Leigh: Donna, welcome to the show.
Donna: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Leigh: Let’s jump straight in, why have workplace meetings become such a notoriously unproductive activity?
Donna: I think it’s because it’s become like the default thing that people do from a communication perspective at work. And so if there’s something that needs to be done between two or more people, the default setting is go straight for a meeting, when it may not be the best way to get something done. The other thing is, it’s become most people are spending their time in back to back meetings, and so why they’re a notorious waste of time is because people don’t have time to prepare from one to the other. And so they’re literally running from one, so they’re probably late running from one to another. Getting there and going, “Oh, now what was this about?” And so then they have to have a recap of whatever it’s about, and before we know it, half an hour’s gone into the meeting and we haven’t got anywhere.
Leigh: And that’s probably an indication of some of the behaviors that have just become ingrained in different workplaces that do make our time really unproductive. And what are some of the other behaviors that allow this to happen?
Donna: So, it could be because I was raised by a Navy dad, but I’m a big stickler for punctuality. And so what I’ve noticed in organizations, is that they’re not sticklers for punctuality. And so one of the really bad habits that exist, is that it’s okay to be late. And it’s even okay to be late and not even acknowledge it. So a meeting due to start at 9: 00, if we’re a couple, 5, 10 minutes late and that’s not like people even say, “Hey I’m sorry.” They literally just walk in and kinda nod and sit down. So I’d say punctuality is probably the biggest one. Lack of preparedness would be the second, people don’t have time to prepare ’cause they’re in back to backs, they just don’t have time to do the right preparation for it. And then I would say not being fully present, so mobile phones on and open, laptops on and open, and not responding in the moment the way they should.
Leigh: Okay, so there’s a few things there I wanna follow up on then. I wanna talk about fixes. I mean a few things there you’ve mentioned, things that I’m guilty of myself. You are invited to a meeting at 2:00 PM, and it’s almost the unspoken rule that it’s okay if you get there by five past, the real stuff wouldn’t have started, and I think many people would be guilty of of something like that. How do we start fixing that kind of problem?
Donna: So I don’t reckon you can fix others. I think you have to make the decision to fix yourself, and so if I’m a leader or manager in an organization and I want punctuality to be better, then I have to show up on time. So it’s funny because just this morning I was stupidly early for something, and found myself with time to have a cup of tea. And so I popped a post on social media that just said, “Here I am again, stupdily early, but at least there’s time for tea.” And someone reminded me in a comment that, “But yes Donna, according to you there’s only two kinds of time to get to somewhere, you’re either on time, or you’re well on time.”
Donna: And so I think for a manager, if you’re in an organization, you have to decide now, “Am I on time, or am I well on time.” And so getting there five minutes beforehand if you’re running a meeting would be my recommendation. Because I don’t think you can make others suddenly create a rule that says we have to be on time. I mean you could, but I reckon if you start demonstrating it, that’s when people start taking notice, particularly if you’re more senior in the organization. ‘Cause people just do whatever they see leadership do.
Leigh: Certainly it can become a bit of a culture, can’t it?
Donna: Totally, and in fact one place I worked with, you said it’s okay to be five minutes late. I once asked them, what’s considered late? And they were very specific, they said, “Anything up into 14 minutes after the start time is still not considered late.”
Leigh: 14 minutes, if it’s a 30 minute meeting that’s half the time.
Donna: But most of the times they’re not, so most of the times they are one hour meetings, right?
Donna: And so the first 15 minutes is waiting for latecomers, and which is why people then take their laptops, because why wouldn’t I either be catching up on my email. If I’m well on time, I’ve now got 20 minutes waiting for people to show up, right?
Leigh: That’s right, and well that’s still a quarter of the time even if it’s an hour of people just sitting around, and it is such a massive loss.
Donna: Correct, yeah.
Leigh: I wanna talk a little bit about preparedness as well. That was something that you mentioned as one of the fixes. What are some of the keys to being prepared for a meeting?
Donna: Well there’s two sides of this. There’s usually you can’t be prepared if you don’t know why you’re there. So first of all is, knowing really clearly why you’re going to a meeting, or why you’re running a meeting, or why you want people to be at a meeting. So what specifically do I need them to be there for? Because then if you then know that, you can be prepared for it, and if you let them know it they can be prepared for it. But half the problem is, we send out a message invite that says something like, in the subject line, The Johnson Project, send it out to half a dozen people, and we all walk in and we go, “What about The Johnson Project?” Right? And so that’s the first thing, so letting people know why you need to go, and why they need to be there.
Donna: The second thing is, I don’t know if this is laziness, or whether it started being of service to people and now it’s become laziness. But often the meetings are you rock up, and someone is just gonna show you a PowerPoint deck and read you the slides, right? And so no one ever said in a message invite, “Please come to this meeting so I can read you a bunch of PowerPoint slides.” Yet that’s what happens. And so for me, preparedness would be, send the deck in advance, get people to read it, give them the two questions. You want two or three questions you want answered as a result, or what’s the discussion you want around it, and then they come ready.
Donna: And so what happens is meeting number one is let’s read the slide deck, and so that we have to come back together for meeting number two to do the discussion. And I reckon you should send the slides out in advance at least 48 hours to give busy people a chance to read them, and don’t send them like 160 pages, just five slides max. Here’s what we want you to answer, so people can come ready to go.
Leigh: And that kind of makes that time a little bit more valuable, ’cause that ground work is being done, and maybe when it comes to reading slides people can do that in their own time, and when it suits their day, and they can become a lot more prepared for that meeting. And you can just kinda get straight into the work, rather than the death by PowerPoint that so many have been victim of.
Donna: Well the death by PowerPoint is because someone sits there and reads the slides. And everyone’s like, “Oh, my god, this is the worst thing ever.” So I don’t have a problem with PowerPoint, I just think it’s used really badly. And so a lot of people prepare a paper via PowerPoint for discussion, and then the mistake they make is to show it on the screen and read it out, and that’s what makes it just a horrible, horrible, horrible waste of time. So you’re right, if I’ve done the reading, I’ve got the questions in my head answered, or notes taken, or whatever, and we walk in and we’re all ready to go, that’s a productive meeting.
Leigh: Yeah, and you’ve kinda skipped a step in the process almost, you’re kind of in the fast lane towards getting an outcome.
Donna: And in many organizations you’ve skipped the whole other meeting.
Leigh: You talked about something else earlier as well around presence, and this is something that I’ve certainly noticed at different workplaces I’ve been at, where you go to a meeting that people are on their phones. They’re checking their emails, they’re checking notifications, they’re waiting for a call. And it does really affect their presence and what they can actually bring to the table. Yet it’s just become expected now, you see people sitting at the table with their notebooks, and they’ve always got their device in front of them. What are some of the solutions for this kinda new trend in meeting presence, or lack of presence?
Donna: Do you know it’s so funny, ’cause not only do they have their notebook and their phone, they might even have two, or three phones.
Leigh: Yeah, that’s true.
Donna: This is a new thing, people say, “I have two phones now, one for home, and one for work.” Wow, and so my first question would be, well why do you need the home one in the meeting first of all, so how about we just leave one phone behind. I always say to people, “Is there anyone here whose partner is expecting a baby in the next, I don’t know, two hours, or day even.” And if anyone says yes, great, you’re allowed to have your phone on, the rest of us can you turn them off and down, and put them away, because that distraction of having them on and sitting upright so people can see the flashing thing happen, that’s a massive distraction.
Donna: And so, we just make a simple ground rule that says look, my recommendation is you only meet for a shorter amount of time, so if we’re only meeting for 25 or 30 minutes, surely the world won’t end if we don’t have our phones and laptops available, that’s the first thing. And can I just say, if the world would end, then your business is in more trouble than just whether you can turn your phone off in a meeting or not, right?
Donna: The second thing is, you’re not doing either duty, you’re not giving either of it due attention. And so if I’m doing my emails and responding to things while I’m in a meeting, then I’m probably gonna do a pretty crappy response to that, because I’m not paying full attention to the email, and I’m also not paying full attention to the meeting. And so I’m not doing either well, so I say do one or the other.
Leigh: Here you end up in some kind of gray area, where you’re multitasking and not giving your full attention to one thing or the other so what’s the point?
Donna: And there’s a pile of research, so an easy list if you just go Google the science of multitasking, or what happens in your brain when you multitask, there’s so many studies done that say you do neither well, or do either well, I don’t know what the grammar people they might say.
Leigh: And I don’t know about you Donna, but I actually find it quite disrespectful if you’re in a meeting and people are clearly not paying attention, you do wanna get some kind of outcome, or you wanna get their input, or their expertise, and they’re clearly off somewhere else, I find it quite disrespectful.
Donna: And this is where it becomes a little bit interesting around if I’m leading the meeting, and people are on their phones, I assume things like they’re rude, or they’re disrespectful, or whatever. I have had the very same person who complains about that, I’ve seen them in another meeting on their phone. And I say, “Well how come you’re on your phone?” And they’re like, “Oh, well ’cause I’m a bit more important, or I needed to respond to some emails.” And I said, “Well how do you know they weren’t?” And so this really interesting, the science of this is called the fundamental attribution error, where we say if someone else is doing it it’s ’cause they’re bad, if I’m doing it, it’s because I have to, and I need to. And so I say to everyone, how about we just all stop, right? Just all stop no matter what.
Leigh: I agree with you, and it’s very, very rare that you do ever have an email or a phone call that is of such urgency you need to action it straight away. And I think we actually would be better off in leaving our phones at our desk for meetings, and we can fully throw ourselves into a project that we’re working on.
Donna: Completely agree, and again if you have your meeting shorter, it’s not the end of the world, you’ll be back at your desk before long and you can reply to everything you need.
Leigh: Can you tell us Donna about any case studies or anecdotes from workplaces that have adopted kinda clever strategies to managing their meetings? What were their secrets to success?
Donna: So everything from making them super short, the shortest meetings I know of in one organization, they’re an organization that they’re in constant change, and everything’s urgent. And so every morning the exec team were getting together for like 10 or 15 minutes every morning for a standup meeting. And that totally changed how that team communicated with each other, and how they stayed on top of potential risks. The other thing that happened was everyone else in the business saw them doing that, and so it created a level of transparency and trust with the leadership team that went beyond just the fact that they’re getting together for a 10 minute meeting every morning. So that’s one, so short, sharp meetings are good.
Donna: The second is aspect of those standing meetings, and there are plenty of organizations now that have standing meeting rooms, where they don’t have any chairs, and the tables are at like bar stool level. There’s a couple of good reasons that they work. One is that most meetings will go for about half the scheduled time if people are standing, and people tend to be more focused when they’re standing, which I find fascinating. The only thing I’d say, if you’re gonna do standing meetings, just make sure you have a couple of seats in case you’ve got someone with a bad back, or uncomfortable shoes, or something like that.
Donna: And meetings whilst walking around is another one that I’ve seen organizations do really successfully. They’re better for one on one meetings, but for the most part, so instead of booking a room and sitting down, and in most organizations meeting rooms are at a premium anyway, we say let’s just go for a walk around the block. And of course I don’t think I need to tell you the triple whammy of benefit that that has, aside from the fact that we’re actually walking around and we’re having a meeting.
Leigh: Yeah, well you get the meeting, it’s the fresh air, the exercise, a bit of sunshine. It’s beneficial in so many different ways.
Donna: Well provided you’re not walking to the donut shop, that’s probably the only downside of that, is that we walk to the donut shop and grab half a dozen donuts, and eat them on the way back, that’s probably the thing you need to watch out for.
Leigh: Oh, well you just ruined that for me kind of Donna.
Donna: Oh sorry.
Leigh: Let me ask you, do meetings still have a place in the modern workplace?
Donna: Absolutely, the best way for us to get work done in a collaborative way, is for us to be face to face. It’s not so much whether we have meetings or not, it’s just that we run them better. One of my mates, a lady called Tracy Ezard has written a book called Glue. And one of my favorite lines about meetings and collaboration is in that. When she says that collaboration is learning out loud. And so whether you’re remotely, and by face to face, I mean it can be via screen as well. But if we’re physically in a room, or via Skype, or Zoom or something like that, or we’re on audio. The ability for us to share and learn out loud together, that’s the benefit of meetings. And so I don’t think that will ever go away, it’s just getting even better.
Leigh: Okay, so how do we get them better? What are some of the best practice tips that we need to adopt to have better meetings?
Donna: So first of all, there’s two questions you need to ask straight up, which is the purpose. And I believe purpose trumps agenda. So people say we need an agenda, I say you can probably leave without an agenda, if you know very clearly what the purpose is. And so purpose, if you finish the sentence, at the end of this meeting, it would be great if. And so that might say it would be great if we have alignment on next steps. It would be great if we’ve made a decision about this expenditure. Just it would be great if, so that’s purpose. The second thing is in order to get that purpose, who do we need?
Donna: So then I ask myself who can be at this meeting, who are the right people to be at this meeting, and how will they give and get value, what am I asking them to do? And so well now I know purpose, and now I know people. Now for me the kicker question is, does it need a meeting? And so if we say to ourselves, “Can I get all of this that I need without having to have a meeting?” Could it be a phone call, could it be a survey monkey, could it be an email, is there some other way that we could do this that doesn’t involve us having to have a meeting? And if the answer’s yes, then we get very clear on what’s our process.
Donna: So at the end of this meeting, if I want alignment on the next steps, how am I gonna go about making that happen? And I think people focus on agenda by saying, the agenda item will say, “Discussion on getting alignment on next steps.” But they don’t think about how they’ll do that. And so if we’ve got five or six people in a meeting, and we just put the question out there what do we think the next steps are? You’ll get your extroverted types, your most passionate types, they’ll just chew all the air and time in the meeting, and not everyone gets a chance to contribute.
Donna: So for me they’re kinda the key things. Probably the last one would be, and then what’s next? So making sure we know how we’re gonna proceed after the meeting. So if I can just summarize that for you, it’s like what’s our purpose, who are the people that need to be there, do we actually need to have a meeting? If the answer is yes what’s the process we’re gonna follow, and then how are we gonna proceed afterwards? What are we gonna do, what’s our action plan?
Leigh: Okay, so you’ve written a book about this as well, The 25 Minute Meeting. What does a meeting look like for you? If you were to organize a meeting, what could we expect from Donna McGeorge?
Donna: You’d expect to know specifically why you’re there and what role that you’re going to be playing, and why I need you to be there. Your preparation would be here are the few questions that we’re going to discuss. So to be fair, not unlike what you’ve done with me today, is you’ve sent me the invite that had in it the questions that you’re going to ask me, so that I can be prepared with my answers. I may or may not tell you the process I’m going to follow, but my standard process, and I did write about this in the book, is it’s called scan, focus, and act.
Donna: And so if I’m being very specific about a 25 minute meeting, or spend about 12 minutes scanning, and that’s just understanding the bigger picture, what’s going on, what’s a better history. Then we’ll spend about eight minutes focusing, so what are the two or three key things that we need to do in this meeting, and then we’ll spend about five minutes doing the action plan, what’s next, when are we gonna meet next, what followup needs to happen? So you probably wouldn’t feel the structure of that, but I know that’s what’s happening.
Leigh: Okay, what I’m about to ask I’m sure relates to a lot of people. What if you’re in a meeting as a guest or attendee, and it’s a complete waste of time, what should you do?
Donna: Do you know what I’d love you to do, is to leave, but I just don’t think that the world is ready for that. A number of years ago a gentleman called Harrison Owen wrote a book, and created a process called Open Space Technology, and it’s a conference thing. And one of the rules in there is that you need to use the rule of two feet. If you’re not giving or getting value, then leave, or walk away. Unfortunately, I think that there’d be too much, I don’t know what the right word is, judgment around what that would mean, and people would get very upset.
Donna: So whilst I’d love you to leave, we can’t do that. So the next best thing is, is to ask the question specifically, what is it that you wanted me here for? What is it that you’re needing from me, or what is it you’re wanting me to take away from this? And timing is everything, so if I say, “What do you even want me here for?” Of course that’s gonna be considered rude and abrasive. But if I say I’m just really curious, I’m just wondering what specifically was it that you wanted me to do today, or what is it you need, or what is it you’re thinking that I might need? I think that’s okay, but that should only happen to you once, right? So if you find yourself in a meeting, and you’re not giving or getting any value, then you need to know for next time, you need to be asking those questions before you even show up.
Leigh: Okay, so if that does happen to you, it’s permission for future meetings to maybe ask the question about what the purpose might be, if there’s anything specific that I’m required for.
Donna: Yeah, I mean I do it all the time. If someone says, “Donna, we’d love you to come and talk to you about whatever.” I’d say, “Excellent, so at the end of that meeting, what are you hoping will happen? Or what do you hope will be the outcome?” And then I go, “great” so sometimes I don’t need to ask any further ’cause it’s very obvious from their outcome what my give or get of value is going to be.
Leigh: And is it okay for, take me for example, if someone has done the right thing, they’ve sent through a meeting invite, I can see clearly what they have planned for the meeting. What if only one section of it relates to me? Is it okay for me to be up front and say, “Look only this section is really relevant to me, I’ll stay for this and then leave.” Is that okay?
Donna: Absolutely okay. In fact I would say it’s appropriate for you to do that. The only kind of watch out with that is, you need to be mindful that if something then happens after you’ve left, if a decision’s made, or a conversation’s been had, and you made the choice to not stay there legitimately or otherwise. You then have to live with that, and so too often in organizations people have a sense of entitlement about what they feel the right to contribute to and etc. And so someone will say, “Oh, we made the decision to do this, these are the next steps, we made the decision.” And someone said, “Well, I wasn’t at that meeting.” Well you chose not to come to that meeting, and so in your absence we made this decision. And so I think with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Leigh: I think that might be from one of my favorite movies.
Donna: There you go. And so if you choose to leave, that’s absolutely fine, and be aware that some good stuff might happen when you’re not there, so just be mindful that you don’t fall for FOMO or something like that afterwards.
Leigh: And so you have to accept the full responsibility that something might happen after you leave, that you would’ve wanted to be a part of.
Leigh: What are your top tips for having better workplace meetings?
Donna: Straight up, I’d love everyone to have them. And so I espouse 25 minute meetings, I’d be happy if you went for 30, so straight up go and change the default setting on your Outlook, and now make them shorter. And that in and of itself might be enough to improve your meetings, ’cause at the very least if you’ve got rubbish meetings, at least you’re only spending half the amount of time in them. But if you don’t want rubbish meetings, the stuff I talked about a little bit earlier, where be really clear on the purpose. Give people a chance to be prepared, so again it doesn’t have to be a detailed agenda, just a quick one liner. At the end of this meeting, this is what we hope will happen, and here’s what I need you to do as part of this meeting. And then make sure that there’s someone taking notes.
Donna: Some of the best meetings I’ve ever seen, is where whether you’re officially the chairperson of the meeting or not doesn’t matter, you can decide and jump up to the whiteboard and grab a marker and say, “Is this what we’ve agreed that we’re going to do?” I have found sometimes I don’t think people deliberately lie, but I think they sometimes remember things differently. And so sometimes at the end of a meeting we’ll say, “You and I have agreed a series of actions.” And then at the next meeting, I’ll say, “Hey, did you do that thing?” And you’ll say, “No, I thought you were doing that thing.” And so both of our notes say that the other person was gonna do that thing. And so that’s not that either of us are lying, we wrote it down differently, we remember it differently.
Donna: Whereas if someone jumps up to a whiteboard or a flip chart, or even in their own notebook, and just writes down everything that we’ve agreed, photographs it, and distributes it, now we’re all working off the same page. And that simple two minute thing that you can do at the end, can have a tremendous impact on your productivity moving forward.
Leigh: Okay Donna, in this show we’re all about the quick wins, and giving people the quick solutions for. Businesses for example where perhaps bad meeting habits have become ingrained, which is fairly common. What’s the quick win, what’s the quick fix they should start doing right now?
Donna: I think just make the decision to be conscious about meetings, and not just go for the default. So every time we’re booking a meeting, if you ask everyone just to stop for 30 seconds before they send the meeting invite out, and just run through a few of those steps that I’ve talked about now. So is it a meeting that we need, we’ve got the right people, what is the purpose etc. I think if we just be conscious rather than just default straight away that it’s a meeting.
Leigh: Well Donna, thank you so much for your time today. Before I let you go, can you tell us what’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received, and why?
Donna: It’s probably not gonna feel very businessy. But the best bit of advice I’ve ever got was never give it or take it personally. And I think sometimes in business, particularly around meetings and all sorts of things, that even people being, what we perceive to be distracted by their phone, maybe it’s not, maybe there’s something going on in their world. So don’t take it personally, and don’t give it personally.
Leigh: Great advice Donna, thank you so much again for your time. You’re the author if The 25 Minute Meeting, can you tell us a little bit about it, and how do we get the book?
Donna: Sure. It’s available in all good book stores in Australia as far as I know, and up in Asia. You can order it from any of the online offerings, I sell it through I’ve got a website set up called the25minutemeeting.com You can also grab it off my website donnamcgeorge.com.
Leigh: We’ll link to everything in the show notes. Donna, where else can we find you?
Donna: You can mostly find me at donnamcgeorge.com, but you can also get me I’m pretty active across LinkedIn, most of my handles are donnamcgeorge no spaces. So LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
Leigh: Donna, thanks again.
Donna: My pleasure.
Leigh: There you have it, my interview with Donna McGeorge. Thanks again to Donna for being so generous with her time, and showing us how we can have better, more productive meetings in just 25 minutes. Before I go, don’t forget that if you need any help with your obligations as an employer, or just want some support on any aspects of workplace relations, give Employsure a call on 1-300-651-415 to find out how we can help you. Or you can visit our website employsure.com.au, where we have a stack of free resources.
Leigh: That’s it for this month, thanks again for listening, I’m your host Leigh Johnston, and tune in again next time, when we tackle another big issue in small business.