Better Meetings During Covid: Simple, Practical Tips From A Seasoned CEO

Pragmatic advice for a tough time, from one of the most thoughtful, effective CEOs I know.

Cambridge Air CEO John Kramer

When our company started talking about how to improve our meetings in the era of Covid, I reached out to John Kramer.

John’s one of the most thoughtful, effective CEOs I know. We’re not in the same business—his company, Cambridge Air Solutions, is a St. Louis-area based manufacturer of HVAC systems for factories and distribution centers—but I’ve come to seek out his counsel over the past few years because he’s pragmatic, human, knows what he’s talking about and he’s generous to a fault with his time.

John and his president, Marc Braun, have turned Cambridge into an obsessive laboratory for exploring the art and science of getting people to work together effectively while, as they put it, restoring the glory and dignity of manufacturing. They live what they preach and they’re happy to share, warts and all. Here is some of that wisdom:

Two Minute Check-In

• Every week his full leadership team, about 10 people, gets together for their regular meeting. Every two weeks or so, they start their conversation with a “personal/professional” check in.

• Each member of the team has two minutes to share what’s going on in his or her personal and professional lives.

• Aging parents, annoying teens, celebrations, struggles at home and work. “What we found is that we all had the same problems,” he said. “You’re laying it out there and being human about it.”

• It isn’t group therapy, however. No one comments on what anyone says or tries to help. Everyone just listens and says: “thank you.” “You don’t go problem solving,” says John. “It’s just listening. Being human.”

• The result, after a few years, has been increased trust, candor and commitment. “It changes the dynamics,” he says, and has been crucial as they’ve sailed into the Covid storm.

Lead from The Back

Overall, John says, he’s trying to build a “leader-led” organization rather than a “leader-dependent” organization. How does he do it? He tries to “lead from the back of the room.”

• As often as they can, John and Marc get junior people to run meetings, including the daily morning meetings, pushing responsibility down to them.

• He often polls his team leaders on “what sucks,” and invites discussion among them, with senior leaders in the back of the room.

• The senior leaders are forbidden from making statements—they can only listen or ask questions.

• This helps them get a feel for the business from the ground up and understand what’s blocking progress. “Senior leaders need to move impediments,” he says. “If you have a big job for someone, you have to figure out how to remove obstacles.”

John’s Three Questions

During Covid, John has continued his practice of walking the shop floor to check in quickly with as many of his people as he can each day. But what he’s asking them has shifted. Right now, he’s checking in with three questions, which help him get at every part of his workers’ lives quickly and effectively:

1. How are you doing?
2. How’s the family?
3. Do you feel safe at work?

Again, they’re simple, practical ideas, culled from John’s experience and some of his favorite books including Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, Love Works by Joel Manby and Traction by Gino Wickman. I hope you find them as useful as I did.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.