If you were going to evaluate a surgeon’s skill, where would you want to observe her? In the operating room during surgery, right? What about an actor? On stage, of course. And how about a teacher? Clearly, in a class with students. You get the idea.
Now brace yourself: What would be the best setting for evaluating a CEO? There is only one answer: in a conference room having a meeting with his or her executive team. As hard as that might be to accept, what else could it be?
Yet, many CEOs openly complain about meetings—which is ridiculous. Imagine a surgeon complaining about the operating room or an actor about the stage. You’d probably advise them to change careers. But somehow, we’ve come to accept that it is reasonable to dread meetings. This deserves a closer look.
To be fair, CEOs hate meetings for a good reason—most of them are, indeed, awful. They are boring and unfocused, yielding far too little benefits. But they shouldn’t be. In fact, the blame for that boredom and lack of focus falls squarely on the person leading the meeting.
Fortunately, there is a workable solution.
To embrace that solution, CEOs must first change two preconceived notions about meetings. First, they must accept that meetings are not inherently bad; improving them is possible. Second, they must embrace the notion of having more meetings. That’s right, more meetings. Bear with me.
The single biggest problem with executive team meetings is “meeting stew.” Too many CEOs are like cooks who go into the cupboard and pull out every ingredient, mix it into a single pot, and then wonder why it tastes so bad. That’s what happens when they try to cram everything from strategy to tactics to administrivia into one weekly staff meeting, confusing participants as to whether they’re supposed to be brainstorming, making decisions, voting or just receiving information. What they need to do is create greater context by having separate meetings for different topics.
At the risk of being prescriptive, CEOs should be having four different meetings with their leadership teams: daily meetings to exchange administrative information (5–10 minutes only!); weekly tactical meetings to review progress and solve near-term problems (45–90 minutes); ad hoc strategic meetings to take on singular topics that require more extensive analysis and problem-solving (2–4 hours for big, hairy topics); and quarterly off-site reviews for assessing the state of the company, the landscape of the industry and the dynamics of the team (1–2 days).
If that sounds like too many meetings, add it up and you’ll find that it is no more than 15 percent of a leader’s time, which is easily justifiable. No leader could credibly claim that she shouldn’t spend 15 percent of her working hours with her executive team—as long as those meetings are compelling and effective.
And the best way to accomplish that is to ensure the meeting has plenty of conflict. That’s right. One of the biggest reasons leaders find meetings boring is a lack of healthy tension and disagreement. No one leaves an intense problem-solving meeting bored and frustrated. They are exhausted and relieved. Exhausted because they were engaged and anxious about the outcome of the conversation, and relieved because they can go back to their teams with clear marching orders based on a rigorous and unfiltered exchange of ideas.
Achieving that is entirely possible. I’ve seen so many CEOs go from dreading meetings to relishing them simply by avoiding meeting stew and inciting productive conflict. I like to think that they now see their meetings as an actress sees a play, a surgeon sees an operation or a teacher sees a class. And I love to hear them proudly admit that meetings are their favorite part of being a CEO.