by Elizabeth Grace Saunders | 10:00 AM February 26, 2013
Textbook Definition: An individual who is in charge of a certain group of tasks, or a certain subset of a company. A manager often has a staff of people who report to him or her.
Modern Translation: An individual who races through the halls in a frantic attempt to make the next meeting on time while also answering e-mails on his or her mobile device.
A few of you may adhere to the textbook definition of “manager,” and if so, kudos to you. But most managers no longer have any time to manage the people who report to them.
If you’re a manager caught in the frustrating cycle of frequently canceling one-on-one’s, delegating poorly, and feeling out of touch with your team, you probably already feel bad enough. I’m not here to make you feel worse. But I do want to encourage you to start taking steps to not only fulfill your own responsibilities, but also to develop an awesome team. These strategies come from my time coaching work with managers on how to more effectively lead their teams — without working more hours.
You can’t give other people what you don’t have. So if you’re confused and scattered, your team will be too. You need to make time to get clear on what you want to achieve out of every interaction; this means spending more time on priorities, prep, and follow-up, and less time in meetings. Reducing your meeting time so you have more time to think strategically will require a group effort, but you can make it happen with some simple strategies.
First, reduce the number of meeting invitations you accept. Ask yourself whether you’ve fallen into the common trap of looking at your calendar as a popularity contest. Do you measure your value by how many meetings you’ve been invited to? Going to a lot of meetings may make you feel important, but it’s not a good way to allocate your time. Before accepting a meeting invite, ask yourself, “Do I really need to attend?” If the answer is “no,” decline the meeting or use one of these less time-intensive strategies:
Ask for a pre-meeting look at the agenda so you can pass on your comments to the facilitator to share. (Bonus: this may force the facilitator to actually make an agenda!)
Send someone else from your group to communicate your team’s position.
Request a copy of the meeting notes after the fact.
If you still struggle with feeling guilty or possessive about turning down any meeting requests, reframe the question this way: “If I was sick on the day of this meeting, would it need to be rescheduled?” If you answer, “No,” there’s a good chance you don’t need to attend. If you do need to go to quite a few meetings, but only to give strategic input, not to assist with tactical implementation, then request your part of the discussion happen at the beginning of the allotted time. Following that part, excuse yourself from the discussion.
Second, reduce the number of meetings you schedule — and reduce their length. Do you schedule meetings where you spend most of the time talking — perhaps giving “updates” to a room of people subtly checking their phones? Do you default to scheduling hour-long meetings (or longer)? If so, you need to reprogram your default response of “when in doubt, schedule a 60-minute meeting.” Here’s a decision-tree that you can use as an effective replacement strategy:
Your new default should be to choose the least “costly” time investment that still accomplishes the end goal. Don’t schedule a meeting for something that you can solve in a phone call, and don’t make a phone call for something that can be communicated in an e-mail. If you must schedule meetings, challenge yourself to make them leaner. Try out 30-minute or even 15-minute meetings, and set a goal to finish early. If you find you consistently need more time, you can increase the meeting length in the future, but often with increased focus, you won’t need it.
Once you are modeling good meeting etiquette, ask your direct reports to follow good meeting procedure, too:
Don’t schedule meetings for FYI items that you can communicate via e-mail. Only use meetings for discussions and decisions that must happen with a team, in real time.
Send a clear agenda when you send the meeting invitation — not two minutes before the meeting — so it’s easier for everyone to tell whether they need to attend.
Designate someone to take thorough notes on the discussion, the decisions, and the rationale behind those conclusions. Circulate those to your manager, and anyone else who might need to be in the loop — but doesn’t need to come to the meeting.
Finally, keep your calendar clear by blocking in work time. Seize the freed-up time before it evaporates. As you transition from a reactive state to a proactive state, you might feel a little disoriented with all your new-found time. But now that your calendar isn’t so full of “busyness,” you can fill it up with actual business. Do so quickly, before work expands to fill the time available. Set aside time for e-mail, meeting prep, one-on-ones with direct reports, and strategic thinking time. Keep your commitments to yourself in the same way that you would with someone else so that you (and others) can trust you to get things done — and on time.
By cutting down on the number of meetings you’re in, you’ll free the people around you to make reasonable choices without always looking to you for input. That will automatically reduce the number of meetings you need to attend, and instill more confidence in your team. And if you’re using that time to shape strategy and set clear priorities, your team will make the right decisions — whether or not you’re in the room.