Laura Gordon: How to avoid the ‘death by meeting’ phenomenon

We need to have more meetings…said no one, ever.

I’ve been coaching and mentoring business leaders as we kick off the year, encouraging them to set objectives both professionally and personally.

Most people I speak to are desperate to free up more time for the things that are really important. They want to put more focus on their own needs, and their family’s needs.

But they simply can’t find a way to do it. Their diaries are too full, bursting to the seams with…meetings.

For a while there, Zoom and Teams were our saviours, allowing many of us to carry on with essential business from home.

But a lot of people are starting to feel like they’re becoming prisoners to this technology.

We’re a captive audience for anyone who wants to pop up on-screen.

By contrast, when we held face-to-face meetings, we tended to put a little more thought into it.

Did we need the meeting? What was it for? Was it worth having four people travel to it?

Not anymore – because we’re only the click of a button away now.

These “quick chats” soon mount up until you spend your day in what feels like one constant meeting. And even with the working from home rules easing off, hybrid and home working will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Patrick Lencione’s book Death by Meeting is a fantastic leadership fable summing up this very phenomenon.

Working collaboratively is crucial for business, but there are limits.

If we put too much in our diaries, we lose valuable thinking time. And crucially, we run out of the time we need to actually do the work.

If you’re trapped in a vortex of meetings, how do you escape?

The key is to define your priorities.

Check out Essentialism by Greg McKeown, which is a tremendous resource for helping you identify exactly what those should be.

He has dedicated his career to exploring what makes us break through to the next level of success, and his impressive client list tells me he has cracked it – it includes Apple, Google, Facebook, Pixar and Twitter to name a few.

He believes we need space to discern what is essential, and to create that space, we need to get better at saying no.

In his words: “Anything less than the disciplined pursuit of the essential will lead to the undisciplined pursuit of the non-essential. That’s a price I don’t think many of us would deliberately choose.”

In reality, we’re never going to break free of meetings altogether, but we can become stricter to make sure they’re more efficient.

Ask yourself honestly if you need the meeting, which you can often determine by thinking about precisely what you want to achieve from it.

Don’t invite everybody and their granny if they don’t need to be there, or the hours you’ll collectively lose to that meeting will mount up.

Preparation can save valuable time, so if you want to canvas opinions in a meeting, brief the team in advance so they arrive with their homework done, ready to provide input.

And remember, not every meeting needs to start with a procession of people making tea and coffee. In fact, you may not always need seats. It can sometimes be really efficient to organise a 15-minute stand-up meeting which really focuses everyone.

Last but not least, try not to dread the return of face-to-face meetings because you “don’t have time”.

Don’t mistake travel time for “wasted time”. Instead, enjoy the break and use it as valuable thinking time.

Laura Gordon is a CEO coach and group chair with Vistage International, a global leadership development network for CEOs

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