how to run a successful meeting

How to Run Meetings that Get Results: Lessons from the Pentagon

Don’t you love meetings?

Especially the ones that go on forever and result in nothing productive?

Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs is all too prevalent in organizations. During my 24-year Air Force career, I attended literally thousands of meetings. Looking back, it’s astonishing how much time I spent in meetings and how little was accomplished.

I encountered my first example of a well-run meeting when I was a young lieutenant in Germany. Every morning, all the key personnel of the unit were required to attend a highly structured, stand-and-deliver meeting with a very crusty—and very smart—commander. I learned quickly to have my stuff together or else things didn’t go very well for me. There was no idle chitchat; everyone was engaged. When the meeting ended, we walked out with a clear idea of the day’s objectives with a minimum investment of time.

Later in my career, I remembered those meetings and vowed never to waste my folks’ time with unnecessary meetings—and when I did have them, to make them count. I found this mind-set to be particularly successful when I worked in the Pentagon, which houses a formidable bureaucracy.

The process I used at the Pentagon tapped into a need for military and civilian “action officers” to actually take some action and do their jobs. These professionals always knew they would be doing something substantial when they participated in my meetings. So people appreciated that I respected their time. The impact that my approach had on my ability to get things done was amazing.

Here’s what I did:

Before the Meeting

  • Determine the specific outcome or set of outcomes you want to achieve. This is especially critical to ensure the purpose of the meeting is clear. Lack of a clear outcome is a primary cause of poor meetings.
  • Make a list of the required and optional participants that you need to achieve your desired outcome. Invite the decision-makers. If they can’t make it, put the word out that whoever attends in their place speaks for them. In this way you prevent people from blocking progress because they aren’t authorized to make a decision. If you need subject matter experts to provide additional support for the meeting, have them to attend as well. Construct and distribute a logical, time-driven schedule of events so everyone knows how to prepare and what’s expected of them. If possible, get the schedule out at least a week ahead of time. It’s important that you keep a record of when and to whom you sent the meeting notice. You’ll be surprised how many people will claim they never got it.
  • Make a list of deliverables and products required before the meeting, and set a deadline and format for their delivery. Gathering and preparing meeting materials like slide decks and reports takes time. Don’t leave this to the last minute.
  • Reserve a room that is conducive to what you intend to accomplish. Makes sure the room is the right size, it has enough chairs, and it has the equipment you need. Assess whether the location is advantageous to you, neutral to your cause, or puts you at a disadvantage. For instance, if you anticipate that the meeting will be contentious, perhaps you’ll want to find a neutral location.
  • If time allows, send out multiple announcements to the participants, and secure their RSVPs. Follow up with phone calls if necessary. Increase the probability of having a good meeting by getting the right people there.
  • Identify your note taker. A competent note taker is crucial. The note taker creates the record of what was said, agreed to, and disagreed to.
  • If it will help your cause, provide basic refreshments and snacks. Then plan time to prepare or purchase them.
  • At least an hour before the meeting starts, get the room set up. Bring up the computer and projects; check microphones if you’re using them. Pull up your charts and other electronic material. Put out nameplates. Set up your refreshments.

During the Meeting

  • Introduce the meeting’s host (if other than you) at the start of the meeting and welcome the participants.
  • Right up front state the purpose and desired outcome(s) at the beginning of the meeting.
  • If applicable, go over action items from previous meetings. If progress hasn’t been made, take some time to drill down and find out why. Then, gain agreement on what the responsible party will do to accomplish the task and set a revised deadline.
  • Keep the meeting flowing and on schedule. If a discussion can’t be concluded, table it for a future meeting or an off-line discussion. Keep a tight rein on irrelevant topics and rabbit holes. Otherwise, you risk derailing your meeting.
  • Before concluding the meeting, sum up the tasks, agreements, outcomes, deliverables, responsible parties, and due dates. This is extremely critical so that everyone is clear as to what transpired and who will do certain tasks.
  • If needed, agree on a time, date, and location for the next meeting. Ensure you sustain momentum. It’s much more difficult to pull together a follow-on meeting once everyone has returned to their normal day-to-day routine.

After the Meeting

  • No later than twenty-four hours after the meeting, send out meeting notes to all participants. Don’t underestimate the importance of this step. It’s the way you document progress and help hold people accountable in between meetings.
  • Communicate with those responsible for actions to assess status, head-off problems, and provide motivation.
  • Wash, rinse, and repeat the entire process for your next meeting.

All this planning, preparation, orchestration, and follow-up may seem like a lot to go through, and it is when you first begin to use this process. However, the template is effective for both formal and informal meetings at any level of your organization. Although you may not need to use all these steps, you can use them as a template to help you tailor the process for what you need.

As a side benefit, people will appreciate you for your outcome-oriented focus and your respect for their time.

And trust me, if it worked in the Pentagon, it can work for you.

Joe is the author of The Leadership Forge: 50 Fire-Tested Insights to Solve Your Toughest Problems, Care for Your People, and Get Great Results. Click here for a free download of the ebook version. He is the President of The Leadership Crucible, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Joe is a decorated Air Force veteran who deployed in support of seven overseas operations. His twenty-four year career included command of five units including the Air Force’s only combat-coded communications wing.