Steve Jobs
Love them or hate them, meetings are here to stay. Collaboration is the name of the game in successful businesses, and learning how to run an effective meeting can turn what many perceive to be a waste of time into a productive activity. That is what today’s top business leaders are doing to make the most of their meetings, with the result that their companies stay at the top of their game. Let’s take a look at the four meeting strategies (and a few quirks!) of some of the most well-known business leaders of our time.

1. Keep Attendees to a Minimum

Weekly Meetings of 10 People Max:

Even Google’s Larry Page knows that meetings can be counter-productive if they are not done right. He knows that if a meeting is too big, it can cause people to lack focus, which is why he caps his meetings to ten people in a room. In fact, it is said that Larry himself used get distracted and stare at his laptop during management meetings before becoming the dynamic CEO he is today. The L-Team (Larry’s Team) meets every Monday at noon in a conference room in his executive suite. These 2-hour meetings are usually followed by huddles of a subset of group members. Most importantly though, Page is not a fan of holding off on meetings until everyone can attend, as he believes in making decisions while they’re hot.

Only the Bare Minimum:

An enigma, Steve Jobs agreed that big meetings with too many people were counterproductive, which is why – during his time with Apple – he only included the people who were absolutely necessary in his invites, and he usually tried to keep it to single digits. It is said that he famously declined a meeting with President Obama held with tech leaders, because “he thought Obama had invited too many people”.

One-on-One:

Both Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of review site Yelp, and Ben Horowitz, CEO of Opsware and Andreessen Horowitz, prefer one-on-one meetings. According to Stoppelman, individual meetings with the people who report directly to him on a weekly basis enabled him to better connect with everyone on a personal level. He once said: “Sometimes I feel like the company’s psychiatrist, but I do feel like listening to people and hearing about their problems (personal and professional) cleans out the cobwebs and keeps the organization humming.” Horowitz spends a lot of time shaping the young leaders of tomorrow, and ranks effective communication as one of the most important jobs of a successful CEO. He is also a proponent of one-on-one meetings, and encourages employees to set the agenda.

People generally feel better heard and understood in a one-on-one or small group setting, where the risk of too many noises and opinions drown out the pivotal messages of the meeting. However, when a one-on-one or small group meeting is not practical and you have meetings with groups, tailor your message to communicate with groups in such a way that each individual feels that you are speaking directly to them. One way of achieving that, is to have online meetings.

2. Stay on Task, Whatever It Takes

Effective meetings have a hard start and end time. If your meetings are running late to accommodate tardy attendees, you are penalizing the punctual, and by defect train people to arrive late. Likewise, by finishing late, participants are frustrated as it has a ripple effect on other meetings and tasks.

Short & Sweet:

Serial entrepreneur and CEO of digital agency VaynerMedia, Gary Vaynerchuk is all for short, focussed meetings. He believes that if you schedule a meeting to last for an hour, you will probably fill that time with unnecessary discussion, whereas a 15-minute meeting will help everyone to stay focussed on the task at hand, and everyone will save time. “So execute on this. Cut meetings in half. Create a mandate. Set standards. Be an example. Let your leadership learn by osmosis by having shorter meetings with them. Use restrictions even if you have (or want) to. I promise you won’t be sorry.” he wrote on Medium.com.

Be Prepared:

Speaking of efficiency, Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla and SpaceX), holds his meeting participants to extremely high standards. It is rumored that he has fired people for missing deadlines. An anonymous Tesla employee was quoted on Quora, saying “When we met with Elon, we were prepared. Because if you weren’t, he’d let you know it. If he asked a reasonable follow-up question and you weren’t prepared with an answer, well, good luck.”

On a Positive Note:

Chief Executive Officer of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner has an interesting method for keeping meetings short. In order to give meetings a great start and positive energy, he encourages attendees to share good news; personal achievements company successes infuse meetings with positive energy and helps to break the ice.

Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn HQ May 2012 (2)

3. Focus on Specific Outcomes

Successful outcomes require clear communication, and successful companies rely on using our most precious commodity – time – wisely. Leaders must know how to cut to the chase when discussing the what and how aspects of their communications.

Be Decisive:

Alfred Sloan, legendary CEO of General Motors, had an interesting approach, which, in part resulted in him being credited as the inventor of the modern corporate structure. Sloan was a man of little words, and would simply announce the purpose of a meeting, then quietly listened to what attendees had to say, before leaving. After mulling it over, he would send out a follow-up memo, containing the plan of action, the name of the accountable executive in charge of the assignment, and a specified deadline.

Stick to the Agenda:

Technology executive, activist, author and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, believes in setting an agenda. She will arrive at a meeting with a ring-bound notebook with all her discussion points, which she diligently crosses off one by one. That highlights the importance of deciding whether a meeting is really necessary. If you can’t list at least 3 clear-cut points for discussion, why call a meeting?

Creative Balance:

Nike Inc. CEO, Mark Parker, on the other hand, is most creative and focused when he is doodling new designs in his trusty Moleskin notebook. According to Parker, the doodles help to clarify the brainstorming process, which is “a constant balance between what design wants and what business needs” and that’s how he keeps the sportswear giant in the lead.

4. Hash It Out & Take Informed Suggestions into Account

Reinvent Ideas:

Computer scientist and current president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull believes that for brainstorming to be effective, everyone has to understand that people are not their ideas. He also feels that first ideas are generally not that great, but that meetings are a great way to improve on it. He says in his book, Creativity, Inc. “Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, from suck to not-suck. This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp.”

Battle of Wits:

Some decisions come easily, because the pros clearly outweigh the cons, according to Jeff Bezos, who has played a pivotal role in the growth of e-commerce as the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. Bezos opposes social cohesion, the tendency to reach a quick decision simply because it is the most comfortable, easiest solution. At meetings, Bezos actively encourages his team to challenge one another before reaching decisions, without needlessly drawing out a meeting. He even included this sentiment in Amazon’s leadership principles, which reads as follows: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.” Alfred Sloan of GM was also quoted once, summing up an executive meeting by saying: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here,” watching as everyone nodded in agreement, before concluding “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Back It Up:

Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo!, keeps meetings productive by requiring that ideas be backed up with data. That way, office politics, opinions and assumptions are minimized and further follow-up meetings avoided. One can understand her sentiments when you take into account the fact that she hosts an average of 70 meetings with eight teams of engineers, managers and directors, who answer to her before pitching their ideas to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google.

When planning your next meeting, consider which success tips you can use from the meeting techniques of these highly successful leaders. Please feel free to share any other innovative meeting techniques with us in the comments.