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What is the Real Purpose of Meetings in Business?

What is the Real Purpose of Meetings in Business?

When we take stock of the various meetings within a company, we often find that regular meetings are usually the first “trouble zone.” People in management roles, from top executives to frontline employees, attend meetings frequently, and unfortunately, regular meetings are often the least effective and the most resistant to change. Where do these issues stem from, and what is the cost of regular meetings? Why do we even need to have them in the first place?

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01-The Only Exception to Meetings: Regular Meetings

“Oh no, another meeting!”

In the corporate world, I’ve noticed that almost no one, regardless of their position, looks forward to receiving a meeting invitation with excitement. However, there’s one exception where you are at least informed of the 4 “Ws” before the meeting begins: What, Who, When, Where. These stand for what the meeting is about, who needs to attend, the meeting’s time, and location.

The one exception to this rule is the “regular meeting.”

Since I started working as an “executive coach” in 2005, I’ve attended countless executive meetings in various companies. Many executives have told me that their monthly (or weekly) regular meetings are the most boring ones in their company. Yet, despite their reluctance, they attend these meetings month after month, year after year, as if regular meetings were as natural as the universe itself.

Why is that? Let’s take a closer look.

02-The Typical Routine of Regular Meetings

I’ve condensed hundreds of executive meetings I’ve attended over the past 16 years into a typical scenario. See if this sounds familiar to you:

First, the boss, or sometimes their spokesperson, announces the meeting’s start. Then comes the routine “main program”: various divisions, subsidiaries, business units, and functional departments report on what they’ve accomplished, any achievements, and problems over the past month (or week or quarter), in order.

Most speeches have a time limit, say 10 minutes per person, but this limit is often not strictly enforced, and overruns are common. By the time everyone has reported, about two-thirds or even three-quarters of the meeting time has passed.

During each person’s report, the boss occasionally interjects with comments, questions, or, more commonly, criticism and reprimands. Sometimes, the second-in-command or third-in-command may say a few words, but this is a “low-probability event.”

After everyone has reported, it’s time for the boss to give an “important speech.” The content, style, and duration of this speech vary depending on the circumstances. It depends on what the previous executives reported and the boss’s mood at the time. It could be as short as 10-20 minutes or as long as one or two hours, or even several hours. During meetings, nobody reminds the boss that it’s past lunchtime or time to go home, and nobody dares to ask for a concise summary. Over time, people only know the meeting’s start time; nobody can predict when it will end.

Sometimes, the boss also uses 20-25% of the meeting time to facilitate discussions and address specific topics, coordinate tasks, and assign responsibilities. This part varies greatly from company to company and from one meeting to another, making each one unique.

When high-level executives review and discuss these meetings, they often focus on complaints and criticisms rather than praise. The most commonly used terms in these critiques are usually “listing achievements” and “one-person show.”

Let me share a story: A few years ago, I visited a new client, the chairman of a private enterprise. When I entered his office, I noticed a large sign on his conference table with ten words on it: “If you can’t run a meeting well, how can you lead?”

I found it very interesting! So, I asked the chairman, “Do you agree with this statement?” He replied, “Yes.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Of course, why else would I put this sign here?” I then asked him, “Could you please rate the various meetings you organize over the past 12 months on average?” He thought for a moment and said, “Around 85 points.”

A week later, I attended the chairman’s monthly executive meeting. After the meeting, I asked the executives to stay behind for a moment and help me with a task. I handed out small notes to each of them and asked them to rate the quality of that day’s meeting anonymously. I instructed them to “not think, rely on intuition” and to “complete the task independently, without discussing with others.” What do you think the average score was? It was 32 points! The chairman was stunned. I asked him, “If you can’t run a meeting well, how can you lead?” He was at a loss for words.

The story doesn’t end there. This is a fairly large company, and the executives who attend the meetings are the “big bosses” from various divisions, subsidiaries, business units, and core departments. So, how do the meetings they organize perform? I randomly selected several executives and attended the management meetings they organized. At the end of each meeting, I asked the participants to anonymously rate the meeting’s quality. What was the average score for these meetings? It was 56 points. Clearly, the executives performed much better than their bosses, but their subordinates still gave them a failing grade.

At the next executive meeting, I announced, “For those of you who are currently leading your respective organizations, most of you should belong to the category of ‘can’t run a meeting well.’ However, I don’t agree with the statement, ‘If you can’t run a meeting well, how can you lead?’ This statement’s implicit assumption is that running a meeting is easy and doesn’t require any special skills. So, if you can’t run a meeting well, you shouldn’t be a leader. In reality, organizing a meeting is a difficult task. If you assume that you have ten tasks to complete, then running a meeting is certainly one of the two or three most challenging ones. So, for now, you can continue to be leaders.” I smiled and said, “The law doesn’t hold everyone accountable!”

This story is ongoing, and the company’s executives continue to improve their meetings at all levels. So, since everyone generally dislikes regular meetings, let’s first analyze the costs and benefits, or costs and returns, of regular meetings.

Huddles, often characterized by their quick, focused, and team-oriented nature, can play a significant role in addressing the challenges associated with regular meetings, as described in this section. Here’s how huddles can be beneficial:

  1. Efficiency and Focus: Huddles are inherently designed to be short and concise, typically lasting for just a few minutes. Unlike lengthy regular meetings, huddles ensure that everyone stays focused on critical topics and swiftly addresses key issues. This efficiency can save valuable time that might otherwise be wasted in longer meetings.
  2. Real-Time Problem-Solving: In a huddle, team members can quickly identify and address immediate concerns or roadblocks. It allows for rapid problem-solving, making it easier to keep projects on track and preventing issues from escalating, as opposed to waiting for the next regular meeting.
  3. Enhanced Communication: Huddles promote clear and direct communication among team members. They provide a platform for quick updates, allowing everyone to be on the same page regarding project statuses, goals, and expectations. This helps minimize misunderstandings and miscommunication.
  4. Increased Accountability: Regular huddles foster a sense of accountability within the team. Team members are more likely to follow through on their commitments when they know they’ll be reporting progress or challenges during the next huddle. This can help maintain project momentum and quality.
  5. Time Savings: Huddles are time-efficient by design, making them a suitable alternative to lengthy regular meetings. By using huddles strategically for routine updates and short discussions, organizations can free up valuable time for more productive work.
  6. Adaptability: Huddles can be scheduled as needed, making them highly adaptable to changing circumstances. If an urgent issue arises, a huddle can be convened promptly, allowing teams to respond swiftly to emerging challenges.
  7. Reduced Meeting Fatigue: The brevity and frequency of huddles can help combat meeting fatigue, a common issue associated with long, routine meetings. Team members are less likely to feel drained or disengaged when meetings are short, purposeful, and held at appropriate intervals.
  8. Empowerment: Huddles often provide team members with a platform to voice their concerns, share insights, and contribute to decision-making. This sense of involvement and empowerment can lead to increased job satisfaction and a stronger sense of ownership over projects.

In summary, huddles can serve as an effective antidote to some of the challenges posed by regular meetings. By integrating huddles into the communication and collaboration framework, organizations can enhance efficiency, foster better communication, and reduce the negative impacts of lengthy and often unproductive meetings.

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03 – The Cost of Regular Meetings

Taking the example of the company in the story: With a 16-year history, approximately 4,000 employees distributed across 5 cities nationwide, a yearly revenue of 5 billion USD, and a profit of 300 million USD, this company’s top-level management consists of 15 individuals, each with an average annual salary of 1 million USD, and the CEO with a salary of 3 million USD. They conduct a monthly regular meeting with an average duration of 3.5 hours. Most meetings are held at the company’s headquarters, but occasionally, they are held in one of the other 4 cities. The question at hand is: What is the approximate cost of this company’s monthly executive meetings?

The cost of the meetings primarily consists of three parts: direct costs, time costs, and opportunity loss costs.

Direct Meeting Costs = Venue expenses + Travel expenses + Accommodation expenses + Document preparation expenses, approximately 68,000 USD.

Time Meeting Costs = Average daily salary of attendees × Number of attendees × (Preparation time + Travel time + Actual meeting time) + Average daily salary of meeting organizers/coordinators/service staff × Number of staff × Total time devoted to the meeting. For this company, the cost in this category is approximately 627,000 USD.

Opportunity Loss Meeting Costs = The loss incurred when attendees leave their workstations to attend the meeting instead of engaging in value-added activities directly at their job positions. This is calculated as ∑(Various categories of attendees’ potential direct revenue generation from being fully engaged in their job positions × Number of personnel in each category). For this company, this cost is estimated at around 9,307,000 USD.

Using this formula and a somewhat rough calculation, the approximate cost of this company’s monthly executive meetings is around 10.002 million USD. With 11 meetings per year (excluding the month with the Chinese New Year when there is no meeting), the total cost exceeds 100 million USD. This 100 million USD in meeting costs, for meetings alone, is quite substantial when compared to the company’s annual net profit of 300 million USD.

Given such a high cost for regular meetings, it raises the question of what the returns or outcomes of these meetings are like.

04 – The Returns of Regular Meetings

Over the past few years, I’ve had discussions with numerous CEOs and chairpersons about this topic: Why do we have regular meetings, and what do we actually get from our monthly (or weekly, or quarterly) management meetings? Most CEOs initially express surprise, as if holding meetings is an unquestionable part of running a company. However, after some prodding and reflection, they usually offer the following responses:

  1. Exchange of Information

CEOs often believe that the primary function or purpose of meetings is to facilitate communication among attendees: to discuss what various branches and departments of the company have been doing over the past month (or week or quarter) and share updates. My questions usually follow: Does every branch and department need to know the details of what every other branch and department has done? For instance, does the HR manager need to know every specific detail reported by the supply chain manager? Does the head of the international department need to know everything about the Northeast branch’s activities? Does the legal department head have a genuine interest in the reports of every person sitting in the meeting?

CEOs are often unable to answer these questions immediately. However, they usually argue that it’s good for high-level executives to know more about what’s happening in the company, and at the very least, it doesn’t cause any harm.

I then share my observations: During meetings, fewer than one-third of the participants are genuinely engaged most of the time. Most of the time, only three individuals are fully attentive – the CEO, the note-taker, and the presenter. This, you can tell if you pay attention to their phones, computers, the frequency of side conversations, and their body language. They’re often “present in body but absent in mind.” They don’t really care about “communication” with others. The CEO appears engaged only because they’re focused on each report as it’s delivered. I show CEOs “candid photos” I’ve taken during meetings to make my point. The CEOs are left speechless.

Why is it that most participants are disengaged most of the time but become suddenly transformed and highly engaged when it’s their turn to speak? Why do they suddenly start talking endlessly and need to be repeatedly reminded to wrap up? The truth is that everyone knows they have a once-a-month opportunity to “showcase” themselves and vie for the CEO’s favor. I remind the CEO: You only need to pay a little attention to the “body language” of those speaking. Do they often speak directly to you during their presentations, or do they look around and address the audience as a whole?

Everyone takes turns reporting (privately, many high-level executives call it “passing the gate” or “passing the stage”), and that’s all there is to it! Where’s the “exchange of information”? The “primary function of meetings is not the ‘exchange of information among attendees,’ but rather everyone taking turns for a ‘direct report to the CEO.’ During most of the meeting, CEOs don’t really pay attention to others. The CEO appears engaged because they’re focused on each report as it’s delivered. CEOs sometimes have to “admit defeat” on this point. They immediately suggest another function of meetings: resolving problems on the spot.

  1. Problem Solving

Indeed, meetings serve this function. However, I challenge the CEO on several fronts:

Firstly, by the time a problem surfaces in a high-level meeting and is “discovered” by the CEO, it’s often not a minor issue. Even if the CEO has a keen eye for problems and makes an immediate decision to solve them, it’s rarely considered “timely.”

Secondly, the probability of “solving problems on the spot” during meetings is quite low. This is because the specifics are unclear, relevant personnel may not be present, and there’s often not enough time during the meeting. In reality, most problems have to be addressed after the meeting in specialized sessions. Countless examples have shown that trying to resolve specific problems on the spot during meetings is often beyond the capacity of the CEO. The CEO may use the opportunity to criticize or pressure subordinates, but truly solving specific issues is typically more effectively done in dedicated sessions.

Thirdly, the problems brought up by high-level executives during meetings are often related to their own areas of responsibility. Some issues may involve other departments, but at most, they concern a few other individuals. When the CEO attempts to address a specific problem during the meeting, the majority of participants often act as if it’s none of their business. Even if the CEO succeeds in solving some specific issues during the meeting, it often comes at the cost of wasting precious time for most attendees.

05 – Whose Meeting Is It?

Given the low cost-effectiveness of regular meetings, it’s natural to ask again: Why do we have regular meetings?

If I had the authority, I could go right now to the hundreds of companies I’ve served and announce in front of everyone: “Regular meetings are abolished!” From now on, our company will no longer have regular meetings! I believe most CEOs and chairpersons would be ecstatic, even applauding thunderously. Over time, everyone knows it, even though the participants, except for the CEO, are all high-level executives. In reality, it’s not a “high-level executive meeting” but a “CEO’s meeting.”

Regular meetings are conventions that high-level executives are compelled to attend to fulfill the CEO’s requirements.

Of course, if I truly canceled regular meetings in all these companies, the CEOs might have my head. For many chairpersons, regular meetings are their primary source of information about the company. In just a few hours, they can gather all the relevant information and even handle some urgent issues on the spot. What high efficiency! As for the quality and credibility of the information obtained in meetings, the cost-effectiveness, and how the high-level executives feel psychologically, the CEOs often don’t consider these factors. The CEO is the most important person in the company, and their convenience comes first!

In fact, the analysis above only scratches the surface at a “conscious” level. The deeper reason why CEOs have a strong affinity for regular meetings is that they meet some deep-seated psychological needs of the CEO. However, these needs are mainly hidden at an “unconscious” level, making them difficult for the CEO to perceive. I refer to this kind of need as the “CEO’s need for ritual” or the “CEO feeling.”

Let’s put ourselves in the CEO’s shoes and consider this: as a CEO, is there any setting better than a regular meeting to assert your “presence”? Every month, the ten or even twenty most important people in the company gather together, one by one, to report to you with utmost respect. They address you directly, word by word, and record your instructions diligently. Moreover, only you, and no one else, can interject at any time during the meeting, question at will, and even reprimand people on the spot. Can any other setting, such as written communication or one-on-one meetings, match the effectiveness of regular meetings? Is there any scenario that caters more to the feeling of “being the CEO”?

In conclusion, regular meetings do hold significance for CEOs. From a “practical” perspective, they help CEOs quickly grasp the company’s situation and issue orders efficiently. From an emotional perspective, they satisfy the CEO’s vanity and the “CEO feeling.” In a certain sense, the confidence and pride that the CEO derives from this may benefit the company. However, when such meetings lead to a corporate culture where the CEO is treated as infallible and where superiors are not held accountable for their subordinates’ time, we must consider whether the cost of this approach is too high.

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