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CAREERS / The Way Work Ought to Be

Fear and Loathing of the Meeting Monster

September 15, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Larry Lindsey, who makes his living helping companies in crisis, says there is one sure-fire way to spot a company in trouble: Sit in on its meetings.

"Inefficient, wasteful, unproductive meetings are often actually the reason a company is in trouble," says Lindsey, a senior associate of Alameda-based Sagegroup Strategies Inc. Sagegroup acts as a trouble-shooter, helping struggling companies here and abroad identify their problems and fix them. Often, Lindsey says, Sagegroup traces problems back to corporate managers who are unable to run effective meetings.

"Why do corporate meetings go wrong? Because they are meetings of humans," Lindsey says dryly. "A meeting should be set up logically, with certain guidelines. All too often, however, they get derailed. Why? Because people come to the meeting who want to be heard, who get defensive, who get bored, who don't understand the situation or who just don't want to go back to their desks."

After spending decades in the corporate world, Lindsey says, he has developed a pronounced antipathy to meetings. "Meetings are terribly wasteful," he says. "In any entity we're involved with, we often try to cut the meetings way, way down."

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Business executives, psychologists and others seem to agree that there are far too many poorly run meetings in corporate America, meetings that fall far short of the ideal of planning sessions that actually motivate workers and get things done.

"A lot of times there are too many meetings," concedes Dr. Judith Segal, a Beverly Hills consultant who counsels mid- and top-level managers on the fine art of running effective meetings and other management skills. "But face-to-face contact, if well-facilitated, is a fast way to get things done."

After working with hundreds of executives, Segal says, she finds that men and women are equally inept at running meetings.

Segal says many of her clients are high-powered executives who have graduated from some of the nation's finest business schools, yet they have only the vaguest notions of how to run crisp meetings that produce results.

"In business school, you are given a lot of financial, systems and organizational data," she says. "But when we are talking about running a meeting, we are talking about interpersonal skills." Such skills get short shrift in too many schools, she believes.

For nearly two decades, agrees Roger Bush, an associate with Saxon-Hamilton, a management consulting firm in Oakland, business schools have focused too much on time management and not enough on human skills.

"In business school, you learn how to control a meeting, how to control an agenda by assigning times to it and managing the agenda. They've missed the boat," Bush says. "The purpose of a meeting is to have real live communication between live human beings, where the byproduct is accomplishment."

Corporate meetings have also suffered from the twin trends of downsizing and inclusion, Bush says. Downsizing has made employees more fearful of speaking out at meetings because they do not want to be branded troublemakers. The desire to appear inclusive has made managers more likely to hold big, unwieldy meetings where it is difficult to reach consensus, for fear of offending someone by excluding them.

What should be the ideal, Bush asks?

"Someone has the idea to convene a meeting, knows the objective, communicates ahead of time to the right people, the people who could achieve progress by attending the meeting. That person invites the others, lets them know the purpose, the logistical details and what their role will be. People arrive on time, the convener provides a context and explains the purpose for calling everyone together. People get an opportunity to look at the meeting's objectives and have an idea of how long it will take. They will then get into the meat of the meeting. They will discuss issues and achieve a consensus."

That the reality often falls abysmally short of that ideal is the stuff of endless Dilbert cartoons and the cause of a lot of anxiety and frustration among both managers and employees.

"Often I work with people who are having difficulty with other people they work with in meetings," says Dwight Grisham, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in conflict-resolution skills. Professionals he deals with, Grisham says, often come to him because they suddenly find themselves in charge of a group or team and realize they have no idea how to run meetings.

"It's really not a natural thing for a lot of people," he says. "I find people actually avoiding holding meetings they need to have, refusing to schedule them because of their fears. They have anxieties in group situations that sometimes are to the extent of a social phobia."

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Grisham says he tries to help managers overcome their fears and anxieties about meetings. He teaches them how to communicate respect for the participants and a willingness to hear people out--yet be decisive when a decision must be made.

"I believe that running good meetings is absolutely core to running a successful corporation," he says.

One executive touted by consultants as brilliant at running meetings is Dan Ono, project manager for Lucent Technologies Inc., a $21-billion international communications corporation spun off from AT&T Corp. Lucent specializes in getting large-scale projects completed under budget and before deadline, an accomplishment Ono says is made possible by holding highly efficient meetings.

"We have a process for project status meetings," he says. "We make sure the meetings don't go over an hour. We send out advance agendas with time frames suggested for each discussion. We don't do problem-solving; we define action items. We keep participation small, usually to no more than a half-dozen people."

E-mail, Ono says, "is a viable form of communication," but it simply cannot take the place of meetings. "It doesn't build the relationships you need to successfully manage a fast-track project."

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