It is rare to find people who have not had lousy meeting experiences. Often people dread regularly scheduled meetings, and the productivity that comes from these is questionable. As troublesome as meetings can be, they do hold an essential place in the development, clarification, and execution of a fire department’s mission. Here are a few thoughts to help make the most of your time and increase the effectiveness of your meetings.
Have a Purpose to Meet. One of the biggest problems with meetings is they often find their way into organizational life without any defined purpose i.e., the regularly scheduled staff meeting. Often these meetings happen on a recurring basis independent of necessity. The interaction of having key staff in the same room at the same time is purposeful only if there is a good reason. Using email and video conferencing can help alleviate the burden that ongoing meetings place on your staff’s schedule. Little will be gained if the attendees enter a meeting with a negative attitude.
It is critical to decide the purpose of a meeting before it is scheduled. Are you trying to keep people informed of ongoing happenings in the workplace? If everyone is in the same building, you can define a shift change/1st hour procedure that will eliminate the need for a formal meeting. Maybe you want to bring people up to speed on a new program. A briefing format (an article for another day) might be a more practical approach. Maybe you want to do a deep dive into the future or develop a new business approach. This probably is better handled in a management retreat or brainstorming session. Whatever the case, remember the words of Yogi Berra, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
Circulating an agenda ahead of time will allow the attendees to be better prepared, and in the long run, more productive. Nobody likes being caught flat-footed, and sometimes our best thoughts need time to percolate. By sending out agendas ahead of time, you will give your staff time to organize their thoughts and give you the critical feedback you should be hoping to receive. The agenda and its delivery prior to the meeting also will allow you to control the meeting. People know what will be discussed and the order of topics. A structure can help significantly to ensure efficient use of everyone’s time.
Before I go on to my other points, let me clarify what I just said. In no way do I think you should stifle open and frank discussions. Brainstorming has lead our profession to many positive improvements, but brainstorming and long drawn out conversations can also be exhausting. The astute leader will weigh the pros and cons of discussions and strive to ensure that things stay positive and productive.
Include all members of the team. The concept of “deliverables” can be a useful tool to increase the ownership that the individual attendees take in a particular meeting. Asking people to bring draft documents, samples of new equipment, or a PowerPoint presentation to a meeting creates a reason for them to be there, more so than just a calendar invite. Professionals want to feel valued, and by giving assignments, you send the message that they are essential to the overall process. Just remember that you are dealing with professionals, and terms like “doing your homework” can be somewhat demeaning. Do not let your best intentions create more harm than they do good.
Using a moderator can be helpful at times. We usually associate a meeting with a person, and we defer to that person. We all look to the boss for guidance and can subconsciously defer to their opinions. If the goal is open dialogue and an exchange of ideas, using a neutral moderator can set that tone. The moderator can solicit comments, keep the meeting moving along, and prevent any one individual from dominating the conversation.
Relax and let your subordinates have the floor first. Optics are always outstanding. Everyone at the meeting is looking to see who the boss sits next to, who the boss recognizes to speak, and what the boss has to say. My advice is for the ranking people to be the last to speak. If you want to offer an opposing opinion, be very careful how you phrase your responses. An offhand comment or a dismissive hand gesture can hurt relationships for years. I always recommend that the ranking officer not sit at the head of a table. Everyone knows who the boss is, so you do not have to drive that point home with everything you do. A more relaxed atmosphere could lead to more productivity.
Schedule well. Schedules and timetables can be a challenging thing to manage. If you are going to open the floor for comments, make sure you allow everyone with something to say the opportunity to speak. You are better off having no comments than letting some people talk and then cut off the discussion for the sake of limiting the duration of the meeting. Regardless if you did or did not intend to, you just sent the message that some people are essential, and some are not. This one action can have a polarizing effect for years to come.
Allow for general back-and-forth. Another technique that many leaders use, but has a limited value, is just opening up the floor for general comments. This technique tends to favor the outspoken extroverts and intimidates the shy introverts. To counter these effects, it is better to go around the room and specifically ask to teach one of the attendees if they have anything they wish to add. Many people will not speak, but at least the boss will have acknowledged them. Over time, this might build some confidence and allow the shyer people the opportunity to come out of their shell. It would be a shame if we did not take advantage of a great idea simply because we did not know it was there.
Meetings can be very productive and add value to your organization. The meetings can also be a time sink and lead to frustration among your staff. Using some of the techniques I have described will help you to be in the best position to make your meeting productive.
Chief Dennis Reilly is a 43-year fire service veteran currently serving as the Assistant Chief/Operations Commander for the Davis California Fire Department. Dennis previously served as the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, and as a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Chief Reilly holds an MPA from Penn State, is a CFO, and a combat veteran of the U.S. Army having been deployed to the first Gulf War.