First Round Review's 6 Must Reads to Run Fast, Efficient Meetings

First Round Review's 6 Must Reads to Run Fast, Efficient Meetings

We've featured advice from some pretty smart, successful people about how to run better meetings that don't sap energy or waste time. Here's everything they've shared.

Generally speaking, we decide what to cover on the Review based on conversations we have with founders — during listening sessions, on our internal First Round Network, at conferences, and around the office. There are a few recurring themes when they talk about their needs for advice, but one big one is roughly this: Meetings are the bane of our existence. How can we possibly do better?

Meetings slow things down. They lose focus fast. They recur on calendars with plodding and unnecessary regularity — inspiring dread and dimming everyone's energy. This happens because people feel like they need them. Most of the time they don't (we have some advice for this). But sometimes they do. There's no getting around board meetings, all-hands meetings, and one-on-ones (in fact, you really shouldn't want to). What you can change is how you run them.

We're here to convince and assure you that all of these meetings can be designed to add momentum, instigate change, reinforce transparency, and maintain alignment. To do so, we've got best practices to share from some of the smartest, most insightful leaders we've ever interviewed, from Michael Lopp (VP Engineering at Slack) to Kim Scott (creator of the Radical Candor phenomenon). So read on and start leading meetings that don't suck today.

1. Clear the deck of meetings you don't need — and embrace the impermanence of a more dynamic schedule.

Peter Deng has led a lot of prestigious product teams — formerly at Instagram and now as Head of Rider for Uber. And he has a very particular approach to meetings: you have to get rid of them all sometimes.

One of the most pernicious and pervasive manifestations of too much process is the recurring meeting. What to do about it? Cancel them all, Deng says. This does not necessarily mean canceling them for good. That’s unrealistic. But you do need to reset things every so often so you can get a critical look at what’s necessary and what’s not. Once you’ve stripped things away, you gain a lot more clarity around how to truly support the people around you.

When you start adding meetings back in, get to the roots of why and make sure each one is solving a very specific, well-defined problem.

  • Why does a manager really need a one-on-one with a report? Two reasons: You want to know what they’re doing, and you want to support their growth.
  • Why do you need a weekly team meeting? You want everyone to be informed about what’s happening.
  • Why do you need regular product reviews? You want all features to go through the same people so the product stays consistent. You also want to provide feedback along the way to guide development.

When you get to the root of the problems recurring meetings try to solve, it becomes clear that there are much less intrusive and more active ways to address them (including brief meetings that are very focused on busting problems). By breaking tradition, you will arrive at a more efficient structure where you aren’t simply sharing updates round-robin-style just because it’s Monday morning.

This is where impermanence and more dynamic scheduling come in. Namely: It's okay to create meetings with an expiration date.

Look at the problems you created when you cancelled your recurring meetings — they are all status-update related. Now think, what temporary solution can you create that would address all of these problems in a fraction of the time and would be flexible enough to change if you needed to?

In some cases, a temporary solution might be a meeting that recurs over a certain time-bounded period but is always subject to change, and that no one gets attached to. It's all about properly setting expectations upfront.

For more from Deng on meeting efficiency and how to make sure too much process doesn't overrun your productivity, keep reading here.

2. Rands on how to run great 1:1s that leave people feeling aligned and connected.

Michael Lopp (aka Rands of Rands in Repose) is an expert on managing humans. In fact, he wrote a book with that exact name. So when he talks about how to run effective one-on-one meetings, we sit up and listen. Here's what he had to say:

Meet with your reports. Every week at the same time (no matter what — do not move these or reschedule them) and for at least 30 minutes each (book 45 minutes so you have room if it runs over).

Often, the first reaction to this is “Wait, I have 20 people. You’re suggesting I’m going to spend 10 hours a week having meetings with folks?” Lopp has two responses: (1) yes; (2) you shouldn’t have 20 direct reports.

The goal of an effective 1:1 isn’t for an update from your direct report, or for you to lay down some instructions (this tends to happen a lot). It’s a conversation. There are lots of systems for status updates (project management software, bug tracking systems, Google Docs, Wikis) — 1:1s aren’t one of them. 1:1s are a chance to hear about your direct reports’ ideas for your product, their career goals, and potentially their opinion of their performance — it’s their time.

What you’re most likely going to find is your reports want to immediately go into status or when you ask them if they have anything they’d like to discuss, they’ll say “nope.” To counteract this, have a list of three potential topics ready for discussion. That way when they say, “Nope — nothing to discuss” at the beginning of the meeting you can go right to your list to jumpstart the conversation. After a few weeks of doing this, the transition from status to dialog should be well underway.

Most 1:1s wind up falling into three categories:

  • The update: This is a good conversation or normal high-quality 1:1.
  • The vent: Essentially a therapy session. This most often comes in the form of your report being pissed off about something. You just have to listen, not actually do anything.
  • The disaster: They’re freaking out, they’re going to quit, etc. This is the advanced form of the vent – see here for more advice.

The key is knowing which kind you're walking into, so you can bring in three topics that will break the deadlock and give the person energy and momentum forward no matter what they brought into the room with them.

For more advice from Lopp on how to run staff meetings and also what he calls 'tapestry meetings' for fostering and reinforcing culture, continue reading here.

3. Design board meetings that prompt investors to give you the help and advice you actually need.

Ensuring productive board meetings is totally contingent on the legwork you do beforehand. Do not skimp. If you want to run a smooth board meeting, according to Jeff Bonforte, Founder and CEO of Xobni, you need to:

  • Meet with each board member separately for 30 to 45 minutes in advance so you know how they’re going to vote, what they think about the agenda, and bust any potential issues or surprises. “I would go as far as to say, ‘We’ll talk about this. This is my big issue. This is where I think we should come out on it. What do you think?’”
  • Compile comprehensive materials, data, and updates in a packet and distribute it to your board members at least four days beforehand. Tell them to come prepared. (For far more detail on what to prep, go here.)
  • If your board is too big, split it into smaller committees that you meet or hold calls with separately two to four weeks in advance. Then they can come and present what they’ve been working on.
  • "Nirav Tolia [now CEO of] taught me to do dinner or lunch before the board meeting, and include some of my key leaders. This allowed me to keep the subsequent meeting on time, and it gave my board the opportunity to get to know key people outside the high pressure environment of the meeting itself."

For the actual meeting, he recommends budgeting three hours, but only 90 minutes of content, including a 45 minute deep dive on an issue that you actually need the board’s help to resolve. Don’t make a deck — everyone should have brought their board packets with them — and don’t stand at the front of the room. Sit at the table just like everyone else.

For more insightful tips on running tight, effective board meetings — and an incredible deep dive into the materials you can assemble to always leave folks impressed — read on here.

4. Produce all-hands meetings that no one will want to miss.

When David Noël — internal communications executive extaordinaire — first joined SoundCloud, the team was small enough to assemble everyone in a conference room every Friday for informal remarks to stay on the same page. But soon, growth made that untenable, and the meeting became big and impersonal.

“I remember one really bad All Hands towards the end of 2013. There was just no consistency — one presentation was really tactical; another was strategic. The narrative wasn’t cohesive.” Team members didn’t know what to expect, they weren’t always sure how the meeting topics fit together or why they were relevant to their work, so they tuned out.

Most distressing to Noël was realizing that the meeting had become largely a one-way dialogue.

We would have an All Hands where we opened the floor for questions, and no one would ask anything. I thought, 'Whoa, this is brutal.'

Noël made it his mission to create a meeting that everyone felt a strong need to attend. Accordingly, most of his action plan can be summed up in one word: Preparation. With everything rotating around that axis, here are some of the concrete steps he and his team took to breathe life back into all-hands meetings:

  • Find the right cadence. For smaller companies, holding an All Hands once a week or every two weeks works awesomely well, and is easy to execute. But as SoundCloud grew, it made sense to have fewer, more comprehensive meetings. “Before the beginning of each quarter, we know exactly how many All Hands we’ll have — these days, at over 300 employees, it’s usually about 6 to 8 times a quarter,” Noël says. You want to share those dates as soon as possible so people can block off the time and make the meetings a priority.
  • Take a strongly thematic approach. For every All Hands, Noël’s team picks a concrete theme that aligns with that quarter’s core priorities (as staked out by the leadership during pre-quarter roadmapping). Moving from the “agenda and topic-based approach,” where anybody could raise an issue over email, to a thematic approach helped ensure that the meetings were interesting, coherent, and relevant to all employees. Developing themes essentially enforced the internal comms team to be thoughtful about what would engage people and be most important for everyone to know. It raised the bar for the content that would be shared.
  • Assign owners, and get serious about accountability. At SoundCloud, there are two key owners for every All Hands meeting: the curator and the host. The curator is the owner of that meeting’s theme, and is responsible for making the agenda and selecting speakers who will strike the right tone and topics. The host (usually Noël or one of his team members) figures out the logistics and makes sure all the speakers are thoroughly prepared for their moment on stage. They also serve as MC during the event, opening and closing the proceedings and introducing new employees. This distributes the labor nicely and helps get more people involved and invested as rotating hosts.
  • Nail down a regular production cycle. Noël and his team start planning each and every meeting about three weeks in advance of the date. Two days before, they convene the speakers for a test run to make sure they've done their homework and that their content will be valuable. “It’s an opportunity to make sure we have a cohesive narrative, and also give feedback on the content, style, format and overall delivery.” Little things get tweaked because every detail matters to the credibility, caliber and polish of the event. Maybe one person is running over time on his part of the presentation, while another presenter could use design help on a few slides. All of these changes are important because they add up to every employee feeling great about working at SoundCloud and doing their best work.
  • Prioritize the inclusion of remote employees. Noël makes sure to include the IT team in every All Hands test run. SoundCloud has three offices in addition to their Berlin headquarters, where the live All Hands is typically held. “Given the number of offices, IT is basically producing a full, hour-long TV show. We want to make it feel just like everyone is in the same room.” Every presentation should be just as engaging for an employee in San Francisco as it is for someone in Berlin. No nit-pick is too small. For example, Noël cautions speakers against using too many bullet points in their slides, since they might be hard for people watching on the Livestream to read. One camera angle from the back of the room simply won't cut it. Low production value breeds disengagement, and a disengaged employee is more likely to do low quality of work or leave the company.
  • Let attendees ask questions through the channel they're most comfortable with. Every meeting includes a Q&A session. “We try to include both senior and junior people working on the meeting’s theme to provide a full stack of visibility,” Noël says. Attendees can ask questions in person, but there are also moderators who surface questions that come in via the company’s intranet or chat or Slack. This allows people in other offices to participate in a seamless way, and caters to people with differing communication styles. Some might be shyer than others or prefer to express themselves differently. You don't want to exclude anyone unintentionally.

Past themes and topics have included actions and reflections coming out of leadership offsites, future product launches, company strategy, quarterly objectives, and much more. There's a special sensitivity for areas that might be controversial or confusing or tense. Instead of skimming the surface of these issues, or talking around them, SoundCloud makes them central to the discussion during All Hands gatherings.

Following every meeting, Noël and his team send out a simple survey to all employees to get their thoughts on the material and format. The survey asks just three questions to keep it low-lift:

  • Was the recent All Hands valuable? (Multiple choice Yes or No)
  • What did you like best during the event?
  • What can we improve about the meeting?

They then use the results to continue to refine the All Hands to meet the company’s constantly evolving needs. To keep tabs on their success, they aim for a consistent satisfaction rating of 80 to 90%.

For more of Noël's strategies to build strong and durable internal communications, keep reading here.

5. Bring clarity and focus to initial sales meetings to make both sides happier and close more deals.

First sales meetings tend to be all blue sky, and leave people feeling unmoored and uncertain their interested. This isn’t great. People like structure, and they’ll have more confidence in your ability to deliver if you strongly frame your thoughts and your process. Ideally, the structure you give them focuses on what you plan to deliver, says Anand Chopra-McGowan, Global Head of Consumer Practice at General Assembly (GA).

For example, GA’s sales team says its core offering is helping companies and their people build new capabilities. “We keep it short: We’ll help you source, assess and train your talent,” he says. “Sure, we could go into all the hackathons, events, social impact initiatives and sponsored courses we offer too, but that would have dulled focus on what we can do for them. It’s all about the rule of three — a three-part framework is easy to wrap your mind around.”

The “source, assess and train” model gives the customer something concrete to envision. If your first conversation is too broad, you risk getting pulled far off topic, promising features you can’t deliver, and requiring another meeting just to cover the basics. Start with a clear, simple model for purchase, and trust you’ll have the chance to go into detail later.

The other strategy for setting strong direction: Prescribe a timeline.

If you’re at a startup, most people will not have bought what you’re selling before. They won’t know how you plan to go from pitch to launch, unintentionally giving them permission to delay and dawdle.

Chopra-McGowan lays out a detailed timeline outlining each step with customers — typically on a single slide with color-coded line items showing who is responsible for what. His team tries to get clients to explicitly confirm their acceptance of that plan. Even if they don’t end up sticking to it exactly, it still establishes a shared understanding of what’s about to happen, and the clearer it is the faster things go.

Qualify ruthlessly.

To make sure GA is investing its time wisely with the right customers, Chopra-McGowan and his team apply the relatively common BANT system, which stands for Budget, Authority, Needs and Timing. New founders may not be familiar. If you’ve been selling at IBM for 30 years, it’s old news.

“Like many frameworks, it has its supporters and its detractors, but honestly if all four of those factors are a fit, the deal probably has a great chance,” he says. “What’s new is that we’ve focused less on the framework itself and more on developing an objective way to determine if a new opportunity actually meets what the framework is trying to prove.” The following is an insights-driven way to frame qualification questions that the GA team routinely uses in sales meetings:

The questions on the right tend to yield answers that are more objectively reliable qualifiers for a new opportunity. “You want to present proper context and then ask the question,” says Chopra-McGowan. “When you ask people a completely open-ended question like, ‘How much money do you have?’ it’s tough for them to answer, and you come off as unprofessional. Instead say, ‘An engagement with us costs this much — is that in line with your expectations?’ If they seem surprised by how direct you’re being, it’s powerful to acknowledge that you’re busy, you know they’re busy and you just don’t want to beat around the bush. Generally, there’s appreciation for that.”

For more on running a much shorter, better enterprise sales process, read more from Chopra-McGowan here.

6. Make it easier to speak truth to power with good skip-level meetings.

With her recent book on Radical Candor, Kim Scott has propelled herself into the hall of fame of management experts. Here's a tidbit that's less-often shared, but incredibly important for growing companies.

“If you’re a manager of managers, you need to make sure that everyone on your team feels they can criticize their boss,” Scott says. But she’s quick to note that this does not mean encouraging your team to be boss killers. Instead, she recommends putting this advice into practice with a simple meeting — commonly called a 'skip-level meeting,' though that sounds hierarchical, so she prefers to call them 'manager guidance sessions.'

The process is straightforward: First, let your managers know that you’ll be scheduling a meeting with their direct reports. Get them comfortable with the idea, and make it clear that this meeting is intended to be helpful to them. Then explain the process to the reports, again making it clear that the goal of the meeting is to help their boss be a better manager — and that the meeting is not for attribution.

“In other words, I would tell the manager what everybody said but not who said it. Not because I wanted to foster secrecy, but because I wanted to help get the information out there,” says Scott. “If there were too many things the team didn’t feel comfortable saying directly to their boss, and if it wasn’t getting better over time, that became the top thing I worked with the manager to change.”

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the meeting, Scott has two key recommendations: Take the notes yourself — don’t farm that task out — and send them to the manager in question as soon as the meeting is over. “Taking notes yourself is a very important way to show people that you're listening, and to get corrections. And I would tell people that at the end of this meeting, I was going to share the document. We're not going to have time to go back and edit, because we're all too busy. That had a way of focusing the conversation.”

To prevent the meeting from devolving into a gripe session, force the team to prioritize issues. “I would say, ‘Changing behavior is hard; you can't ask your boss to get a personality transplant as a result of one 45-minute meeting. What are the one or two things you want your boss to do differently?’” says Scott.

Then, armed with that short wish list, talk with the manager in question. Now it’s the boss’s turn to be specific about concrete ways that they can address the team’s concerns. Make sure the boss doesn’t just communicate the action plan to the team, but over-communicates it. Then, follow up to make sure the boss actually does what he or she promised to do.

“These meetings are a way of avoiding the situation where stuff is happening down in your organization that makes your skin crawl when it comes to light," Scott says. "You wonder, ‘How could this have happened? Why didn't I know about it?’ You want to learn about those things in a way that supports both the managers who are working for you and the people who are working for them."

If you haven't yet read Scott's philosophy on radical candor in leadership, do yourself a favor and check it out here, including tips to implement it in your everyday life.

First Round Review is committed to giving you, our amazing audience, all the tools you need to hire the best team for your company. So please stay tuned for more stories about running and executing efficient meetings and process at every stage. We promise to keep you posted on the best new questions, thinking and exercises leaders across the industry are using to keep everyone rowing in the same direction.