What have we learned today? Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2010

One of my favorite cable news shows is MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” featuring co-anchors Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. At the conclusion of each broadcast these anchors, along with all of the day’s guests, stand up and answer the question, “What have we learned today?”

Everyone who chairs a business meeting should ask participants this same question at the conclusion of the session. One word of warning: be prepared for some surprising responses. Too many meetings are simply an exercise in futility with nothing of substance accomplished because nobody learned anything new. While the presenter thinks the information is relevant and revealing, the participants are left hanging in a fog. When you ask be, prepared for responses such as:

  • The passive participant states: “I understand the purpose of the meeting was sort of, kind of about, oh, you know...”
  • The politically astute replies: “Boss, this was the best meeting ever, I got it and I know what to do,” as he or she thinks, “Oh my God, I have to find someone who can figure out what we’re supposed to do.”
  • The secure realist mumbles a few unintelligible words, while rolling his or her eyes. Translation: another waste of valuable time.

The difference between success and failure frequently hinges on the clarity of the goals, and who has to do what by when.

I’ve never met anyone who gets up in the morning, gets out of bed and says to him or herself, “I can’t wait to get to work so I can screw up.” It just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, what does happen frequently is that employees don’t understand the objective at hand or what direction should they take in achieving it.

Most company goals and objectives are first introduced in a meeting where reasonably intelligent people gather to combine their thoughts and craft a plan. If in the meeting the goals are not appropriately communicated then it’s a very good bet that either what was discussed never gets off the ground or, if it does, the undertaking will crash and burn in short order.

There are a few basics that can make all of us better communicators, particularly when chairing meetings. Of course, everyone knows they need an agenda for the meeting, but few follow their own outline. Out of the blue someone will bring up a point and then suddenly the meeting turns into a free-for-all and ends as a pointless exercise in how not to do it. I have fantasized that most meetings should be conducted standing up. This would force participants to get to the point before their backs begin to ache, knees get wobbly and feet turn numb.

There’s an old adage: “Chance favors those who prepare.” After preparing an agenda for your meetings, are you spending enough time flushing out what you want to really convey and what action, reaction you want to evoke? For this to occur you just can’t throw a topic against the wall and hope it sticks. People need to be guided down the path. Another major pitfall of most sessions is that executives try to stuff 10 pounds of topics into a 5-pound bag. Keep the agenda manageable, covering the most important topics first, and stay on track while watching the clock as if you’re playing in a college basketball game and you must score “the points you need” before the final buzzer sounds.

Always appoint an active participant in the meeting, not an administrative assistant, as the scribe. Rotate the responsibility among those who attend reoccurring sessions. It’s amazing how people will stay alert and think before they talk when they know their utterances may be indelibly recorded. Also, the notes from every meeting must be published for all attendees by the next morning.

Finally, assign accountability to the individuals with a due date for each task. After a completion date is assigned the person responsible can say if they can’t make the deadline, “I need more time, I don’t want to do it because it’s a bad idea, I don’t know how to do it, or I need more help.” What they can’t do is ignore the assignment and pretend it never happened.

At the conclusion of your next meeting, go around the table and ask, “What have you learned today?” If you don’t ask, they won’t tell and, more importantly, you’ll never know.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.