How to Manage Small-Business Meetings: Dave’s Tale

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When he was five years old, Dave Ward ran his little red bicycle directly into a very thin tree. His front tire just rolled right into the thing and he flew off the seat. As an adult, he often remarked on how interesting it was that a little boy could hit such a small little thing so directly.

His only real memory of the thing was the sensation of watching the tree run up to him. He’d trickled gently over his front lawn and past his parents’ Plymouth with the wood panels, the magnolia inching toward him.

Then he’d hit it. He woke up dazed and bloodied and pealing for his mother.

He wondered how big the tree had grown in the intermittent years. How large an obstacle approached the little boy that now lived at the low-slung ranch with the yellow shutters.

His trees and skinned knees had to be replaced. Now he dodged extraneous work, frustrating coworkers, and overly long presentations – or at least he tried.

Sitting at the edge of an upcycled glass table with the logo of some long dead lawyer etched in the middle of it, he wondered how things had gone so wrong. He was somewhere close to a thousand hours into this meeting and the only decision anyone had made was to have yet another meeting.

Colleagues that seemed so well put together and organized in their daily work walked through the meeting room door and hit themselves in the head with a hammer until their actions resembled those of a drunk walrus. They flopped around the meeting with no clear plan or structure.

Timelines for presentations were extended, the projector and TV each broke no less than seven times, and everyone took a fifteen-minute break – from the alleged half-hour meeting – to get snacks.

Dave’s update on the state of the marketing department was the only thing that had taken less than ten minutes. Even deciding on a donut flavor had taken fifteen. And then they had the gall to settle on raspberry jelly filled.

It was the creeping fate of the collision all over again, but at least when he hit the tree his mother bought him a toy after taking him to the doctor. When the meeting was done, all he’d have to show for it would be an upset stomach.

How small-business meetings go wrong

Once everyone had said their piece and shaken hands and eaten another donut, they all waddled out of the room and suddenly resumed their competent lives. Dave sat, alone, at the crumb- and paper-covered table as the company’s CEO walked out.

“Hey, Dave,” he said leaning back in the room. “Good meeting. You mind cleaning this up a bit? Thanks.”

Dave ate another donut.

As he herded armloads of paper into the bin like some corporate cowboy, he wondered how so few people could make such a huge mess of things. He stopped mid-sweep and grabbed a piece of paper from his “Best Places to Work” notebook.

Problems with our meetings that make us less productive.

  • No structure
  • Poorly setup technology
  • Bad time management
  • Lack of accountability
  • Too much paper
  • No one shows up on time

Okay, so that was the bad. What was good?

  • Fewer fires than last time

Not a great list, admittedly, but a step in the right direction. The walls still bore the scorch marks from last week.

The root of the problem seemed to be that everyone felt compelled to do two competing things. First, they all wanted to have the nicest set of printouts with the most possible information. There was an unspoken contest to see who could drop a PowerPoint deck on the table and shatter it first.

Second, they all wanted to have the nicest presentation up on the screen. In fact, most of the people who ran late did so because they were either printing or futzing with a presentation.

Dave pulled a stack of papers out of the trash and blew the crumbs off them. Fifty-three pages of “How We Can Enter The New Market: A Vision Of Omnichannel Retailing On The East Coast.” Cathy Mora, the head of product, had laid out this incredible vision over the course of forty rambling minutes.

Another deck – “Sales in Q2/2017 Plan and Goals.” Max Henderson’s masterpiece on the future of the sales team and how they were going to increase the company’s online conversion rates.

In passing (which is to say, over the course of fifteen suspenseful minutes) Max told the group about his daughter’s Girl Scout trip to the beach.When he finished, someone actually applauded.

Dave looked back at his list and made a new note.

Meetings are not a place to show off or present new information?

Systemic issues that mess up meetings

If there was a problem with meetings, there was a probably a problem somewhere else. “Meetings,” Dave thought, “are simply a reflection of the company. The good and bad are distilled into each meeting.”

He finished cleaning up the room, leaving the microwave coated in detonated donut, and headed to the cafe next door.

It was clear that everyone in the meetings had an agenda, but they each had their own. It was an elementary school chorus, with each child singing louder than their neighbor until the whole cafeteria filled with a cacophony only a parent could celebrate.

Dave loved kids.

He cracked open his notebook.

Problems that make us compete in meetings.

  • Face time with the CEO – We all want to look good
  • Fear – We all think we don’t look good

“We all know these things are horrible,” he thought. “We just don’t know how to make them un-horrible.”

The something was fundamental in those two points. Everyone wanted to look at themselves in the mirror and see a George Clooney, but everyone only owned funhouse mirrors. There was both an expectation and a feedback problem.

“So. What can we do to fix this,” Dave asked himself.

“It probably just needs more sugar and stirring,” the man next to him said.

“Thank you.”

Planning for a successful small-business meeting

If anything was going to get better, meetings were going to have to have clear performance goals and feedback systems, and it was going to have to start with Tim.

Tim Reisenwitz was a great CEO with a handful of failings. One of those failings was that you could read his face like the top line of an optometrist’s eye chart. Tim was bad at keeping his feelings hidden, which meant that every presenter spent their time catering to his fluctuating mood.

Now that he thought about it, everyone on the leadership team had their little meeting foibles that made presenting more difficult.

They would yawn or stop taking notes or look at their phones when the topic started to shift. That led the presenter to try and overcorrect by bringing in more new information. That meant everyone re-engaged, but at the cost of having to suss out new info on the fly.

What if everyone made all their points ahead of time and got feedback on the ones that were most interesting to the group?

  1. Send out slides ahead of time and get feedback.

That should help everyone listening stay engaged while keeping the presenter on a clear course. They won’t have to worry about Tim’s whims – ha – because they’ll already know what he wants.

The bigger challenge was to figure out how to make people feel like winners – or at least not like losers – when they presented their information. The problem wasn’t with the content, Dave realized.

Everyone in the group was willing to take responsibility for their numbers and actions. They all owned their part of the business, rain or shine. What they dreaded was that moment when the phones came out.

“But that’s a function of time,” Dave thought. “It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that you’re still talking.”

  1. Set hard timelines on presentations.

If everyone had a nice tight block of time to present in, they would only focus on the things that kept us interested – namely, the things we all noted when the slides were sent out. The phones stay in pockets and we all feel like we’re commanding the attention of the room.

Those two seemed to fix the expectation and presentation problems, so now it was just down to the small things.

  1. No printout over one-page front and back.
  2. No time extension granted in the middle of the meeting.
  3. Realistic time estimates when planning a meeting.
  4. Unrelated questions and topics held until the end, time permitting.

“With these six rule six rules in place,” Dave thought, “we might actually have time to go get donuts for fun instead of for sustenance.”

Putting it all together

Dave wrote up his thoughts when he got back to the office and sent them out to the leadership team. He called out what he saw as the basic problems and then what he thought they could do to fix it.

After a little back and forth, Tim gave it a go-ahead for the next week catch up.

Dave sat at the table, alone again the following week. The meeting had been scheduled for an hour and had only run thirty minutes over. No one felt like they had to order food. No one pulled out a phone in anger. No one napped.

It wasn’t a perfect performance – the printouts averaged about five pages – but it was a darn good start.

Instead of watching as the tree approached, Dave had grabbed the handlebars and steered directly into the parked car. He may have fallen down, but at least he’d been in control of the situation. He decided to go out and buy his son a toy after work.

The key had been in sorting out what issues plagued his company. Other companies, he was sure, would have other problems. Maybe a lack of trust or a failure to focus on details or a small invasion of armed sheep – it could be anything.

By sniffing out the foundations of the problems, anyone can make their meetings less frustrating. Communication and clear guidelines can turn any horrific meeting into a successful endeavor.

While your meetings may take a different set of final rules, here are three guidelines I think everyone can agree to.

  1. Send out material ahead of time. Meetings are a time for people to discuss their take on business decisions, not to learn about last month’s sales figures. As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t need anyone to say anything once you deliver the information, just email it.
  2. Set clear timelines around the meeting. Hard and fast agendas can get in the way of organic conversations, but having clear start and end times for major segments of the meeting can help things stay crisp and on point.
  3. Remember that you will meet again. “Just because someone brings up an interesting point doesn’t mean that you have to sort it out right here, right now. Things can be shifted to the next meeting, taken off to an email conversation, or just ignored. If the meeting you’re in has a plan, stick to the plan.

It takes time. People don’t change overnight and businesses are just a bunch of people trying not to shoot themselves in the foot. Give people time to adjust and don’t give up when you stumble.

Have you had success making meetings work for you?

If you’ve turned your company’s meetings into something fantastic, drop a line in the comments to share your story or shoot me an email. Also, if you’re interested in talking about other challenges your company has faced or overcome, I’m all ears.

For more tips on running your small business, check out Capterra’s Knocking Down Doors blog. Good luck.

Looking for software? Check out Capterra's list of the best software solutions.

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About the Author


Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a former Capterra analyst.


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