Meeting Management ~ Making the Most of Your Time Together

Ordinary people merely think how they shall spend their time; a man of talent tries to use it.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

I have just returned from a disastrous two-hour meeting. You know the kind. The participants were all smart, well-intentioned individuals. We had a common goal, but we could not stay focused. There were side conversations, rehashing of old issues, and elongated debates on minor topics. Is this sounding familiar? There are few things as frustrating as a poorly run meeting. Especially when all you can think about is the "real" work you could be getting done if you were not stuck in the conference room. Here are some basic guidelines to help you manage your meeting time.


Every meeting should have an agenda with the items submitted in advance. Having an agenda and sticking to it is a fast way to make sure your meetings are effective. Many groups use the PAL system. P is the purpose, or goal, of the meeting. A is the agenda for the meeting. L is the time limit for the meeting. Meeting participants always appreciate a PAL because it allows them to know what to expect for the meeting.


Know when the meeting starts, when the meeting ends, and where the meeting will be held. This information allows you to manage your time. If you are running the meeting you should be sending a reminder and the agenda to the participants at least a day before the meeting. Arrive 10 minutes prior to the start of the meeting to insure the room is ready and situated for you.


Knowing why you are at the meeting and what the outcome of the meeting should be is critical for a successful meeting. Review the meeting PAL (Purpose Agenda and Limit) when you begin the meeting so that everyone in the meeting knows the meeting's goal and you can focus on the business at hand.


Every meeting needs an individual who runs the meeting by following the agenda. The facilitator does not have to be the manager, president or board chair. The facilitator is the individual authorized by the group to keep the meeting moving along. The facilitator can be a fixed role, or rotate among the meeting participants.

Time Keeper

As with a facilitator, every meeting needs an individual who insures the meeting is running smoothly and who acts as the "sergeant at arms" should participants become distracting or unruly. As part of the timekeeper's role, this individual can suggest to the facilitator when a discussion item has exceeded the time allowed and should be sent to a committee. The committee is then responsible for developing a proposal to bring to the next meeting.

There are three basic types of meetings, each with its own guidelines:

1. Problem Solving/Task Meetings

  • Always use a PAL – Purpose Agenda Limit
  • Relate the importance of the goal to the business
  • Set a time limit and assign a timekeeper
  • Clarify details and facts
  • Develop ideas
  • Agree on an action plan
  • Assign action items
  • Review discussion
  • Set follow-up meeting
2. Communication/Staff Meetings
  • Always use a PAL – Purpose Agenda Limit
  • Agenda items should be submitted prior to the meeting
  • Each member should report on his/ her major objectives (as submitted in the agenda)
  • Assign action items and due dates
  • Keep a historical record of the meeting (i.e. minutes) to be distributed to participants
  • Periodically assess: the participants and the need/frequency of the meetings
3. Approval Meetings
  • Always use a PAL – Purpose Agenda Limit
  • Be sure to address key questions and concerns in your presentation
  • Specifically request approval
  • If not approved, gain consensus around next steps
  • Summarize main points and action plan
  • Thank participants for their time

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ As part of my job, my client groups want me to attend their weekly staff meetings. I have 11 groups I support, plus my own functional meetings. When I looked at my calendar, I am averaging 6 hours of meetings a day! I am never at my desk to get work done. What can I do?

A: Believe it or not, you are already halfway there. You have identified the problem. The next thing to do is think about why are you attending the meetings. To learn about your clients’ business? For visibility? To watch the interpersonal dynamics? Once you have ascertained the goal of your attendance you should develop a few alternatives that would also accomplish that goal. Some ideas would be to attend the staff meetings every other week, or even monthly; to attend only part of the meetings; ask to receive the meeting minutes; or even have “open office hours” for clients to drop in when they need to speak with you. Next you should talk with your supervisor and gain his/her support for your meeting attendance plan. Then you need to check in with each of your clients to insure you are still addressing their needs. One way to reassure them is to let them know you are going to try this new way and then circle back with them in about a month to see if it is working.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ Recently I was asked to serve on a committee board for a local philanthropic group. There is one person on the board who has been there for 15 years. I know this because during a one-hour meeting she said so about eight different times. All of these comments were in the context of "We tried that idea 15 years ago and it just doesn't work." How can I get her passed the past?

A: There are many reasons why an idea did not work. It could have been poorly planned or poorly executed. There could have been external impacts such as bad weather or conflicting schedules. You have two options for remedying the situation. The first is to ask her WHY the idea did not work the first time and what she would do differently if the group wanted to try the idea again. This will help to focus her on the future (what to do differently) as opposed to on the past (what did not work before). The other solution is to speak with the group leader and enlist his/her support in this issue. The key to brainstorming and developing ideas is to refrain from critical feedback. It is part of the leader’s role to make sure the meeting conversations are positive and constructive.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ My day is filled with meetings that often start late. This means I am sitting in a room wasting my time while I am waiting for the meeting to start, then I need to leave the meeting early to be on time for my next appointment. My stress level is increasing drastically, what can I do?

A: For starters, take a deep breath and count to 10. There are things in life over which we have control, and those that are not under our control. If you are responsible for the meetings (i.e. in a position of power or influence) there are a few trick for making better use of your meeting time. First, always begin the meeting on time. Reward those who arrive on time by beginning on time. Do NOT recap the meeting each time a new person walks in to the meeting. Those who are late or who miss the meeting should be responsible for finding out what happened by reading the minutes or asking someone for the information. Depending on your work culture, the last person into the meeting room can be assigned a task, such as providing snacks or taking the minutes for the next meeting. If you are not the person responsible for the meeting, I strongly recommend you bring work to help fill your time. This is a great time to read journals and/or magazines related to your industry. If you have a cell phone, or if there is a phone in the room, you can check your messages and even reply to a few prior to the meeting commencing. The last suggestion I have for you is to schedule meetings as early as possible in the day. This tends to increase the chances of the meeting participants being on time.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I was recently asked to attend a meeting from 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. I presumed that planners of this two-hour meeting would provide lunch. They did not. Isn't it safe to assume that a meeting called for lunchtime would be a lunch meeting?

A: Apparently not! I would strongly recommend that anyone thinking of calling a meeting during lunchtime should also be thinking about providing lunch to the participants. However, if you are not the planner, call ahead to see if refreshment will be provided. This way you will not be trapped in a meeting with your stomach growling.