Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our weekly column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! — Dana Theus
Dear Dana — Help! I run a weekly meeting for department heads (I am not one) and I can’t seem to get control of this beast. My boss wants it to be value added for all participants, giving them the opportunity to share information our group needs to coordinate activities, but also to give them time to network. The problem is that they run away with the meeting, run down bunny trails and get themselves distracted. I know some of them feel this is a waste of time, but then sometimes those are the same people who seem to love bunny trail running most. I don’t have the authority to get the discussion back on track but my boss, as well as the attendees, expects me to do it anyway. How can I do a better job at running this meeting? — Powerless in Poughkeepsie
You’re in a tough spot all right. You’re being expected to “manage” people superior to you. In many circumstances, you would be able to rely solely on your departmental expertise, but it sounds like in this circumstance that’s not enough. They expect you to manage the interpersonal dynamics of the meeting as well, which is hard even when dealing with peers and subordinates.
Here are a few suggestions designed to help you maximize the use of everyone’s time and put you in charge of running the meeting in a way they will appreciate and respect. These are just as useful whether you’re in the middle of the pecking order, or the CEO working with board members.
1. Arrange the agenda with two distinct sections: one to get top priority/logistical business out of the way quickly and a second one to ideate (i.e., let them create and run around in bunny trails). This will allow you to interrupt them politely during the business discussion to put off bunny trails until part two, allowing everyone to focus on the stuff that matters most. Perhaps you can get them all to agree that if they can’t stay for the bunny trail discussion it’s ok for them to leave? This might help people feel like they can use this meeting time wisely.
2. Meet/chat with them each briefly the day or two before the meeting to make sure they have everything on the agenda they need to be there. You can use these checkins to take care of anything on the agenda “offline” that the others in the room don’t need to be involved with and also to reinforce to them every week that there are two parts to the meeting. When they help you make the distinction between “priority business” and “bunny trails,” they will easily buy into your effort in the meeting to focus on bunny trails second.
3. When you start the meeting, stand up and take notes on a white board or easel pad that has those critical action items on it when the meeting starts. I know this is silly, but by physically getting taller and moving around with purpose you will naturally draw their attention. When the bunny trail part of the meeting happens, you can sit down, but feel free to jump up and put action items and outcomes on the board. This keeps you engaged as a key part of the discussion, but lets them run with the topics that interest them that week.
I’m sure there are other strategies, but these things should move you in the right direction. Good luck!
P.S. — Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!
P.P.S. — For more tips and exercises to help you take on leadership, even when you’re not in charge, check out our Leadership Development resources!
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