Regular meetings can be beneficial to your small business (if done right). Just because your business may be small, don’t under-estimate the importance of communication with meetings.
Welcome to episode 3 where we are going to talk about meetings. Yes, the dreaded business meeting. But don’t worry, I have some great tips for you to follow so you can make sure your business meetings don’t put folks to sleep, turn employees off to being engaged, or make you look like a knucklehead!
Now meetings can be very useful and there are different types of meetings. There are share-holder meetings, personnel meetings, progress meetings, Heck, you can have meetings about meetings. Trust me, I have been in those, and yes, they were at the Federal Government.
No matter why you are having the meeting, some simple rules apply; the meeting should be specific, you should only invite those absolutely needed, and you must understand what makes a meeting BAD! So you can avoid it.
In his book, Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business, Patrick Lencioni talks about four types of meetings:
- The Daily Check-in
- The Weekly Tactical
- The Monthly Strategic
- The Quarterly Off-Site
Here I want to talk about the first 3. We were already having daily check-ins and somewhat of a weekly tactical meeting to discuss promos and quick-fixes to things that popped up. For us we had to decide WHY we wanted to have a business (or staff) meeting each month. We asked ourselves what information was important enough to pull employees together once a month and sit down to review? This can be difficult. So here is what we did.
In his book Mr. Lencioni talks about the lack of contextual structure in meetings. The temptation is to throw everything including the kitchen sink in the meeting because you only meet occasionally so you have to talk about EVERYTHING! But you also have limited time. So what ends up happening (from what I have seen) is an abbreviated potpourri of information, or what I call a "pump and dump" session where one person spews the information and the rest get up and leaves with it.
So asking WHY is critical. We wrote down our answers to the question: "What is the most important thing to talk about?" Another way to ask this: "Of all the things we could discuss in one hour, [INSERTANSWER HERE] is the most critical!" So for our staff, we identified four critical aspects of the business, which we call our focus four:
- The Business
- The Facility
- The Employees
- The Customers
We flesh these out of course, but we just focus on the same four each meeting. We have a list of items to talk about under Business, such as: Sales, COGs, Labor Cost, etc. Under Facility we talk about machines, maintenance, upkeep, etc. For employees it's all about their performance, training, safety items, stuff like that. And for customers, we talk about feedback from customer surveys and trends we see within our market.
So what about marketing, advertising, social media, etc.? Well, the daily-check-ins and weekly tactical meetings should have produced specials, deals, etc. based on weather forecasts and what we were seeing day-to-day with sales numbers. What we talk about in the monthly strategic planning meeting is more about which specials worked, didn’t work, etc.
And we can develop a go-to list of deals/promos that we know our market likes. So, during the tactical discussions, when it is decided we need to run a special, we go to our list and use one. We do not try to figure out what is the best approach, how do we create one, etc. We already know. We captured that in the monthly strategic planning meeting. We "lean up" this process each month. Of course, when we started it was a lot of try-storming. But without the monthly tactical meeting to talk about lessons learned, we would repeat a lot of mistakes and we would not have learned from talking about them as a team.
Okay, so we defined the focus four, WHY it was important enough to take the time needed to meet, and the expected outcome of the meetings. The important thing here was that the monthly staff meeting in no way replaces the ongoing day-to-day check-ins or regular weekly tactical communications that take place between the owners and top-level management, and their communications down to store-level employees. That will always continue.
The monthly meeting is where we capture all of the work that was done from day-to-day, week-to-week and try to improve our systems as it relates to the focus four areas.
Question: From day-to-day or week-to-week, how do we know what is an item to talk about in the monthly strategic planning meeting? Whenever a strategic thought or idea pops up during our daily-check in or even the weekly tactical, we table that and bring it to the monthly meeting. You have to listen for these, though. Let me give you an example:
I ask the manager how the monthly inventory is going. He says something like, "well, it would be better if I had some sort of software tool to enter everything to calculate the costs of the products still in inventory instead of manually typing it into this spreadsheet and running the numbers". Or something to that effect.
To me, this is a strategic topic, to research inventory software tools and pricing. But it has nothing to do with the fact that the inventory still has to get done NOW. So I stop him and say:
"Ok, let's put that down as a topic for discussion in the monthly meeting. It sounds like it fits nicely under the Business Focus area, since it deals with inventory and cost control, plus it will be an investment going forward. But for now, let's keep track of inventory using the spreadsheet we have, and email it so we can calculate this months' COGs."
The reason for this separation of tactical and strategic discussions is important. It keeps us focused on what is immediate and does not let the tactical need for action get derailed because we were able to identify a strategic deficiency (or pass the buck). It's easy to say inventory would be nice if only we had a better tool. Great, but we don’t right now; we still need to do it. But we also have a forum to discuss improving. So it keeps us focused.
That's the reason we have the monthly strategic meeting; it's an opportunity to pull together what's happened during the month to strategically plan for better systems/operations. This is where we came up with recording some online training in-house, using Hootsuite for scheduled social media posts about customer offers and store events, or when we decided a weekly housekeeping audit would be done by the owners to provide feedback to management about operations when they are not there. Because these are all critical issues that impact the business in a fundamental way, it needs the time and attention to discuss and debate them. This cannot happen one-on-one in a daily check-in or even weekly tactical meeting.
This focus (tactical vs. strategic) also allows us to identify when a strategic meeting needs to happen out of cycle. If during the daily check-in or weekly tactical one of us identifies a major deficiency we can have what Patrick Lencioni calls an ad-hoc strategic meeting. This meeting will only tackle that which was identified that cannot wait until the next monthly meeting. We clear our schedules and meet to tackle the issue.
This has only happened once for us, but it was valuable. It kept us from making rash or half-baked decisions in a vacuum, and pulled the team together to handle it.
As for scheduling, we try to make the meeting for the same time of the month, like the first Monday. There are exceptions though, and that is to be expected. But discipline is needed here. We resist the urge for a team member to try and reschedule because they have personal thing scheduled. Like going to the gym, or wanting to go run an errand. If the team decided that day works best, that’s the day!
Most of our meetings take about an hour and a half. But the meetings should last long enough to adequately cover the topics needing to be discussed. Some folks have said meetings should only last 30 minutes, or no longer than an hour. But honestly, it needs to last as long as it realistically needs based on the topics.
The reason people push for the abbreviated meeting is that they do not understand the value of meetings, or leadership has not "sold" the value. Yet others may think their role is to simply listen. It is not. It is to actively engage in meaningful (and unfiltered) debate and discussion.
This can take some time, both to develop the trust needed amongst team members, and to get through a meeting once it develops. So it takes as long as it takes. Some folks use this as a reason to avoid meetings, or as an example of bad meetings.
A good leader will know when the meeting has exhausted its usefulness. Like the book explains, the solution to bad meetings is not to have fewer of them, but rather to have BETTER ones. Better meetings accelerate decision making and nix recurring topics or follow-on discussions outside the meeting cycle.
I worked with a client once that had a standing rule of "No Sidebars". He would not allow his staff to pull him to the side AFTER a meeting to discuss their pet topic. He said, "if you don’t bring it up in the meeting for the team to discuss, don’t bring it up at all." That stuck with me to this day. I will not allow anyone to think they are special enough to have their own meeting.
The same rule applies to those that think they are special enough to miss meetings altogether. I will occasionally get a request for the meeting 'agenda' ahead of time so they can see if they need to be there or not. So I do not prepare an agenda, per se. I follow what Lencioni suggests to use for the weekly tactical meetings, that is a real-time agenda.
I use the same approach for the strategic meeting each month. We all bring items we have been working on that fit into the focus four and are based on what we discussed in the last meeting. We hold each other accountable for those items to which we stated would be accomplished.
How this works is we open with each of us explaining what it was we accomplished/discovered in the past month based on what we said needed to be done in the previous meeting. Remember, for us everything has to fit into one of the focus four areas for the meeting.
We then go around the table and ask, "what does this mean going into this month?" We discuss next steps, or introduce new strategic planning items that we collected during the previous month. We break down items by placing them into one (sometimes multiple) of the focus four groups.
We identify who among us is best equipped to handle each item. We each have roles within the organization. I may handle program development, safety training and compliance; Jennifer would handle online marketing, crafting new promos, etc. This point is important. You need to have defined roles and responsibilities in the small business.
The old phrase "you have to wear many hats" in a small business gets taken out of context sometimes. Even a small team of 3 or 4 needs to have clear lines of responsibility in the business. More importantly, you need to define what each of you will NOT do, just as you need to spell out what each of you will be doing. It is important in small business because line staff can quickly get the impression no one knows what the other one is doing when each you come in and say different things about the same area of the business.
So once we spell out what needs to be done, we then determine a realistic list of things that can be accomplished by the next meeting. We have to commit to an action plan BEFORE the end of the meeting. It all gets written down. That sets up the agenda for the next meeting. We begin the same way, what did we get done? What does this mean going forward, so on. And that’s it! It keeps things moving forward, in a productive manner.
This approach is what works best for us. Whatever your goal is in having meetings, be sure that it is communicated to those that need to be present. Set up a regular time (within reason) and try not to use a canned agenda that simply rehashes what everyone already knows! Use this time to review possible actions needed moving ahead!
I challenge each of you to identify what is most important about your business that warrant a regular meeting, decide which team members should be involved, set up a time and get on with improving your business.