Getting out of Meeting Hell: As a top-level executive

Posted on Sun 03 October 2021 in blog

Please have a look at the introduction for background, for applicable disclaimers, and for information about the specific environments this series talks about.

This part of this series is for you if you are a chief executive officer, a managing director, executive director, or whatever else the top-level role in your organization may be. This means that you have people who report to you, but you don't report to anyone in the day-to-day operations of the company — even though you may, of course, be answerable to your board of directors or your investors, or some oversight body.

So, you realize that

  • a lot of your company spends a lot of time in useless meetings,
  • they're often forced to sit through 90 minutes of staring into cameras when they could instead have spent 5 minutes reading an email,
  • people's productivity suffers badly because they are constantly being interrupted.

And this is badly affecting you, personally, as well. So for the benefit of yourself and everyone else in the organization, you want to change things toward being less interrupt-driven, less synchronous, more productive, and healthier.

Now, I've got some bad news for you.

  1. In contrast to your employees at any level, it is much harder for you to pull the Leave option than it is for them.
  2. In contrast to most of your mid-level managers, no matter how hard you try, you may never escape being in a lot of meetings, and being in a lot of unpleasant meetings to boot. Chances are, whenever stuff is exploding, boiling up, or otherwise going bonkers, you'll be roped in to calm things down, make a decision, or soothe a high-profile customer who is conniptiously trying to convince you that your SLA is akin to the Constitution and that an engineer guilty of causing a violation ought to hang for treason.

But, and this is the good news to balance the bad, if you manage to pull the rest of the company out of meeting hell, life is going to get way better for you, too.

So, obviously, there'll be a lot for you to Learn. If you've never led an organization that was distributed and asynchronous by default, there's a lot to unpack, understand, and overcome when it comes to turning one that isn't, into one that is.

But your most important role at the top of the organization is this:

Lead.

And by that I mean lead by example, and also lead by policy.

Here are a few ways you can lead by example:

  • Write. Particularly when you want to communicate something to the whole company. All-hands video streams? [stage whisper] Everyone hates those. Meeting invites saying "we'll anounce something important"? Just write an email saying the important thing, and then ask people to send you questions by a deadline. And publicly commit yourself to a deadline by which they can expect answers.

  • Take no shortcuts. If you're setting up communications rules for everyone, live by them yourself. There's a bad, hidden cost in skirting around them.

  • Make a point of always giving context when pinging someone in chat.

  • Quit calling people without warning — you can't convey the context of the call without them answering. A cold call is the ultimate naked ping.

  • Generally, cut back on synchronous, realtime communications. They always interrupt people, and interruptions are expensive. Think about how much money you'll lose from someone not having a brilliant idea because you pinged them about some technicality in the company chat while they were deeply immersed in a complex problem. (Also, think about how much money you might have already lost that way.)

  • Insist on agendas being drawn up and meeting notes being kept (and both circulated to anyone who needs the information) for every meeting you are asked to attend. Write an agenda for every meeting you call or chair. If you have a group that meets regularly, appoint a different person from the group as a scribe each time. Do not ask a person to volunteer. (If you do, chances are that one person in the group will be typecast as the scribe for all such meetings. I call such an unfortunate person a scrapegoat. You don't want scrapegoats.)

Then, here are ways you can lead by policy:

  • Hire professional writers. (In the software industry, tech writers come to mind.) Not because you want those people to be scrapegoats, but because professional writers can massively move your organization forward in efficiency of written expression, document organization, and clarity of communications. Make them a hiring priority. Pay them handsomely — good tech writers can make good money freelancing; you'll need to make them a pretty compelling offer to consider giving up some of that freedom.

  • Ram a stake in the ground making clear to everyone you will not tolerate corporate surveillance or invasions of privacy. Any attempt to introduce an "always on camera" policy should be grounds for reprimanding the manager that instigated it.

  • Insist on the procurement of tools that take distributed, asynchronous work into account. A video conferencing system that values surveillance over privacy is not one your company should throw money at. A hiring platform that requires specifying an "office location" for every role, and has no provisions for remote positions, isn't either. Neither is a chat platform hosted by a company whose sole chance at long-term success is to pull all corporate communications into synchronous chat. Yes, these judgments require technical expertise. If this is something you don't have because you consider yourself a "non-technical" person, I have something to read for you.

There's another thing that you might be inclined toward doing: declaring meeting-free days, as in making it a policy that no meetings are to be scheduled on Wednesdays. I think of that as very much a stop-gap measure that's often done out of sheer despair. Sure, you want your people to have meeting-free days, but you actually want them to have meeting days, with meetingless days being the norm, rather than the exception. I think you're better off gradually replacing your meeting-addicted managers with ones that are accustomed to distributed and asynchronous work.

Finally, and this may be a bitter pill to swallow: getting to distributed and asynchronous is infinitely harder if you have built a "flat" organization. If every one of your managers has 20-30 direct reports, they will feel utterly overwhelmed at the thought of staying in asynchronous communication with every one of them, not to mention the fact that it's damn near impossible for them to convince that many people at one time to adopt a new way of collaboration.

This is one of the many, many ways in which flat organizations fail to scale, but this gives you the opportunity to fix two issues at the same time. If you've got one manager that's actively promoting meeting hell that is currently making life miserable for 20 people, you can split that team up into 4, and hire 3 team leads that know how to work asynchronously and distributed (or promote people who have that sort of experience and want to step up). Then, in the one remaining team with the unreformed meeting addict, things can go three ways:

  • The one "traditional" team sees how things go in the other teams, and they quickly coax their team lead into doing things the new way, or
  • they all ask to be transferred, or
  • (the worst-case scenario) the one meeting-addicted manager continues to annoy everyone, and they all leave. That's bad, and a failure of judgment (that manager should probably have been let go first), but losing 4 good people, as difficult as that might be, is probably “better” than losing 20.

As a final thought, please take a moment to put yourself in other people's shoes, and understand what options they have with being stuck in meeting hell. Whether it's your line managers or your regular employees, they both have the option to just chuck in their notice and leave, and leave they will, if they're sufficiently deep in meeting hell. They have plenty of opportunities.

So lead by example, and lead by policy. Do things right, but more importantly do the right things.


This article concludes the series — for now. I am guessing that people reading this will have opinions, air their grievances, and share feedback. Those usually give me good thinking material to dwell on, so I’ll probably have an additional installment based on reader feedback at some point.