The ATOM Group's CEO to Judge 50 on Fire

As leaders, it is our responsibility to guide our teams’ behavioral characteristics. We have to observe small details for the warning signs they are. Guiding change doesn’t have to be a full-fledged HR-sponsored culture project, though. It can be common sense, and as simple as tiny corrections that show your colleagues and clients that you care. These changes can be made at any level and don’t require high levels of organizational authority; you’ll need no VP sponsor to address what we’re going to talk about. I’m talking about taking control of your own actions, nothing more. And, yes, it will create change over time.

If you invited me to your home for dinner, at the end of the meal, do you think I’d stand up, and slide my chair across the floor until it hit the wall and then leave it there? No certainly not. You’d think that was rude—and you’d be right.

I spend much of my day in conference rooms—whether it's with clients, planning events, coaching teams, or receiving a project update—and I’ve noticed something. You stopped caring. Pushing in your chair is what you do when you get up from a table. Any table. When you don’t push in your chair, you signal to everyone in the room that you’re not focused on how you affect the team or how much you care about the space you’re in. It’s not only a matter of manners, it’s a matter of respect—and respect is one of the keys to building trust. If I didn’t respect your home or your office, would you respect me? Would you expect me to respect you?

Solution: Push your chair in. (How hard was that?)

As a consultant, I sit in a lot of late-night meetings. I was in one recently where a team from a client company was giving a short presentation about an ongoing negotiation. One person was on a cellphone reading email, two people were on laptops busily working away, and two of us were looking at each other marveling at the level of disengagement in the room. It was past 8PM. We were all engaged enough to keep pushing into the night, but not engaged enough to focus on what we’re doing.

I can’t help but think, “why are we here if everyone has something else more important to be doing?” I stop the presentation and ask one of the people using a laptop what they are doing. “I'm doing work,” he replies. Work? When did this meeting stop counting as work? When did bringing our best minds together to collaborate on a challenge become less important than “other work”? When did the power of our collective talent, the tremendous insights that can be achieved through collective focus and deep communication with your peers, become less impactful to a client than this “other work”?

The issue isn’t that they had something more important to do; it was that they don’t see meetings as an opportunity. They see them as a hindrance, a necessary evil that exists between them and accomplishing their individual work.

I believe that the collective focus of our professional minds is the most valuable and most deeply impactful force multiplier we can offer our clients, our peers, and our professional selves. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

If you’re saying: “My meetings aren’t like that. We don’t focus on deeply impactful ideas. We’re not problem-solving. We are working on project details and I don’t have an active part of that. But I’m afraid if I don’t go, I’ll miss something…”

I understand.

Then I’d challenge you to answer the question of why you’re having meetings. Is a “meeting” just your go-to tool for addressing every problem, concern or question? It shouldn’t be.

Here is an example: Why are you using a meeting in 2017 to get a project status update? Seems like maybe there is a better way to do that. (See: updatezen, Wrike, Basecamp, Trello.) Meetings are a chance to leverage the human connection, come together as a team to debate, discuss, and problem solve. They are really terrible for status updates. Even in a project status meeting where you may not have an active role in every bit of the conversation, if you attend the meeting and think you can multitask and still add the level of value I expect—you’re wrong.

The science is clear. Humans have an extremely low capacity for simultaneous thought. Rub your stomach and pat your head. Sure. Give me best-in-class feedback about a technical design while reading your email? Perhaps not. When it comes to complex tasks, what we call “multitasking” is really the rapid switching between different streams of thought and engagement. Simply put, when you're switching in and out of focus on the meeting (even rapidly, even efficiently), there is a part of the meeting where you are not focused.

If it’s important enough to have a meeting about, we deserve your focus.

If we distill the problem, there are two parts: 1) You may be overusing meetings as a tool to solve problems. When you do this, you dilute the potency of meetings. The value should be the collection of human thought. However, if you dilute the purpose of the meeting through overuse, you may end up removing the thought part, which inherently removes the individual human contribution. And 2) You aren’t creating a meeting atmosphere where people can focus.

Solution: Remove your distractions. Stop yourself from overusing meetings.

An undivided focus in a world where everything is so “shiny’ presents a challenge. As humans, we fail in the presence of “shiny” things. I recommend you adopt a rule that is working in schools around the country: Cellphone Jail. You don’t need a physical jail. Just put your cellphones out of arm's reach in the middle of the table. That is your symbol that you value the time of those in the room with you. It is a reminder of your commitment to focus—and excellence.

You don’t have to create a rule or a policy. Just do it with your phone. Set the standard. Explain why you're doing it. I’m willing to bet others will follow.

The second solution is to stop calling meetings as your go-to tool. I work with many companies that have a “meeting-heavy culture.” This is most often due to lack of distributed authority or an overuse of consensus building.

Note: Consensus building is a valuable posture when solving complex problems, but is too often used for simple or routine tasks. Consensus should not have to be built to make all decisions.

Let’s be real for a moment. I know you can’t change the whole culture. The CEO is not going to make an announcement with your new rules for when to call a meeting and when not to. The key here, though, is to stop being part of the problem and start being a part of the solution. Call a meeting when the collective investment of all of those salaries and hours is truly required to solve a worthy problem. Similarly, decline meetings where you’re not going to participate or where you are too busy to focus on what’s happening at the meeting. Sometimes you do have to prioritize individual contributions over meetings; continue to do that and explain to the organizer what you’re doing. Don’t sit in a meeting for an hour trying to do other work. It’s distracting to the meeting and the other work will suffer, too. Lose-lose.

While we’re at it, the default length of a meeting is 30 minutes, not an hour. Change the default on your calendar. Most 1-hour meetings I sit in waste the first 10 minutes and don't drive as hard as they should because the group subconsciously knows there’s more space to fill.

So while you may not think you have the authority to change the culture of the entire company, authority actually isn’t how cultures are changed. They are changed through individual actions that reverberate. They are changed by thoughtful changes in personal behavior—and you do have the power to control your own actions.

I challenge you to put some humanity back into your meetings. Set the default to 30 minutes instead of an hour. Set your cellphone in the center of the table to let everyone know you’re here for them and not for something else. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Truly connecting with your teammates to solve problems is the single most potent tool you have in your arsenal. Decline meetings you don’t need to go to. (Really, it’s ok.) Respect your teams. Respect is a building block of trust and trust is how we get things done.

And, above all, push in your chair.

By: Jason Sgro

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The ATOM Group, www.theatomgroup.com, combines a rare blend of business acumen and purposeful technical application. ATOM focuses on serving clients through technical projects and reserved capacity engagements for mobile and web software development, enterprise applications, business intelligence, compliance and security along with business strategy, technical leadership consulting, and corporate training.