Playing To Win
Curating Meeting Experiences
An Essential Leadership Skill in the Modern Economy
As the business world evolves, the required skills of business leaders naturally evolve too. The required skills may well not be entirely new but a heightened capability in an existing skill is necessitated. I believe that skills in curating meetings of members of your team is in that category, and I have dedicated my 8th Year III Playing to Win Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece to Curating Meeting Experiences: An Essential Leadership Skill in the Modern Economy. You can find the previous 118 PTW/PI here.
What has Evolved?
Employee engagement has become harder to come by in the modern company. Levels of engagement are low and disengagement high. People feel lost in their increasingly gigantic organizations, with the median Fortune 500 company having grown 11.5X in real size over the past 60 years. Then COVID came and the majority of workers got used to a new normal — working remotely. Many became fond of important features of this new normal (elimination of daily commuting and more time with their loved ones).
Now company leaders want their people back and have called for a return to office (RTO) and their people aren’t responding well. They have in fact responded with the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting. Ordering workers back has become a substantially pyrrhic victory. Leaders wish it would be another way, but it isn’t, and it is never going to be. COVID taught employees something profound that they just aren’t going to forget.
And it produces a big adverse selection problem. Your most talented employees with lots of great employment choices will quit and the less talented ones with few if any alternatives will stay — and many of the latter will engage in Quiet Quitting.
Requirement of a Heightened Capability
In the proverbial good old days, the cost to the members of your team of you calling a meeting of your team — whether you were CEO or a manager well down the company hierarchy — was low. Your team was likely to be co-located, so walking to a nearby conference room was easy. Sure, many resulting meetings were a waste of time because they were not well-planned — hence the general dread by managers of meetings — but that was a cost that team members were game to bear.
But now, the cost is far higher. For many, it means driving in from the suburbs or doing a crosstown commute, just because you called an in-person meeting. The team members that you really want at the meeting (again the best ones who have lots of other options) either won’t come or will resent you for forcing them to travel from the comfort of their home-office set up.
That means that the heightened skill you must build is the capability to curate meeting experiences that cause your talent to want to be there; to be upset if they are left out of your meetings.
When one thinks of curators, the first type that comes to mind is the museum curator. On that front, think of The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) hiring a lifelong financial accountant to be its new curator. The new accountant/curator would look at the valuation of MOMA’s vast collection of paintings, only a fraction of which it can show at any time. Of course, having them in the museum vault doesn’t create any particular value, so the accountant-curator would design rooms for the lower value paintings in which the paintings are dense-packed in perfect rows, filling every inch of wall space to maximize amount of value displayed (kind of like cubicles for paintings). The rooms are organized by predominate color — one room of brown, another of blue, etc. Paintings that are too big to fit the grid system are trimmed down in size.
Then there are rooms for the medium value paintings. Here there are only two or three paintings per wall. There isn’t any trimming of size. But they are still organized by predominant color. Then there are rooms for relatively high value paintings. Here each painting gets a wall — but each entire room still has paintings of a single predominant color. Finally for the highest value paintings, they each get a room of their own with the biggest room going to the most valuable painting and down from there.
Think of the engagement of visitors to this version of MOMA. They will spend the whole time thinking WTF and get out as fast as they can.
While it is a somewhat fanciful thought experiment, the form of curation is not foreign to the average large modern company in which the driving force of curation is some combination of consistency, efficiency, and control.
If instead it was actual MOMA Senior Curator Paola Antonelli (who I had the pleasure to get to know when I was giving talks on The Design of Business at design conferences at which she also spoke), she would figure out how to create an engaging display of work that would captivate guests, connect them to the work, and leave them more knowledgeable and inspired.
Experience Curation in Modern Business
I think there is a debilitating deficit in the curation of meeting experiences in the modern company. A key driver of the deficit is that leaders haven’t caught up with the relatively fast changing demands for better meeting experiences by those asked to attend meetings, whether peers or subordinates. In the post-COVID economy, joint work efforts simply have to have their game upped in four ways:
1) Every meeting must have a clear purpose that is understood and that justifies an in-person gathering. I am sure most would argue that they always have a purpose for meetings. But this is a case of the current environment forcing the standard to rise. The purpose can’t be ‘to communicate a decision.’ Instead, send a group email. It can’t be ‘to achieve consensus.’ Instead, phone each person. To justify having a number of busy people come to one meeting room at a prescribed time and spend one or more hours in that room, you have to have a purpose that requires in-person, real-time interaction to generate the desired outcome. That is a high bar. Very few goals require in-person, real-time interaction. You better have that reason because if you don’t, the desired attendees will either make excuses to skip the meeting or will grudgingly attend and resent you for needlessly inconveniencing them.
2) Every person at the meeting must have a fulfilling and interesting role. If they don’t, you shouldn’t be wasting their time, forcing them to sit through a meeting in which they don’t have a role. If a person doesn’t, don’t invite the person. If the role isn’t fulfilling and interesting, it is back to the same problem — the person will skip the meeting or attend and resent you for the inconvenience you imposed.
3) Make sure the role is actually realized — not left to chance. The first two items are in the category of pre-meeting curation. This one involves in-meeting curation. If you have called the meeting and invited only colleagues with a specific role to play, you need to make sure that each person is called upon to perform that role. This is not a task you need to take on yourself. You can arrange for someone else to fulfill this task as the facilitator. However, you and the facilitator must have very clear understanding of every person’s role in the meeting. By the way, attendees will play additional unanticipated roles in the meeting. You can’t and shouldn’t attempt to script it. But minimum roles need to be fulfilled, or the person in question, whose role was not called upon, will ask (silently or out loud): why the hell was I invited?
4) Make the meeting engaging. This involves partly pre-meeting and partly in-meeting curation. Take the time in advance to think about how you can make the meeting engaging. Most aren’t. Most are dull as dishwater because little thought was put into making them otherwise either before or during. That inattention is getting evermore problematic. Colleagues are not going to commute to attend meetings that they know are going to be dull and boring. Most won’t tell you that is the reason why they aren’t attending. They will make up an excuse — and if you had a specific role for them, it won’t be fulfilled.
However, if you curate meeting experiences in the above four ways, invitees won’t miss your meetings for any reason. They will cancel or reschedule other obligations to attend your meetings. They will happily make it the one reason to come into the office that day or week. And they will feel they are lucky to have you to work with.
Regardless of where you are in an organization, you will need to get better at curating experiences for those who work with and for you. Poorly curated meetings diminish your moral authority by getting a low implicit Net Promoter Score for your meetings and causing invitees to simply opt out. Instead, build a positive spiral of attendance and engagement by investing in the four elements of curation above.
This may feel like a lot of added work for you. In some ways it is. Most leaders currently spend precious little time on these curation activities. Similarly, thirty years ago, leaders spent little time on information technology and ten years ago they spent zero on cybersecurity. Neither inattention is an affordable luxury now because times have changed. The same holds for meeting curation: times have changed, and investment of effort is required.
The good news is that there is a huge source of currently used time that can be repurposed into making meetings better. That source is useless meetings. By my estimate, at least half of business meetings are useless wastes of time — and many occur solely because the precursor meeting accomplished little or nothing, necessitating a follow up meeting.
Look at your calendar and aim for a 50% reduction in meetings. Repurpose the time you would have spent in low-value meetings to make the other half tremendously valuable. You will find that you won’t suffer at all from missing the 50% that you canceled. And going forward, you will see that if you restrict future meetings to ones for which you have a clear and compelling purpose, a role for everyone that you ensure is fulfilled, and an engaging design, you won’t need nearly as many meetings to manage the sphere of activities you are charged with running.
Meeting experience curation is a skill you will have to develop, because few people have worked on it, and it is rarely taught. I believe that it is a skill that anyone can build, and I have seen CEO clients that are awesome at it — and it pays of wonderfully for them. Their people love working for them and being productive alongside them. You should aspire to a level of leadership on this front such that your people will trust that if you call a meeting, it will be productive and engaging for each of them, regardless of the subject.