Making Meetings Matter: Distributed Leadership

business people in meeting

Last week I offered ten tips for making a meeting flow smoothly (“10 Tips for Leading Meetings That Matter”). They were clearly directed at meeting leaders who have responsibilities for designing, convening, and directing meetings.


Bob Leek, Deputy Chief Information Officer for Multnomah County, Oregon, responded to that article by observing that, while meeting leaders are nominally “in charge” of their meetings, individual participants also contribute directly to the quality of the meeting conversations.

Bob’s suggestions for participant leadership are so compelling that I want to share them more broadly. Here, with only minor editing to clarify his perspectives, is Bob’s advice for meeting participants:

Good, easy list of tips to follow. I’d also encourage a Top 10 list focused on meeting participants. Those in leadership positions should know better than to create a bad meeting, but invitees need to be empowered to not suffer or tolerate poor meetings. Do that, and everyone gets involved in creating great, purposeful meetings.

Here’s a start:

No agenda, don’t attend – vote with your right to know what the meeting is for, and if the basic principle of having [and publishing] an agenda isn’t even met, decline the invite.

No role, don’t attend – if you are invited, but it is unclear why you are going, decline the invite. No one should be held accountable for avoiding wasted time; in fact, it should be celebrated when waste is avoided.

Invited but can’t/didn’t attend, expect a summary – as an invitee, someone thought you should be there; but, if you didn’t attend, you should expect a summary so you can keep up, and if you don’t get one, you should ask for one.

Poor execution, speak up. If a meeting isn’t going well, declare a Point of Order, state the situation that you see, and get the meeting on track. Suffering a poor meeting is as much on the participant as on the leader.

Still not better, close the meeting. If a meeting doesn’t improve after an attempted intervention, declare a Move to Adjourn; if others agree, they’ll welcome an opportunity to agree to adjourn and reset to a later date.

Didn’t like the meeting, talk to the organizer. After a meeting, if it didn’t meet expectations, participants have an obligation to contact the organizer; suffering for the same issues meeting after meeting means you, the participant, are part of the problem.

Celebrate meeting improvements – take a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to celebrate any improvements made from previous meetings, especially if they are repeating/standing meetings; people feel better if they are part of making improvements, and who doesn’t mind getting a kudo or two?

There are probably many more. Leadership includes creating the environment and support to improve meetings together. It is not just on the leader of the meeting alone. Try it, be humble, and it may get you, as a leader, a thank you.

Thank you Bob! Well said.

Here’s another observation and story from Bob, from a private email he shared with me after I asked for his permission to reprint his insights:

It is hard enough being a leader.  Some do it very well; others welcome the input and feedback as they grow in their skills; some may struggle forever. The topic of successful meetings is as much about the participants as the organizer.

I was at a restaurant tonight, and at the table next to us, there were three people lamenting how poor the meeting they attended today was. I didn’t know them. But what I distinctly heard was an acknowledgement that they felt powerless to make a difference as meeting participants.

I wanted to intervene, to implore them to make a difference. They talked about how “If he would have just done this”, or “If he was really interested in our feedback, he would do this.”

Participants can make a difference.  But they need to be empowered to it.  One of the few remaining powerful dynamics of expert-to-novice myths is the relationship between meeting leaders and their invitees. Empower the participants, be humble as the leader, and watch the waste be reduced!

I have only one brief addendum to Bob’s final comment. While I am a strong advocate of power-sharing, I don’t think anyone can truly “empower” someone else. True power cannot be given; it must be taken. After all, if a leader gives power to the participants, he or she could theoretically take it away again.

If it is to Be, It is up to MeThat said, meetings leaders (indeed, all leaders) can certainly say and do things that communicate whether they are more interested in being “in control” or in establishing a collaborative context with widely shared leadership responsibility. I just want to emphasize that meeting participants have far more power (for good or bad) to influence meeting processes and products than most of them realize.
As Bob suggests, meeting participants can make a huge difference. Whether they recognize it or not, they are as accountable for the quality of their meeting experiences as the meeting designer/leader is.

What are your experiences? What additional actions can meeting participants take to enhance the quality and the value of the meetings they attend?

Effective meeting leadership behaviors are described in more detail in Chapter Four of my most recent book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. I am on a crusade to make every meeting matter. Life is too short to waste your time in unproductive, boring meetings that don’t make any difference at all.

Contact me today for a free 20-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. To explore what is possible, please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter. And when you are ready to transform your meetings, pick up the phone and call me at +1 510.558.1434.