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Gather Round The Table

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Besides all the excessive forms of communication we have assaulting us on a day-to-day basis (land lines, cell phones, e-mails, Blackberries, Blueberries, whatever Berries, etc.), I guess the next biggest consumer of our limited time is meetings.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with meetings; very often a sit-down meeting “eyeball-to-eyeball” with someone is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. What bugs me is when people waste everybody’s time by not being prepared for a meeting, or for waxing philosophical, rather than getting down to business and moving on.

It drives me up a wall when someone turns what should be a ten-minute meeting into an hour and a half of aimless chatter, leading indecisively nowhere. I just sat through one of these yesterday, which is probably why the burr is still in my saddle.

It should have been a 20-minute progress meeting with a new outsourced contractor. We could have sat down, outlined the successes and shortcomings thus far, ended with handshakes, and gone on with our day. Instead, we listened to the meeting organizer pontificate about his favorite football team and childhood memories, and relate off-color jokes, with intermittent periods of business being conducted. One hour and 15 minutes later, I excused myself, saying I had another meeting, but really it was so I wouldn’t strangle someone.

Contrasting Events

One of the most difficult transitional challenges I faced when I retired from 20 years in the Marine Corps was how meetings were conducted in 1st Civilian Division.

First, there was the idea of showing up at or before the time the meeting was supposed to begin. My dad was the first to teach me to arrive at least 10 minutes early anywhere I had to be; my drill instructor punctuated that lesson with scores of pushups for my being even a millisecond late.

I’ll never forget my first week on the job when I attended staff meetings at city hall. If the meeting was at 8:30 a.m., people would begin wandering in by 8:29, and by 8:40 there would be a quorum so the meeting could begin. There would be idle chatter, “What’d ya’ do last night” stuff, and eventually we would get to the actual meeting.

Contrast this with what we called “stand ups” in the Corps. The boss would generally be seated. His subordinates would enter his office or hooch, depending on whether in garrison or the field, and remain standing. The boss would tell subordinates what they needed to know to get their jobs done; they in turn would report anything of importance. The meeting was over in ten minutes tops.

Respect Others’ Time

In my opinion, any routine staff meeting involving three or more people that takes longer than 30 minutes is too long. If there are 10 or more people, it might go an hour, but no longer. People tend to lose focus after that, and experience diminishing returns on investment … something we can all identify with these days.

As the “Meeting Guru” on “Effectivemeetings.com” reminds: “Weekly meetings don’t have to be hour-long events. Cover the information that needs to be addressed, and then get on with your week. Attendees will appreciate you for valuing their time.”

A good meeting needs a person who is in charge and conscientious of everyone’s time. You have all types of people around a table at any given meeting. Every one has a story to tell. The effective meeting leader makes sure that no single person gets so far into his or her story as to waste everyone else’s time. If information is important but only pertains to one or two people, the meeting leader instructs them to meet afterwards then moves on to the next person.

Another thing that rubs me wrong is when a meeting is held just to have a meeting, while the real business could have been handled with a two-minute phone call or a quick e-mail. What really irritates me is someone sending me an e-mail, then calling me to tell me an e-mail has been sent, then suggesting a meeting to discuss it. I know I’m not the only one this has happened to!

Guidelines For Calling A Meeting

When is a meeting needed? Again, our guru states there are four tips to determine if a meeting is going to be worth your time (unless the boss calls it; at which point discretion becomes the better part of valor).

1. Has a goal been set to define a purpose for the meeting?

2. Has an agenda been created ahead of time to give attendees an opportunity to prepare?

3. Will the appropriate people be at the meeting so issues can be resolved without holding yet another meeting?

4. Could the information be more effectively delivered in a memo or e-mail?

If you can answer a definitive “yes” to the first three and “no” to the last, it will probably be a needed and worthwhile meeting.

Meetings are a necessary evil in our working lives and even at home. I have “calendar meetings” with my family so we can figure out who’s supposed to be where and when for the next week. We all lead busy lives and are bombarded with far too much information. Meetings are sometimes the only way to get on the same page.

As I write this, I am looking at my calendar for today and notice I have nearly back-to-back meetings all day … and it’s Monday! So, let’s just hope most of the folks calling these meetings have looked at an effective meeting Web site or a similar educational resource so they’ll keep them short and to the point!

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail dls@peachtree-city.org

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