Ten Things: Running an Effective Staff Meeting

Whether you run a small team of seven or you are in charge of a sprawling international-based 200+ legal department, you will need to have regular staff meetings.  Unfortunately, staff meetings have an inherent tension.  On one hand, people in the legal department want to know what’s going on in the department, the company and the industry you operate in.   On the other hand, people want another meeting about as much as they want a root canal.  The tricky part is balancing these opposing views and running a staff meeting that is both informative and interesting (i.e., one that people actually look forward to attending).

I have run a lot of meetings in my day (and I have also attended a lot of meetings).  Over the years, I learned a few things that help make for an informative and interesting staff meeting (as well as some things that make for uninformative and dull meetings).  This edition of “Ten Things” will set out some ideas to help you run a great staff meeting (and these ideas will work for small group meetings as well):

1. What is the purpose of the meeting?  You need to figure out “why” you want to have the staff meeting.  Is it simply to pass information along to your team?  Do you want to use it to bring your team together and increase cooperation/interaction?  Is it an opportunity to teach new skills?  Most likely it will be a combination of several things but it is important that you spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish.  It will also depend somewhat on who attends the meetings.  My meetings included the entire department (lawyers, paralegals, admins, etc.).  If you have an inclusive meeting, you need to think about the different skill sets and interests that will be in the room.  Thinking out the “why” will help you structure your meeting and the agenda.  Moreover, as you go forward, it is important that you tell your team what you want to accomplish with the meeting, i.e., set the table so they understand why the meeting is important and why they are being asked to attend.  Be sure new people joining the department know the purpose of the meeting as well as they come onto the team.

2. Meeting logistics.  Next, decide how often and when to have your meeting.  I think once a month is best (but, it depends on your department/company culture somewhat as well).  Use a fixed point, e.g., the “second Thursday” of every month, so everyone knows the general rhythm of the meeting over the course of the year.  When you set your date, be thoughtful about other meetings/activities that occur regularly that could conflict with yours.  For example, a company-wide “town hall,” regular CLE sessions, business unit meetings that your attorneys may attend, etc.  Similarly, you don’t want your staff meeting to be on the same day as another long mandatory meeting as then you basically cede most of the day to meetings vs. getting stuff done.  Mondays and Fridays are typically not great days to have a staff meeting given the large number of conflicts that arise on those days.  Pick a meeting room that is large enough to comfortably hold everyone and that has a good speaker phone and projector/screen.  Be sure to reserve the room well in advance (for the full year) and have a standing calendar invite prepared and sent to everyone in the department with the room, time, links, and other meeting details.  Use the same room every time if possible.  Select a time for the meeting that makes sense for your department.  We had a number of internationally-based colleagues so we held the meeting in morning (Central Time) which is mid-afternoon in Europe.  Unfortunately, it was pretty late for our freinds in Asia but that is something that cannot be helped.  Do the best you can with the scheduling and shoot for what’s best for the most people.  Finally, figure out how long you want the meeting to be.  An hour is ideal.  Ninety minutes is okay.  Anything over 90 minutes is not a good idea.  We set ours for 90 and then I tried like mad to keep it to an hour.  That way I have some flexibility if it ran long, but usually I was able to give people back some time (which is always appreciated!).

3.  Have an agenda. Never free-lance your staff meeting.  Go in with a set written agenda that follows the same basic contours every time.  This will keep your meeting focused, purposeful and on schedule.  At the end of this post, I set out the agenda (annotated) I typically used.

4.  Solicit ideas/topics/questions from your team in advance of the meeting:  A week or more before the meeting, ask your team what they would like to see covered (in addition to whatever items you already have teed up).  Not only will it make the meeting more compelling because you will be addressing things your team wants to hear about, you will gain insights into what’s on their mind generally which will make you a better manager.  Also, be sure you have a way for people to ask questions anonymously in advance of the meeting, i.e., if they are not comfortable asking a question during the meeting or sending a question directly to you, they can send it to one of your directs or your admin with the knowledge that only the question (and not the ID of the sender) will be given to you to respond to during the meeting.

5.  Use technology. The key to an engaging meeting is having an interesting presentation.  If your meeting only consists of you reading off of a script to people sitting in the room, you have already lost.  As technology developed, I incorporated it into our staff meetings.  Some things worked, some things did not – but we had fun trying.

  • First, (if you have folks who are not in the office) have a good speaker phone and microphones.  People need to be able to hear you or whomever is speaking. Bad speaker phone = bad meeting. Be sure that the people calling in mute their lines to limit background noise and be sure people in the room don’t shuffle papers near the microphones.
  • Second, use PowerPoint to present and track your agenda (and incorporate lots of pictures and/or other media).  People like to follow along visually with the speaker.  A well laid out and colorful PPT accomplishes this goal.  There are dozens of pre-set themes and templates for PPT available for free either in the tool or online.  Definitely use a “theme” or template.  Don’t use “black and white”.  If you’re not sure how to use a theme or template, ask around the department or the company to see if someone can help you.  I tried to use the least amount of text possible and incorporate as many pictures, clip art, pdf’s, photos, sound clips, movie clips, etc.  For one meeting I used only pictures and sound and had no text at all (I just spoke to the pictures).  You can get great pictures and clip art, etc. for any topic or agenda item simply by typing in whatever it is you’re looking for in Bing, Google or Yahoo! and selecting “images”.  YouTube has great stuff too. And you can convert just about any document you have (court order, intranet page, etc.) into a pdf that can be used in the PPT.  Use your imagination and have some fun.
  • Third, use WebEx or LyncServer, or GoToMeeting to webcast your meeting and allow people working remotely to see your PPT presentation (way better than just listening to you talk on the phone).
  • Fourth, use the live video feature of WebEx, LyncServer or GoToMeeting so people working remotely can “see” you as you talk (and you can see them if you have them turn on their cameras – which is always interesting to do!).  Adding video streaming is probably the best thing you can do to make a staff meeting engaging for those who are not able to attend it in person.  When we did this at my old company, the team loved it.

6.  Think about who will speak.  Determine for each meeting who is going to do the presenting or talking.  This depends on the purpose of your staff meeting, i.e., what are you trying to accomplish?  I think the most boring staff meeting is one where you “go around the table” and everyone tells everyone else what they are working on.  It takes way too long, it’s boring, and people tune out.  The best meetings we had consisted of the main speaker (usually me as GC), a guest speaker from the business (HR, CTO, CFO, etc.) – not all the time but several times a year, the heads of different groups within legal discussing one (or at most two) important items their teams were working on, and then a short 5-10 minute presentation on a “go deep” topic of interest to the department (and alternating who presented from among the lawyers in the department).  Having only one person speaking can get a bit monotonous, so try to have at least one other speaker during your meeting (and nothing wrong with calling on someone to speak during the meeting either).

7.  Test everything before the meeting Nothing kills your meeting faster than a technical glitch.  I tried to set aside 30 minutes before the meeting started to get everything set up, test the phone, test the projector, test the WebEx connection and video feed, get the room lighting and temperature to the right levels, etc.  When you are booking your room, be sure to book the extra time for getting the room set up correctly before the meeting starts (otherwise you are standing in the hallway while someone else’s meeting winds down and then rushing to get your meeting up and running).  Additionally, I had a back-up of the PPT on a flash drive in case my laptop crashed or locked up and my admin had her laptop ready to go if we needed to switch over because something happened to mine.  You will not be able to eliminate all glitches every time (as I learned repeatedly), but you will generally have a smooth and seamless/professional meeting if you spend some time up front getting the room and the technology ready.

8.  Solicit feedback about the meeting regularly.    Ask your team what’s working with your meeting, what’s not, what did they like, what would they like to see changed or added?  Is the technology working?  Can everyone hear the speakers and see the video feed?  I did this regularly after most meetings (and via a yearly survey to my team).  I especially sought the input of those who were based outside the U.S. or worked in a remote office who had to listen over the phone and watch the video feed.  Your team will appreciate you asking.  One trick I used was for one meeting I had everyone dial in and view the webcast (vs. anyone meeting in person).  I got a lot of really useful feedback and everyone who normally attended the meeting in person learned how difficult it can be to participate remotely (and were more sensitive to that when we went back to the regular meeting format).

9.  Evolve/Change the meeting over time.  Once you get the feedback, use it.  My first staff meetings were pretty dull: lots of me simply reading from my notes, lots of “go around the table.”  Over time, and from listening to my team, I received plenty of great ideas and I tried to incorporate those into the meeting, for example spending 60 seconds to highlight a new technology or app that would be of use/interest to the department or holding the meeting from a remote office when I was traveling.  We tried a lot of different things in my staff meetings, some worked and some failed spectacularly.  But, I was never afraid to try something new and add the stuff that worked and ditch the stuff that didn’t or had gotten stale.  And be sure to tell your team when you make changes based on their feedback so they know you are listening and that their suggestions are important to you.

10. Make the meeting important.  This is almost as important as creating an interesting presentation.  You need to be sure that your staff meeting is important to you and your team.  I used to say this is one time every month when we’d all come together as a team to discuss things and learn from each other.  For that reason alone it was an important meeting.  Make sure as leader you stick to the schedule (and if you absolutely have to miss a meeting that you reschedule it vs. canceling it).  Likewise, your team needs to understand that the meeting is not something they can blow off.  Conflicts will arise but make sure your team understands that the meeting is important and attendance is not optional and can be missed only for good cause.  They should not intentionally schedule other meetings or phone calls during the department meeting, and they should try to get meetings they are invited to set to a different time if they conflict with the department meeting and if possible.   Good meetings are meetings where people feel they need to be there because it’s important (vs. just going through the motions and marking time).  If you treat the meeting as important, it will rub off on your team.

*****

Meetings are a fact of life in the corporate world. There is no better way to communicate within your department and to gauge in real time the pulse and mood of your team.  No matter how well run and informative your meetings are, people will gripe about having to attend.  But, they will gripe louder if they feel left out of knowing what’s going on in the company or the department or if they do not have a regular opportunity to engage with other members of the department.  Your job is take the time and make the effort to create a meeting that is useful, informative, and interesting.  The above is just a start, but if you give it the time it deserves you will be able to create the right kind of staff meeting for your team.

Sterling Miller

(If you find this blog useful, please pass along to colleagues or friends. “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. You can find this blog and all past posts at http://www.TenThings.net or www.sterlingmiller2014.wordpress.com)

January 30, 2015

Sample Legal Department Staff Meeting Agenda

Welcome

Review the company’s high-level strategic goals for the current year, and go over legal’s high-level strategic goals for the current year [keeps people aligned on what’s important]

Administrative items

  • Special announcements (babies, awards, etc.)
  • Anniversaries and birthdays
  • Upcoming events (in legal, at the company, etc.)
  • Other Misc.

[when thinking about upcoming events, etc. – don’t be U.S.-focused only, especially if you have an internationally based team]

What’s going on with the Department [briefly discuss several big deals, developments, lawsuits, etc.]

  • Direct Reports speak (5 mins each)

What’s going on with the Company [important news, financial information, point people to intranet site, etc.]

What’s going on with the Industry [big news and developments outside the company that affect the company or the department]

Recognition

  • Team photos [I asked my team to share photos of things they were doing – together, in their free time, at company events, etc.  Was a nice way of bringing the team together]
  • “Good Jobs” [read emails I received from the business or from within legal recognizing people for doing a good job with something].
  • Announce Monthly Award winner(s) [as discussed in the January 15 blog, we had a monthly award called the Golden Gnome.  I announced the winners – and what they did to win it– at the monthly staff meeting]

“Go Deep” Topic 1 [I would ask members of the department to present a few slides on a particular legal topic that would be of general interest to most of the team – e.g., insider trading policy, a new deal in the Middle East, big court win.  Just high level]

“Go Deep” Topic 2 [optional – and be ready to roll it over to next meeting if time running short]

Technology Minute [quick 1-2 minute discussion of a neat website, app, or technology that would be of interest to the department, e.g., a web site that calculates deadlines.  Would solicit team for their picks as well as my own]

Q&A [from emails, from the participants at meeting.  Be sure to ask if there is anything you can do for anyone on the team/does anyone need anything]

Close meeting

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