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Meeting Etiquette by Elon Musk

Morag Barrett, April 30, 2018


Meeting Etiquette By Elon Musk

Forget our phones. It seems that we are all addicted to meetings. Maybe it’s the companionship, the high-powered discussions, or simply the tea and cookies that keeps us coming back for more.

However, despite all the time we spend in meetings, “death by meeting” is an all-too-common result. You know what I mean – those huddles where you wish you were anywhere else but trapped in that room or on the call.

Elon Musk has a very pragmatic answer to meaningless meetings – you should just walk out. According to an email sent to Tesla employees, Musk is reported as saying, “It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time,” and as soon as it’s “obvious you aren’t adding value,” you should “walk out of a meeting or drop off a call”.

I love it! Common sense advice that requires an uncommon discipline to follow through and do it. Depending on the meeting host (you can hardly walk out of your own meeting), or if it’s your boss’s meeting, walking out might be a career limiting move.

So what can we do? Start by recognizing the symptoms of a non-value-add meeting.

Death by Meeting: The Symptoms

  • The Limelight Star: One person inhaled at the start of the meeting and didn’t pause for breath for the next hour. He finished the meeting with “Oh, we seem to have run out of time; let’s pick this up next time.”
  • Ground Hog Day: This is where the team is mired in an endless spiral of conversations that don’t move things forward.
  • Stuck in the weeds: Here participants are focused on issues well below their pay grade instead of those only they could resolve.
  • Shiny object syndrome: The meeting where participants get sidetracked by more interesting, yet seemingly less important, topics that hijack the agenda.  (I admit it: this can be me.)

How to Avoid Death by Meeting

Of course, when in your control, you can create a good meeting – you can change! Here are four steps to avoid death by meeting:

  1. Start with why, then who, then how. Too often, we close the door and dive into discussion and debate without clarifying why the meeting is happening in the first place. If we don’t start with why, how can you know who needs to attend or how a decision needs to be made? Maybe a meeting isn’t even needed … now there’s a radical idea.
    The takeaway: Set expectations up-front and restate them at the start of the meeting to make sure everyone is headed in the same direction from the outset.
  2. Small talk leads to the big talk. Your team members aren’t robots (at least not yet), so meetings are often an opportunity for people to reconnect. Small talk is hugely instrumental in nurturing the Ally Relationships within a team. Allow time for small talk and build connections before getting down to the nitty-gritty of business. Remember, business is personal and relationships do matter.
    The takeaway: Think about how you can connect with others at a personal level, not just a transactional one. Allow time for small talk.
  3.  Be the weed monitor/squirrel hunter. Whether your meetings are derailed by the shiny object syndrome, or you get stuck in the weeds, the only person who can save you is you! When the conversation seems to have gone off on a tangent say something like, “It seems like we have moved focus; do we need to follow this thought or should we get back to the decision at hand?”
    The takeaway: How can you keep your discussions on point? Who will be the squirrel hunter in your next meeting?
  4. Finish with clear next steps. All too often, we are over-scheduled, with triple-booked meeting requests and back-to-back meetings. Which means that we short-change the end of the current meeting as we start to focus on the next one. Change the poor behavior and introduce a simple what, who, when template, to capture decisions and next steps.
    The takeaway: What approach will you adopt to drive accountability and follow-through?

It’s up to you

Running an effective meeting doesn’t need to be a bureaucratic nightmare, it’s common sense. With care and attention, you can avoid inflicting, or worse, experiencing, death by meeting.

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