"We Are Gathered Here Today..."

Do you know why you are holding a meeting?

I vividly remember the “rehearsal of concept” (or ROC Drill) that took place before the second battle of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, when the regimental CO and his subordinate commanders reviewed our battle plan. It was the only topic on the agenda. They literally walked through the plan on top of a giant map that was laid out on the floor of a large auditorium. The meeting was frequently punctuated by sounds of outgoing artillery, I think the auditorium was located less than a thousand meters from the artillery battery’s gunline. That was a memorable meeting.

In 2008, once again back in Iraq’s Anbar, (a year with “relatively” little shooting taking place in the province), we orchestrated a meeting between the Ministry of Defense colonel in charge of distributing pensions and a group of former Iraqi army officers from Anbar. The idea was to connect the former officers to the current government in Baghdad and give them a stake in its success. Among other challenges, the MoD colonel was a Shia Muslim while all the Anbaris were Sunnis, plus we suspected at least some of the former officers had recently been fighting as insurgents against the current government. We hosted the gathering aboard Camp Ramadi to make sure we could lock down security for it. We braced for heavy seas and a lot of arguments – and were surprised when the former officers embraced the MoD colonel, as many of them had served with him in the old, pre-war army. That was a memorable meeting.

Thoughts about meetings arose because I’m reading The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I’m finding it a great leadership book for a lot of reasons. The author provides some interesting new perspectives on things that often become routine. Through the fresh insight she’s providing, I’m able to look back and evaluate meetings that really achieved a purpose, like the ones above. I’m also able to look back and critique the many more meetings I’ve attended that either fell short of achieving their purpose, or even more often, just seemed to continue happening because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Gatherings of all kinds help define a culture. Enthusiastic Harley-Davidson riders rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, every summer. The famed mountain men held an annual “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous” to trade and socialize. And oftentimes culture for organizations in the business world are defined by their meetings, too. As leaders, that’s something we should keep in mind.

In 2017 I led an air-ground task force deployed to the middle east and we held a weekly command and staff meeting. The purpose for it was informational, to make sure we were all headed in the same direction. As a task force with different elements (infantry, air, logistics), we wanted to make sure that people across the force knew what the various pieces of it were up to, so that all of our actions were aligned. We talked about this meeting a lot before we deployed, our goal was for each meeting to be attended as well as possible. We saw this as a venue with potentially high value for our internal communications plan.

We decided to host a “coffee hour” gathering for 10-15 minutes before each command and staff kicked off. The Marines in charge of implementing this pulled out all the stops, making sure the coffee was decent (not a guarantee while deployed) and that there were doughnuts for those on a cheat day and fruit for those who were not. The staff put out the initial word and then followed up with their counterparts to spread the message that everyone was welcome.

This format turned out to be a big success, it exceeded my expectations at least. The meetings were always well attended, and not just by those required to be there. The informal start allowed questions to surface that we probably wouldn’t have heard through more formal channels. Quite a bit of coordination that wasn’t included in the formal meeting took place. And probably most importantly, people from various parts of the task force either got to know each other for the first time or deepened existing relationships, which I think helped us become ever more cohesive as the deployment unfolded.

As a Marine I went to a lot of meetings over the years, and some made an indelible impression on my memory. As a brand-new second lieutenant I avoided them any way I could. As I gained experience though, I saw some examples that changed my thinking. Sometimes meetings deal with subjects of real gravity and importance, like when we were getting ready to attack Fallujah. And sometimes they helped build an organization’s culture, like our coffee hours in the task force.

So, from reading Priya Parker’s insightful book and from a few of my own experiences over the years, here are a few things about meeting that I think are helpful for leaders:

1. Decide ahead of time the purpose for the meeting. Then use that purpose to guide all the decisions related to holding the meeting. If offered a choice to include something that doesn’t serve the meeting’s purpose, say no.

2. Periodically review all the meetings that take place in your organization. Refer back to #1 and for every one of them ask, “What is its purpose?” If no one can come up with an answer then that’s the low hanging fruit for you to prune. And, if the purpose no longer retains its relevance, then that meeting can go away, too.

3. Structure influences human behavior. Once you decide a meeting is necessary, everything about how it’s structured – the space, the agenda, the participants, etc. – will influence the meeting’s output. Let this perspective on meetings fire up your creativity. Challenge your people to get creative with them, too. You may be pleasantly surprised by what it does for your company’s culture.

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