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9 Simple Rules for Spending Less Time in Meetings, According to TD Ameritrade CEO Tim Hockey

The time your team spends in meetings is costing you more than you think.

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BY Minda Zetlin - 03 Dec 2018

rules for spending time in meetings

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

No matter what your organization does or how it operates, it's pretty much guaranteed: Your employees hate meetings. "Meetings are sometimes a necessary evil," says Tim Hockey, who took over as CEO of TD Ameritrade about two years ago.

Hockey has worked in financial services for 35 years, and led the company's Canadian operation before becoming CEO. Over the years, he's developed some simple rules that eliminate unneeded meetings, make needed meetings more efficient, and cut time spent at meetings to a minimum. Here they are:

1. First and foremost, value other people's time.

All of Hockey's other rules flow from this one. "People sometimes don't value others' time because it's a relatively free good." At least, it may seem that way, but in fact it's anything but. So Hockey suggests an easy formula: Consider the people in the meeting and multiply the time spend in the meeting by their hourly compensation in order to get some sense of a meeting's true cost. In fact, it's probably more than that because whatever employees are spending their workday doing, if you interrupt that work with a meeting it will likely take them some time to get back into the flow of what they were doing before the interruption. Your company is paying those people for all that time so consider the real cost of every meeting you organize.

2. Consider whether the meeting could be replaced by something else.

If it's an information-sharing meeting, could you get the word out by sending around a memo instead? Or, perhaps more engaging, a brief video? If it's for several people to decide on something, could a group email or chat accomplish the same thing? If you can do anything other than having a meeting to achieve the same result, opt for that.

3. Invite as few participants as possible.

"Do you have several people representing the same group?" Hockey says. "Can you hold it down to five or seven people?" Depending on your organization's culture, it may or may not be easy to hold down the number of people in meetings. But the fewer people there are in the room, the more efficient the meeting will be.

4. Empower employees to turn down invitations with no ill feelings.

Information security manager David Grady gave a hilarious TED Talk a few years ago about "Meeting Acceptance Syndrome," the phenomenon where everyone who gets an invite to a meeting automatically accepts and shows up. Grady argued that everyone who attends a meeting should feel they have a really good reason for being there. Hockey takes that same viewpoint. "It would be great to have an organizational culture where if people feel they don't need to be at a meeting, they don't go."

5. Every meeting must start on time.

If you delay the start of a meeting even for five minutes because not everyone is there, several bad things happen. First, the people who did arrive on time sit there chatting or staring at their smartphones for five minutes. Second, the people who arrive late see that they didn't miss anything. That encourages those who were punctual the first time around to come five minutes late next time so their time won't be wasted. Meantime, those who are punctuality-challenged may show up 10 minutes late next time. That means delaying the start time by 10 minutes and...you see where this is going. It's a vicious cycle.

This is why Hockey insists that all meetings start on time. Those who arrive late will be embarrassed and will miss part of the meeting, and that will encourage them to arrive right at the start next time.

6. Every meeting must end on time--or early.

When you announce a meeting you should give it both a start time and an end time, and you should stick to both at the very least. If possible, release people from the meeting early, allowing them to recapture some of that time for productive use, or for taking a break, which also adds to productivity. Consider Hockey's earlier point that the cost of a meeting is the hourly compensation of every participant added up. Ending early allows you to save some of that cost.

7. Make meetings as short as possible.

Don't default to hour-long meetings just because your calendar does, Hockey advises. In fact, his team is looking into making 15 minutes the default appointment period on TD Ameritrade calendars.

"We have a daily huddle here, so if you're in a call center the manager will call people together for a daily meeting," Hockey says. "It's a standup meeting and it's 10 minutes, but you could take that same meeting and make it an hour and a half."

8. Provide a written agenda for every meeting in advance.

Many managers are tempted to skip this step, Hockey says. After all, written agendas and written minutes can seem like a leftover from more formal corporate times. It might seem simpler and more informal to just get everyone together without bothering to write all this stuff in advance or during the meeting.

But Hockey feels so strongly that agendas and at least written action items from meetings are absolutely vital that his team is working on an app to make these things as automatic as possible. If nothing else, a written agenda will help you keep your promise to end the meeting on time because when all participants can see exactly what has to be accomplished during the meeting they and you can hold each other accountable for making sure there's time for every item.

9. Reduce "pre-meeting meetings" and lengthy reports as much as possible.

"There's often a culture of 'pre-meetings' so nothing that comes up at the meeting is a surprise," Hockey says. This is especially true in what he calls "nice" cultures (ever organizational culture falls somewhere on the spectrum between nice and cutthroat, he explains). While a friendlier, more collaborative culture often makes for a more pleasant workplace, considerations like these can slow your company down, he says.

In the same way, Hockey says, try to cut down on lengthy pre-meeting communications or "premails" that cover everything to be discussed in detail. Hockey himself is on an ongoing mission to cut down on the prep his own business unit leaders do before having their annual strategic review with him. "For one-hour meetings, they were over-engineered, with teams preparing so they were ready for any question that could occur. It was a complete waste of resources," Hockey says.

To cut down on the over-preparation, he began giving teams only two weeks' notice before these meetings, but he found that instead of simplifying their preparation process, they would work round the clock to get it done. So he decreed that teams could only provide a one-page briefing for the meeting. "So the page would have the smallest font imaginable," he said.

The best strategy review meeting he ever had was with a woman who brought a written statement that was only nine lines long, and no fancy charts or graphs. She knew her business well, but there were a few questions she couldn't answer, and she promised Hockey she'd find out and get back to him.

Without the over-preparation or clutter of visual aids, the two had a highly productive discussion. Afterward, he complimented her, saying that it took a lot of guts to come in with such simple preparation. "She looked sheepish," Hockey recalls. "She said, to be truthful, I kind of missed this on my calendar."

There's a real lesson there about how much preparation to expect from employees, and how to make the most effective use of their time and yours.

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