Lessons for new managers: how to not drown in meetings

When I first stepped into a management role about 10 years ago, one of the first and hardest changes that I had to deal with was drowning in meetings. I was lucky to start managing at a medium size company (our entire engineering org was fewer than 100). But even in that org, I felt like my calendar was taken over. Meetings easily fill up your calendar and make you feel like you don’t have enough time to focus. At larger companies recurring meetings can easily make it practically impossible to schedule any 1:1 time with you, even if you have fewer than 10 direct reports. So, how do you break free? Over the years, I’ve narrowed the technique down to several simple questions I ask myself before agreeing to attend a meeting.

Firstly, this may sound obvious, but do we actually need a meeting? Can this be resolved in some other way? Maybe we could just send a quick email or have a 5-minute chat Slack. You could even write a strongly-worded letter! My rule of thumb is that if a question does not get resolved in 3 emails, or 5 Slack messages and there are fewer than 3 decision makers — we should have a 15 minute call.

Who are the decision makers? If you’re not one of them, is your presence really necessary? Or are you just there to make up the numbers?

What’s the agenda? This may seem like a basic question, but it’s essential. If there is no agenda, then what is the meeting even about? It could just be a random gathering of people discussing their weekend plans.

What happens if you don’t attend? If you’re a decision maker, you should definitely attend. But if you’re not, then perhaps you could delegate someone to go in your place. Maybe it’s someone who’s been eyeing your position anyway. Give them a chance to shine! Delegation of meetings has worked wonders for me in larger organizations. In a team of 10 direct engineers, I can easily have 3 engineers that can take on at least 6 cross-functional project meetings per week. It’s a clear win-win — I save time, they get to shine, and my job of promoting them becomes easier. Of course, I usually need to coach them to be effective in those meetings and to keep me in the loop, but I usually reserve 1 hour/week for every one of my direct reports anyway.

Why are you attending? Is it because you’re interested in the topic, or is it because you don’t want to miss out? Fear of missing out (FOMO) is real, people. But sometimes you just have to embrace it and decide for yourself if it’s actually worth your time.

Is attending the meeting going to benefit you? Or is it just a waste of your time? If it’s the latter, then maybe you should reconsider your priorities. Or maybe you should just bring a book and pretend to take notes. Well, not really, don’t do that. Multitasking during meetings is one of the worst behaviors of managers in large organizations. If someone is Slacking away or coding during a meeting — they probably should not be there and I always call this out in the meetings that I lead.

If you do decide to attend, are you willing to say no to something else? Attending a meeting usually means sacrificing something else. Maybe it’s a lunch break or your sanity.

And finally, are you willing to put in the work? Attending a meeting is only the beginning. You’ll need to contribute something meaningful, or at least pretend to. So make sure you’re ready to put in the effort before you say yes. And if you got nothing to contribute — again, maybe you shouldn’t attend, just ask for a recording or a written summary. You can listen to a recording of a boring meeting at 2x speed later on while on an exercise bike and feel good about your new multitasking skill.

If you’re still unsure whether or not to attend, maybe you could create a pros and cons list. Pros: free pizza that will make you sleepy later. Cons: everything else. Hm…?

But seriously, attending meetings can be draining, especially if they’re not productive. So, if you’re a manager, don’t be that person who schedules meetings just for the sake of it. Nobody likes that person.

And if you’re an attendee, don’t be afraid to speak up if you think the meeting is a waste of time. Just make sure you have a good reason for doing so, like “I have to go wash my hair.”

In conclusion, meetings can be a necessary evil, but they don’t have to be all-consuming. Just make sure you ask yourself the right questions before accepting every invite. And if all else fails, just pretend your internet is down and work from home.

Posted in technical

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