4 Ways to Avoid Leading a Pointless Meeting

August 4, 2016, 3:12 PM UTC
Communicating every detail
Cropped shot of a group of business colleagues meeting in the boardroom
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The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Dinesh Paliwal, chairman, president, and CEO of Harman, has answered the question: What are some tips for leading your first meeting?

A “first meeting” is, by definition, a one-time opportunity, and there’s no going back. Over the course of my career, I’ve been on both sides of inspiring first meetings that energized me for the next stage of a partnership, and disappointing first meetings that left me uncertain about next steps.

There are countless ways a first meeting can go off the tracks, from mismatched expectations to personality clashes to awkward silences. But what I’ve found is that every aspect of a first meeting comes back to one thing: connecting.

Collaboration is a key part of the success of any organization, executed through a clearly defined vision and mission, and based on transparency and constant communication. I had the pleasure of speaking on this topic at the recent Wharton Leadership Conference, a premier institution that is establishing its core leadership curriculum on the principles of teamwork.

With that in mind, the goal of any first meeting is to build the foundation of a relationship. A colleague of mine recently quoted President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Focus on establishing an authentic, two-way connection rather than tallying short-term “wins” you want from the other party. You’ll find that every first meeting can lead seamlessly into a long-term partnership.

Establish expectations
A strong working relationship requires every participant to be on the same page. There’s nothing worse than having one person come into a meeting thinking that you’ll leave with a solid agreement and for the other to think it’s just a casual meet-and-greet. Make sure that you share the purpose of the meeting and have a full list of participants early in the preparation process so that everyone is aligned. Plan your discussion strategically around those objectives.

Be aware of hidden biases
Being self-aware and perceptive will give you a leg up as you take the reins. As you head into a meeting, reserve judgment and your own preconceived notions about what you’ll encounter. Maintain an open mind and an optimistic attitude that you will advance positive solutions. Likewise, observe the room. Be attuned to people’s reactions, questions, and body language. Challenge your own biases and those in others that may be inherent and potentially derailing.

Set the tone
Be authentic and demonstrate that you care about building a genuine, collaborative partnership. Relationships are personal, even in business, so sharing some of yourself and taking an interest in others helps to build trust and break down walls.

Listen—and not just so that you can find an opening to make your next point. Especially in that first meeting, you should focus on building a clearer understanding of your counterparts’ perspectives, challenges, priorities, and needs. Those insights will show your commitment to real collaboration, and you’ll find that others will return the same consideration to you.


Lay ground rules
Just like you establish expectations in advance of a meeting, you should clearly define the way you will work together both in the meeting and moving forward.

For example, at Harman (HAR), we operate under the philosophy that “no answer is an answer,” meaning if you don’t take an opportunity to act or respond, your silence yields action to the other party. Similarly, you can visibly turn off or silence your mobile phone to show that you’re committed to being “in the moment” and staying fully engaged. Finally, defining clear next steps establishes the ongoing expectation that all participants will follow through on their commitments.

All too often, people reduce the success or failure of a meeting to what’s decided in the room. But equally as important—particularly in a first meeting—is the progress you make in earning trust, connecting, and laying the groundwork for future collaborations. If you approach your first meeting less as a transaction or event and more as the beginning of a long-term relationship, you’ll be poised to accomplish all of your goals and more—far beyond any single outcome.