Another consequence of being a company with employees scattered across many locations (including our three offices, client sites and employee's homes) is that a lot of the communication that doesn't take place via email happens over conference calls. My mornings are often so packed with calls it's difficult to take a bathroom break. (If you think I'm exaggerating, this week I have my weekly team call, calls with each sales team, weekly calls with the new product development team, a call to discuss improvements to our website, a couple of calls with the CEO, a call with a client, a brainstorming session with the team, a call with HR . . . )
So how do I keep sane through all the calls? How do I make sure I disconnect from one call and start another while ensuring I make the best of my time and the time of the other parties in the conference?
Here are the rules I follow when I am hosting or organizing a conference call.
Plan and prepare.
1. If I am setting up the meeting, I start by writing down the objective of the meeting. There is usually one primary objective (for example, evaluating the progress of my team) and one or more secondary objectives (motivating the team to continue through the week, setting right any doubts about priorities).
2. Then I write down a list of participants. In cases like the example I just mentioned, this will be glaringly self-obvious. At other times, the list of participants I initially had in mind may change after I have written down and clarified my objectives.
3. I create a detailed agenda, including not merely the items for discussion but also allocating time to each and listing any tasks I want others to perform or subjects they should address.
4. I create a list of any pre-conference call tasks that participants need to complete (for example, someone has to create a presentation), as well as any materials participants are expected to have on hand during the call (such as a proposal we are to review).
Make it easy for the other participants.
5. Unless it's a rare emergency meeting, I always issue invitations at least 24 hours in advance. Since we are in different time zones, someone's workday may have already ended before I ease into my morning, and they may not have time to see and respond to the invite until the following day.
6. I provide most of the relevant information within the meeting request itself. Apart from the phone number and access code to dial in with (even if we use the same details every single week), I include the agenda and my list of tasks and materials. This sets everyone's expectations from the meetings and precludes wasting time explaining the purpose of the call during the call itself.
Respect everyone's time.
7. I always start the call on time. Waiting for late arrivals wastes precious time and inconveniences those who arrived on time. If the meeting can't start because an integral person hasn't dialed in, I'll wait for a maximum of ten minutes, thank everyone on the call and reschedule the meeting.
8. I moderate the discussion and make sure we stick to the agenda. If the discussion goes off-track, I'll guide it back to the topic at hand. This is critical to ensuring that the key objectives of the meeting are achieved within the scheduled time. I make a note of any off-topic issues and schedule a separate meeting (that may not require all the participants) to discuss those or settle it via email.
9. I end the call on time, freeing up participants to get to their next meeting or other commitments. When attendees consistently see that your conference calls start and end promptly, they know what to expect during future calls.
Summarize results and allocate responsibilities.
10. At the end of a call, I quickly summarize the conclusions we arrived at and specify action items for each person. I outline the objectives again, specifying whether they have been met or if not, what the plan is.
11. I'll also document and distribute action items, to avoid any misunderstandings as well as inform anyone who could not attend the meeting.
12. But that isn't always enough—I'll follow up to make sure things get done!
Too many rules? They all flow from my objective of making my calls as productive as possible, and they sure work for me!