Paul Axtell, HBR contributor
Author, speaker and corporate trainer

Four key aspects leaders should consider in their meetings

A while ago Paul Axtell, meeting expert and HBR contributor, agreed to share with us his expertise on meeting culture. With the launch of a new book on meetings ("Make Meetings Matter: How to Turn Meetings from Status Updates to Remarkable Conversations"), we invited him for an interview. This time on meeting management practices and useful advice for leaders. 

Find out from Mr Axtell what a good meeting looks like and what four key aspects leaders should consider in their meetings.


SherpanyDo leaders (C-level teams) have the right mindset about organising and managing their meetings?

Paul Axtell: I would say they do have the right mindset. Leaders have a strong drive to make progress in their meetings. When their meetings run well, they stay focused on strategic decisions. This makes alignment between teams easier and drives organisational progress. Moreover, competent administrators also contribute to a good management of meetings. They plan meetings in detail, from the agenda to the documents, and the meeting minutes.

Yet, meeting management skills are not innate. Leaders need to advocate that these skills are part of the development plans for rising leaders.


SherpanyGetting better at something takes deliberate practice. How can leaders get better at meetings? What could be the first steps in that direction?

Paul Axtell: Great question. The path forward is quite simple. Choose one thing to look for or put into every meeting for the next two weeks. Here are a few examples. For instance, calling on two participants that are usually not contributing to meetings. Or assigning to each decision a task with a completion date.

Opt for something that you and your teams are not currently doing. After ten meetings, you will have trained yourself to notice and act on things that will add value. Then pick a new focus for your next ten meetings. Changing intention to instinct takes practice and persistence.


SherpanyWhat does an effective meeting look like?

Paul Axtell: Consider how a meeting runs with four or five participants in a more intimate setting. Each person speaks while others listen. Every comment is relevant and all questions answered. Only devices that enhance the meeting included. There is clear agreement on what happens once the meeting comes to an end.

That's what a good meeting looks and feels like. Now, the secret is to run a meeting with the same clarity with 25 participants - and it is possible. Don’t reduce your expectations for a high quality meeting simply because it is a larger group, run your meeting with more rigor than is required for a small group.


SherpanyHow does a well-prepared agenda help participants stay on track during meetings?

Paul Axtell: At the basis of all successful meetings there is a well-prepared agenda. Its purpose: to support the preparation of topics and give a clear sign of timings during the meeting. This way, participants keep their comments concise and relevant, and are respectful of each other's time.

What is more, organisers should always create a meeting agenda that honours participants' time. With people who care, talk about things that matter.


SherpanyWhat elements or interactions should organisers and participants focus on during a meeting?

Paul Axtell: Each meeting needs to have a line of sight to an organisational imperative or goal. Even more so with regard to meetings at the C-level. Efficient meetings can only happen when participants are clear on the meeting's outcomes and what is expected from them.

Thus, participants should focus on three things. First, ensure that each of their contributions adds value to the conversation. Second, prove themselves influential by asking the right questions in a candid manner. This way they encourage others to build on the discussion. Third, own each meeting and have it clear that they are able to shape the meeting and its outcomes and what is expected from them.


SherpanyYou mention in your book that "high-performing groups complete 85% of their action items between meetings", and that "most teams have a say-do ratio closer to 50%". How can leaders and their teams close that gap and ensure effective follow-up actions?

Paul Axtell: To close this gap, there are four key aspects leaders need to consider.

  • Close each meeting topic with a list of agreed-upon actions and clarity on who does what until when.
  • Establish a team agreement to fulfil specific actions until a certain date. Remind the members that they should discuss any situation that causes delays. This way, they avoid unpleasant surprises during future meetings.
  • Assign a member of the group to track the progress of commitments between meetings. Make sure members perceive this as good management and that it is not a sign of lack of trust or micromanaging.
  • Track and measure everything you and your team want to achieve. Know the exact number of open tasks, the nature of these tasks, and how long until their completion.
Paul Axtell, HBR contributor
Paul Axtell, HBR contributor
Author, speaker and corporate trainer
Paul Axtell is an author, speaker, and corporate trainer. He provides consulting and personal effectiveness training to a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 100 companies and universities to nonprofit organisations and government agencies. His books on meetings "Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations" and "Make Meetings Matter: How to Turn Meetings from Status Updates to Remarkable Conversations" are appreciated worldwide.

For more information visit

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