Recently, I was in an annual budget meeting for an organization that uses volunteers to manage its various committees. It turned out to be a classic example, in its way. There were about thirty people (half men, half women) there, half of whom knew each other. As they sat down, all were handed a three-ring binder filled with statistics and facts. We all flipped through the binders, but couldn’t make much sense of the numbers and information that lay within, so we simply relaxed and waited to hear what the leaders of the organization would tell us.
About ten minutes after the published start time of the meeting, the person “in charge” cleared his throat rather loudly. The rest of us obediently stopped talking (some even closed the binders), since we recognized the clue to do so.
The meeting chairman was new to his position, although he (and his bright red handlebar mustache) had been part of this organization for a long time. His mustache lifted as he began:
I heard a story the other day I would like to share with you. A not-so-bright woman dressed in a large fur coat recently got on an airplane and took a seat in first class. The flight attendant looked at her ticket and said gently, “Miss, I believe your seat is 22A. That is back there on the left next to a window.’’
The woman looked up and said, “I know. But I couldn’t possibly sit back there because it would ruin my coat. There is not nearly enough room in those seats.”
The flight attendant continued to explain. “I’m afraid I can’t let you sit in this seat. It is assigned to someone else. I’ll be happy to show you exactly where 22A is.”
The woman continued to refuse to move, so, in frustration, the flight attendant went in to talk to the captain about the situation. The captain said, “I’ll take care of it.” He then walked over to the woman in the big fur coat and whispered in her ear.
Then, like magic, the woman stood up, said, “Oh. OK” and walked back to seat 22A.
The flight attendant was bewildered. She stood with her mouth open as she watched the woman go to seat 22A. Once that was taken care of she went back up to the captain and asked how he was able to get her to move?
The captain said, “Oh, that was easy. I just told her that first class was not going to Chicago.’”
The meeting chairman rested his mustache back on his lower lip, but the ends began to turn up as his smile grew from underneath. He waited for a roaring response from his funny story. But it didn’t come. There were some half laughs, some chuckles, but mostly steely stares.
It was an ugly moment. Half the committee chairs were women, and they didn’t laugh. Most of the others knew better than to laugh at a joke that put down half the population in the room.
As you might imagine, this meeting was now tension-filled. The chairman was uncomfortable. The committee chairpeople were uncomfortable, and many of the participants were darn right mad! How dare he? How dare he insult people as a way to show how warm, friendly, and funny he was? Most of the audience did not think he was funny. In fact, most people in that room no longer thought he was very smart. Credibility for our handle-barred friend was at its nadir, and no one in the room wanted to jump in and rescue him for fear they would be tarnished also.
Things did not get better. Our handle-barred friend started the official meeting content by saying, “Well, I don’t really have anything to say. [We already guessed that of course!] Mr. Hawthorne, can you go over the budget guidelines?”
We didn’t know who Mr. Hawthorne was until he started talking, because Handlebar had left out the part of the meeting where speakers are introduced. We looked and listened while Mr. Hawthorne told us how to get things approved, and what he needed from each of the committee chairs. Many of us flipped through the binder to find the location of the information that related to what Mr. Hawthorne was saying. Abruptly, it seemed, Mr. Hawthorne stopped talking. The room was silent.
Our handle-barred chairman started again. “Sean, why don’t you explain the improvements that have been made in the last few months?”
Sean looked startled. “Well, I guess I could, but I hadn’t really prepared anything to say.”
Handlebar seemed surprised, perhaps annoyed. He retorted, “Well, you should always come prepared to present at my meetings, Sean, you know that.” The rest of us didn’t breathe. We felt sorry for Sean. That wasn’t fair. If Handlebar hadn’t prepared him, how would he know he was expected to speak? We gave encouraging smiles to Sean.
Again we searched through our binders to find the applicable pages. Sean was done. Silence.
“Melanie is now going to tell you about how we have updated our website.” We all looked to see which mouth would move next. We could narrow it down to only half of the audience, guessing Melanie was probably a woman. We were all praying Melanie was prepared to say something. We couldn’t stand another Sean episode.
If Melanie wasn’t prepared, she faked it well. Melanie talked for ten minutes or so. Unfortunately, we heard very little. We continued to try and find our way in the binders. For those of us who were new, we now knew the names and approximate responsibilities of four people in the room other than ourselves. Melanie stopped talking.
Handlebar started again. “Well, that is all I can think of to discuss. Anyone have any questions?” There was silence.
One committee chair ventured, “How much notice do we have to give if we need more money for our committee?” It seemed like a reasonable question. After all, this was a budget meeting.
“Well, I am sure Mr. Hawthorne addressed that earlier, but I’ll have him speak to that again if you weren’t paying attention.” Yikes! What a putdown. Then Mr. Hawthorne calmly answered the question.
“Any other questions?” asked Handlebar. Silence. No one wanted to risk another insult.
He asked another question. I had to hold back my gasp when I heard what it was. “Well, does anyone know any other good jokes then?” Another silence. Amazingly, the meeting was ending as badly as it had begun. No questions were asked. No comments were made. Just a handlebar-mustached man pointing to people in the room and asking them to talk about certain things.
We were done a full forty-five minutes before the scheduled end time. Lunch had been ordered, but it was only 11:15. There had never been introductions. Very few people in the room even knew each other, so only seven out of thirty stayed for lunch.
Now, let’s analyze the format and impact of this meeting.
The first mistake wasn’t the bad joke—it was the fact that no main speakers had been introduced, and meeting participants were not given a chance to introduce themselves. At the outset, everyone’s identity remained hidden; we knew we were all chairpersons, but we didn’t know who was who.
As for the joke, those who were angry about it were disenchanted and heard very little about the budget and processes they needed to follow. Those who were embarrassed by it also heard very little. The remaining few who thought the joke was funny (there are always a few) probably spent the whole meeting trying to figure out why everyone seemed so tense. So, they didn’t get much out of the meeting either.
The Handlebar example is a horror story. But it is true. Each of you has probably lived through a similar experience. We hope it didn’t happen in a meeting you ran.
A well-run meeting makes it possible to disseminate valuable information, share ideas, get consensus, and solve problems. It is also true that meetings provide visibility. Running an effective meeting provides the kind of visibility you want.