The Art of Ending a Meeting on Time
I am in back-to-back meetings all day, meaning, I am lucky if I have five minutes to run to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee. And these are not ordinary meetings, rather they are coaching sessions that require me to show up with 100% presence, focus and impeccable time management skills.
As a coach, it is helpful to know how to end a meeting exactly on time – every time. If you end a coaching session even a few minutes late you can run the risk of missing your next appointment, or the client does theirs, and so I have learned how to hold the arc of a conversation to bring it to a punctual close. At the same time, I have also learned to be comfortable with unfinished endings while still striving to assign next steps. I had to master quickly, in my early days of coaching, the skill of "holding time", which is the ability to track the minutes while maintaining full presence, and always ending a meeting when promised - precisely and consistently - no matter what transpires during the session.
Believe it or not, ending meetings on time is an art as well as a key leadership skill, and is needed now more than ever in our zoom-filled worlds of working from home. And yet why do so many leaders and teams struggle with the art of holding time?
When my clients show up late to appointments, they come armed with excuses: "My last meeting ran long," they will say, exasperated and out of breath, followed by, "I really had no control, it wasn't my meeting." Changing your organization's culture around punctual meetings can take...well...time. Many organizations tolerate and encourage cultures where meetings start and end loosely, and tardiness or disrespecting other's time has no consequences.
When I ask leaders why they didn't leave the meeting to make their next appointment on time, they often say, "It would have been rude to interrupt," or "We just needed more time to get it all done," or worst of all, "We didn't get there...so we had to set up another meeting." With time at a premium, and meetings being a generally ineffective way of conducting business, spending time in a meeting only to not arrive at a conclusive next step points to a failure in leadership.
For many leaders, chronic tardiness - even and especially at the highest levels of an organization - signals deeper issues: a failure in time management; a sense of self-importance derived from keeping people waiting; a deep belief that their time is more valuable than others'; or an inability to successfully follow through on their promises.
Showing up on time and ending a meeting on time is a promise - a promise you make to yourself and to the others who are impacted - and each time you break it by a few minutes, as insignificant as it may seem in the moment, you erode trust and signal an inattention to yourself and others.
If you find yourself participating in meetings that consistently end late, or struggle with the skill of holding time yourself, here are a few basic facilitation skills that can help you take charge of your schedule and teach others to begin to follow through. I find these techniques help not only with meetings in a professional context, but also with other social obligations and even family Facetime calls as well.
If you oversee running the meeting: At the onset of a meeting, set a boundary around time, ideally alongside an agenda. Be clear with the group at the start: "We will end this meeting in 50 minutes," or, "We have the first 15 minutes to brainstorm and the next five minutes for next steps." Assign a timekeeper to help bring the meeting to a close and signal when the group has hit time milestones throughout. Last, always leave a few minutes at the end to assign next steps. Be committed to holding the boundaries of time even (and especially) if the group discussion is really juicy or productive: "I know there's more to discuss here, but I'm looking at the time, and I’m going to move us on to next steps."
If you are in someone else's meeting that runs long, like a boss or superior: Again, it helps to set a boundary around time at the beginning of the meeting. Before the meeting starts, be clear about the time expectations: "Just checking, do we have 50 minutes for this meeting?" Or you can specify your availability: "I'm letting everyone know I have a hard stop in an hour, so I'll be jumping off at 3:50." Next, you can ask permission to notify the group of time milestones, and interrupt when you hit them with a simple, "Excuse me, I'm noticing time, and we have X minutes left, shall we move to Y?" or, "I want to be conscious of time, with X minutes left, what are our next steps?" Interrupting may feel awkward but have the courage to maintain those time boundaries and then making a graceful, clean exit will help to create more safety in groups, not less.
If your team is bad at timeliness: Have a conversation with the group about how you want to be together around keeping time by asking these questions: What do you notice are the timekeeping trends of the group? What is it costing the team and what would it take to make a change? Holding time can be a group responsibility. Start by articulating the current group norms: "I notice we always start 5 minutes late," or "I notice this meeting always runs 10 minutes over." Ask someone to focus on helping hold the group accountable for timeliness. And, if certain individuals are the worst offenders, address it with them directly, privately, and with curiosity. Point out their impact on you and the team while steering toward your new timekeeping process.
By implementing these basic skills - starting with your own personal awareness of what it means for you to hold time, followed by your commitment to work toward ending all meetings on time - you will find yourself and your team regularly hitting your time targets. What will emerge is more confidence and self-trust, as well as a greater sense of personable responsibility as you deliver consistently on your promises.
As the efficiency of your team increases, so will your ability to be fully present during a meeting. Ironically, when time is held, it provides more access to a place of deep presence without a sense of urgency or distraction, a place where creativity and connection dwell. For this week, I encourage you to start by making a commitment to yourself to start and end each meeting on time and enjoy what opens up as a result.