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The Leader as Host: Three Key Practices to Optimize Your Meetings

3 min read

I noticed in my colleague an attitude of service and attention that remained for the full hour. There was a sense of curiosity and respect that allowed me to open up and truly engage.

Several weeks ago I needed to travel several hundred miles for a series of meetings. After hours of transportation challenges, I finally entered the office building of my first meeting, tired but relieved, where I was ushered by the receptionist into a small meeting room to wait for my appointment. Dropping into a chair at the long table, I noticed a small tray beside the speakerphones in front of me. The tray contained several bottles of water (still or sparkling), some glasses, and a bottle opener.

I immediately felt grateful and relaxed as I poured myself a drink and pulled out my notes in anticipation of the upcoming conversation. When my colleague entered the room several minutes later, the first thing he said was, “Thank you for coming. Is there anything else I can get you?”

It occurred to me that I was being well taken care of. In fact, upon further reflection, it struck me that perhaps I was being hosted.

As our conversation proceeded and we moved into the substance of the meeting, I noticed in my colleague an attitude of service and attention that remained for the full hour. There was a sense of curiosity and respect that allowed me to open up and truly engage.

For thousands of years, in aboriginal cultures around the world, when tribal leaders have met to discuss important issues, the host has traditionally framed the meeting with some kind of shared ritual—smoking a pipe, sharing food, giving gifts, or speaking prayers together. These practices are designed to create closeness and a conducive environment for all participants to engage with one another and focus on the business at hand.

Today, in corporate cultures around the world, we have developed similar habits and structures to optimize our meetings. But too often we forget the underlying value of these activities—we further demean their importance by referring to this aspect of leadership communication as “soft skills.” This inaccurately suggests that the more important focus should be “hard skills”—related to the objectivity of numbers, reports, and analysis.

So what are the principles and practices that underlie a leader’s ability to create the most productive environment for a meeting?

Three key principles

1. Warming up

One of the most important tactics employed by anyone who coaches teams of athletes or artists is the warm up. Group sports or collaborative artistic ventures from ice hockey clubs to symphony orchestras require a phase of preparation that calls for individual contributors to “play” together a bit—to practice the process of seamlessly aligning with one another. Good business meetings have the same structure. In order to extract the best value from a conversation, it is crucial for the host to warm up the participants of the meeting by creating engagement and trust between all parties at the table.

2. Asking questions

Researchers realize early in their careers the importance of asking the right questions. One famous articulation of this idea (attributed to Albert Einstein) is the following: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask and last 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Perhaps a leader’s most valuable contribution as a facilitator of a productive process is the ability to ask powerful questions. During the course of my recent day of meetings on the road I noticed that the most fulfilling and productive conversations were ones in which the fundamental questions related to our task were regularly stated and restated.

3. Mastering the art of hosting

Last month I attended a conference where a refreshing new approach to meeting facilitation was presented. The practice is referred to, appropriately, as The Art of Hosting. This body of work, sometimes also referred to as Participatory Leadership, is described as a “suite of powerful conversational processes to invite people to step in and take charge of the challenges facing them.” At the core of this approach is the principle that people are at their most productive when they are invited into a process that honors their unique voice.

This set of principles is a rich resource for any leader to draw upon when faced with the daily task of gathering people together around a meeting table in order to get something done efficiently and effectively.

This blog was originally published November 12, 2013 and was updated December 22, 2017 for accuracy.


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