Sleepy Meetings: Lessons for Leaders from Secretary Ross’ Story

If you can’t meet, you can’t lead.

According to a recent report from Politico, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross falls asleep in meetings. His staff has tried changing the schedule. They’ve tried moving meetings to the morning, or the afternoon, or keeping them short. Nothing works. For Secretary Ross, many meetings are a snoozefest.

I get it and I’m sure you get it. Long hours, travel, and a demanding workload can leave us all drained.

“Surely this is natural,” you might say. “Aren’t all meetings a snoozefest?” 

If you think that makes it OK, it’s time to wake up. Secretary Ross doesn’t meet successfully with his staff and it’s all over the internet because now his department is a mess.

The article decrying Mr. Ross’s penchant for a mid-meeting snooze also claims that Ross is viewed as “kind of irrelevant” and the U.S. Commerce department suffers from:

  • Extremely low morale,
  • A lack of a consistent routine,
  • Constant infighting, and
  • Rapid turnover. 

To sum up: it’s a “disaster over there.”

This is consistent with the research on meetings, which shows that how employees feel about their company’s meetings has a significant impact on employee engagement and retention.

I’m sure that there are many complex factors contributing to the whirlwind clusterbumble in the Chamber of Commerce, but the articles all focus on how scandalous it is to sleep through meetings. 

Why? Because…

Meetings are where the action is.

Meetings provide the first, the most frequently repeated, and the most pervasive opportunity you have to lead. 

  • If you fail to meet with your team, they know that they and their work isn’t valued.
  • If you don’t regularly meet to clarify and support the work laid out in your mission and vision, those things don’t happen. 
  • If how you speak to your coworkers and your customers during meetings doesn’t match up with the values poster up on the wall, everyone can see that your organization lacks integrity.

Meetings are your opportunity to prove and provide your value to the rest of the organization.

Need proof? Look through the articles here, on HBR, or on any of the business-focused publications and you’ll find it. Ignore the drivel that claims meetings are a waste of time and read the success stories. Here’s what you’ll find.

When that scrappy startup gets funded, it’s because it presented itself well during the pitch (a meeting), people they know vouched for them (in meetings), and then the investment group decided to approve the funding (in a meeting). 

When a company successfully recovers from a big market shift, they do so by engaging employees (in meetings), embracing design thinking or agile methods (in meetings), and getting their shareholders on board (in meetings).

When our leaders decide to send troops to fight in foreign lands, or instead to send diplomats, they do so in a meeting. When peace talks happen, guess what? Those are meetings too.

Who did President Trump meet with last week? Was it the CEOs of major U.S and foreign airlines, right-wing or left-wing Twitterati, or Kanye West? Each and every one of those meetings sends a signal that the whole world watches. When our leaders meet, we see how our leaders lead.

It is in meetings that we agree on how we will make or break the future. It is in meetings that we inspire, support, and do the job that we call “leadership.”

If you can’t meet, you can’t lead. 

What’s more: if you can’t meet well, you can’t lead well. 

Secretary Ross shows us that it’s not enough to just show up. Meetings aren’t parties. They aren’t simply social events with your buddies or an opportunity for you to try out your oratory skills on a captive audience. There are skills to learn and practices to master.

If your meetings are not working well, designing meetings with intention–to explicitly support your mission and codify your company’s cultural values in day-to-day practice–is the most direct and powerful way you can effect change. 

Should Secretary Ross come to work next week with a plan for engaging his staff in mission-aligned, high-performance meetings, that department would change. He should,  because that’s the leader’s job. 

If you’ve been winging your meetings, assuming that the way you meet with your staff doesn’t deserve your priority focus, let this be your wake up call. 

How you meet is how you lead. And I’ll tell you this: your best competitors will not be asleep at the wheel.

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