A few weeks ago one of the most important people in my company came over the the London office for a town hall meeting. One of those open meetings where everyone just has an open chat and you can ask anything you want. I’ve always found town hall meetings to be a great opportunity to learn new stuff, giving everyone the chance to chat directly with senior leaders who they don’t see very often.
Several hundred people could have turned up, leaving. But they didn’t. The room had plenty of spare seats. Every meeting room on the other hand was completely booked up. And we have a LOT of meeting rooms.
“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything”. Thomas Sowell (Economist)
You would be forgiven for thinking that, given the title of this piece, all the people who held meetings should have been in the town hall, learning from this tech visionary and Hollywood script writer. But that’s not what I am saying. I’m pleased that every meeting room was booked up, because everyone was hustling, preferring instead to spend time with their customers.
Seth Godin once told me a similar story.
A world class violinist visited the Juilliard School in New York not too long ago, to give a speech and a performance. Only fifteen students turned up. But every single practice room was booked solid. The students had more desire to practice on their own, making sense of the music for themselves, rather than being coached by a master. They were choosing to find their own “voice” rather than listen to someone else’s version.
They turned down the meeting because they were driven by a higher purpose.
I’m not a huge fan of Donald Trump (I’m not a fan of him at all politically), but he wrote the first business book I ever read, The Art of the Deal, back in 1987. It was a time of red braces, stockbrokers and Wall Street the original movie had just been released. I couldn’t get enough of this brave new world that I was being introduced to. I was 15. I used to hang around the business district looking for jobs. I bought the Financial Times everyday. I even wrote a program in Visual BASIC on my Amstrad CPC-464 that simulated stock trades. I had a Filofax! I cringe looking back, but I so wanted to be an executive with a busy schedule, working on important deals everyday.
Trump’s book was everything you would expect to find in a book by Trump about Trump, but there was one insight that I’ve never forgotten. Political opinions aside, there is no denying that he is a hustler. He gets stuff done. It’s how he managed to own all the real estate that he does. And the secret to his success?
12 minute meetings.
According to the book, Trump says that there were no chairs in his office, so people were forced to stand when they met him for a meeting. No matter how important the meeting topics was, or how big the deal they were discussing, the meeting usually never lasted longer than 12 minutes. No small talk. That would only be discussed if the meeting ended in 9 or 10 minutes. He didn’t want to know about your family, your holiday or your dog, he wanted to get straight down to business. I’m not sure if that always made for a happy workplace, and I’m not suggesting we should all host such hardcore meetings, but declaring war on time-sucking meetings is no bad thing. How many times have you been in a meeting that lasted two hour, with 10 other people, 8 of whom probably didn’t need to be there. that’s 8 hours (or 1 day) of wasted time.
Elon Musk is not a big fan of meetings either. Especially when they are full of smart people trying to sound smart, throwing around acronyms like confetti. The Space X and Tesla CEO and all-round badass really hated them. They made him go fml and wtf. So when employees at Space X were having conversations about how the JTB was going to impact the TKRM of the VSR, Musk stepped in. In an incredibly direct memo to his Space X staff, Musk raged on the acronym.
“Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to conversation. No one can actually remember them and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees”.
He set out a pretty clear ultimatum – any acronym that was to enter the Space X glossary would have to be approved by him. He also directed that all existing acronyms that couldn’t be reasonably justified would be scrapped.
Here’s the entire memo if you’re interested.
So where does this leave us and what advice should we take from these stories? Is it that the art of moving forward is knowing what to leave behind. Should follow the advice of the late great Steve Jobs, when he was often asked to attend meetings to discuss new technologies that Apple should build,
“I am more proud of what we didn’t do that I am of what we did”.
Whatever your take is on all these anecdotes, one thing is for certain, we need to take back control of our diaries and make sure that were ever we are spending our time is helping us do that very thing which we were put on the planet to do.
Hungry for more?