Meetings matter

July 13th, 2017

CEOs are supposed to think meetings are bullshit.

The consistent advice given to me by most other CEOs I meet is: meetings suck you into the day-to-day, which limits your thinking to tactical issues, preventing you from thinking strategically.

I now realize that the CEOs who say that haven’t figured it out any more than I have.

When Localist was smaller, I didn’t have a choice. There were many things that weren’t on anyone else’s plate, so they fell to me. Ordering snacks for the office, setting up computer workstations, running bank recs, invoicing customers, giving demos, answering support tickets, etc. Over years of exercising the “replace myself” hiring mentality, I got to a point a couple of years ago where I could step away from day-to-day operational aspects of the company and hang out at the higher-level for long periods of time.

But I maintained an open-door policy. If someone needed something, they could pop by my desk and grab me.

Being always available to everyone kept the lines of communication open, but it conflicted with the advice I’d always received. Unplanned meetings and conversations were nagging reminders that I wasn’t being “a good CEO.”

A few months ago I started intentionally restricting my calendar. I created daily office hours between 10–11am and 2–3pm. These were the times that anyone in the company could book with me. Outside of those windows, I was off limits.

I also generally did not attend meetings that didn’t require my presence (sales team, marketing team, support team, etc.). My reasoning was: I depend on the leaders of these areas to communicate updates to me, and I trust their ability to lead and inspire their teams on company vision and mission respectively.

It didn’t take long to realize this was a bad idea.

The more disconnected I became from the company, the more disconnected the company became. It felt like people were going through the motions, and even leadership confidence started to suffer, simply because they weren’t hearing from me as often as they needed to.

I was so focused on allocating as much time as possible for myself, I never considered the right amount of time to allocate for others.

In the past, during times that were particularly meeting-heavy, I’d end the week thinking “I didn’t get anything done this week.” What I now know is that the meeting is the “doing.” My productivity as CEO today is tied more to time spent with smaller teams and trying to affect the outcome of each, rather than assuming they take care of themselves while I focus exclusively on high-level strategy.

Being present in departmental meetings completely changes the energy of the business. I get energized when I hear great debates, discussions and celebrations within teams, and I have more opportunities to energize our team around our mission.

Exclusively relying on leadership to disseminate the company vision and mission to their teams isn’t enough. It’s not the leadership’s fault; it’s the reality that a founder/CEO brings this necessary level of energy to drive the company’s purpose home. Sometimes things need to come from the horse’s mouth.

Ultimately what I’ve learned is that the CEO skillset is an ability to get into the nitty gritty and view the company from 30,000 feet. It’s not about avoiding meetings so I can stay elevated, it’s the ability to be in the meetings and stay elevated.

ADDENDUM: This raises the question: how does this scale? I think any one person can effectively manage a maximum of ten people, and that's pushing it. Any company can be condensed down to ten (or fewer) main departments. What grows is the people who are part of those teams. I believe I can continue employing the spirit of being present through 50, 100, 200 employees by interacting with the heads of each department, and their respective meetings.