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How to Lead Virtual Meetings

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Whether you love them or hate them, virtual meetings are hard to avoid. Learn tips for how to lead virtual meetings that are focused, productive, and engaging.

headshot of Great Permann with a person on a laptop leading a virtual meeting to show that this podcast episode is about best practices for how to lead virtual meetings

A 480 PODCAST

How to Lead Virtual Meetings

20 minutes | March 9, 2021

00:00:00 00:00

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, we interview Greta Permann, a leadership consultant and psychologist based out of DDI's London office. She joins us to share best practices for how to lead virtual meetings, including tips for how leaders can develop stronger virtual leadership skills.

Beth Almes:

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today we're talking about leading virtual meetings. And I know, I know a lot of us are suffering from Zoom fatigue. And the last thing you want to see right now is that familiar face on your screen, but let's face it. For some of us, the virtual office is going to be here to stay long past the pandemic. A lot of companies are going to be offering remote work as a perk and a lot of folks will be working from home, or wherever they travel.

So whether you return to the office full time, or whether you decide to stay at home, the reality here is that virtual meetings are here to stay and the least we can do is make virtual meetings better. And that is why I have my guest today on the show, Greta Permann. Greta is a leadership consultant and psychologist in DDI's London office. And she's been spending a lot of her time this past year, focusing on virtual meetings, both for herself and her clients. Greta, welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Greta Permann:

Hi Beth, thanks for having me.

Beth Almes:

So my first question for you Greta, is about settling a debate that's out there about virtual meetings. For some folks they see no difference in participating virtually, maybe they've worked for a tech company and worked remotely for years, or maybe they're part of the international team. On the other hand, you've got a lot of people who feel like, unless they're sitting right in front of you, you can't have a meaningful conversation. So where do you fall in the debate of virtual versus in-person meetings?

Greta Permann:

Yes, I think I agree with what you said, Beth. I think for some people it's been a very natural progression now to just switch all the meetings to a virtual format. So it's been probably quite natural and quite a lot, not sort of a big change for them versus for others where they just never had any virtual meetings, or very rarely. And now all of a sudden that's all you have, that's all you get. 

So it's a bit more of a dramatic change that might involve using some technology that you are not used to, or just generally not being able to interact with people face-to-face where that might be your natural preference. But as you correctly said, I think virtual meetings are here to stay at least for the foreseeable future. So what we can do is make the best out of those virtual meetings that we have, to make them a bit less painful for all of us.

Beth Almes:

So as you've worked with clients and you've been in meetings in the past year, so what kind of pitfalls do you see people fall into when it comes to these virtual meetings?

Greta Permann:

Yeah, there's definitely a few, I would say generic pitfalls people fall into when they are heading into a virtual meeting. I think the most important one is to kind of forget the human aspect that otherwise you would have if it was a face-to-face, because you would interact sort of human-to-human. 

And now what we do is we interact screen to screen, but in fact it is still human-to-human. It's just a different medium. So there is a risk here to forget those very essential communication and essential leadership skills such as showing empathy, asking open questions, being inclusive, asking for involvement, things like this that we might just skip more easily because we're just looking at a black quadratic screen in front of us and we sort of really miss out on the human aspect. I think that's one of the biggest pitfalls that people have fallen into that I have seen people fall into.

What I also have seen is that it's probably generally reduced by now because we've been in this for so long, but there's definitely a bit of... There's been a bit of a clash, especially in those early months I would say. 

One other thing is that if you have virtual meetings, what can happen is if you're not using the camera function, is that you're literally missing out on all of the nonverbal clues and the nonverbal communication that you would otherwise have. And experts say that 70 to 93% of our communication is nonverbal.

And so if all of a sudden we don't have this, then it obviously suggests there's a lot of information that gets sort of lost in translation, and in between the cables and wires between person A and B. So I would also say, use camera as much as possible where you can, because it just makes it more human and you will be able to pick up on some of those nonverbal cues as well, that are just so important to any communication.

Beth Almes:

That's such a good point, Greta. And for our listeners, you can't tell, but Greta and I are both on camera. So as I'm sitting here, I'm nodding along, telling you I understand what you're saying, and I'm agreeing with you, and I think your point about the nonverbal communication is just so important.

And what gets lost in the meantime, I find myself when I'm presenting or speaking, if I can't see the person on the other end and they're quiet, I'm like, "I have no idea what you're thinking, are you quiet because you hate this idea? Are you quiet because it makes so much sense?" It's hard to say.

Greta Permann:

Yeah, yeah. That's so true and even now, right? I mean, we see each other face-to-face, but it's not like proper face-to-face where I would see even your reactions, like how you use your arms, how you're sitting. I think there is so much more there that I even don't see right now, even if we see sort of just the upper part, let's say. 

So I think there's still a lot of element there to get some information, ask a bit more open questions because as you say, you simply don't get enough nonverbal cues. So what we might need to be mindful of is even to ask more so and ask openly. So something like move away from, hey, do you have questions? To, what questions do you have? It just makes such a difference, doesn't it?

Beth Almes:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think, and maybe asking some people specifically who have been quiet, I would imagine too. I don't know about you, but anytime I ask, "Does anyone have any questions?" I'm usually met with a big blank silence for a while.

Greta Permann:

Yes, yes absolutely. That's so true and there's obviously those who are more confident to speak up again, that's the same I think if it was face-to-face or virtual. But again, one of those almost pitfalls as well, you can have is maybe ignoring people who might have been quiet. So it's a good opportunity to really address them also by name, make some notes of track, especially those who might just not have spoken up yet, then address those as well to be quite inclusive as well in the virtual meeting.

Beth Almes:

Yeah. So this is a leadership podcast and I have to ask, as we think about structuring these virtual meetings, what's the leader's role in helping these to go better?

Greta Permann:

I think, first to differentiate between the leader, that might just not be the person who is leading the meeting, maybe someone who's called in the meeting, but I'm going to answer this question now from the perspective of the meeting leader. So I think the most important piece is that the meeting leader is a role model. 

So the meeting leader will probably also have been a participant in meetings that other people have hosted. So what's important is I think really be this role model also for other peoples' meetings, to them ask the same for others in the meeting that you are hosting.

Being on time, things like this, being prepared, having an agenda ready, asking for people's input already upfront, setting the ground rules. That's another important piece. 

Like making sure you set ground rules for meetings, especially if you're sort of setting up new meetings, for example, new weekly meetings with clients or with the team. Just aligning and making sure everyone is aligned with what those ground rules are. This might be maybe being on time or raising your hand if you've got a question, mentioning your name before you speak up, those kinds of things.

Another important one is also being a host. And what I mean with that is it's almost like the host of a party. So you are the host of your meeting party. Research has shown that the mood of a meeting leader has a significant impact on the mood of others that are in the meeting. So to give you, and that's a negative example of a meeting that I've been in, where the meeting leader was just in a really bad mood, I would say. And it just swapped over to me and to all others so much, you could really sort of feel the tension.

So considering how important and how crucial your own mood is as a meeting leader, it's probably worth keeping that in mind as well. And if it's a day that just has really not gone well, you're sort of not feeling great, then you just can't shake it off. 

That's maybe a good reason to just reschedule the meeting if needed, because it's just such an important role that you're playing as the meeting leader. And the other one, I'm using another analogy now is the one of a steward. And what I mean with that is the, yeah a steward of people's time. So you obviously schedule, say an hour of a meeting.

So you want to make sure you make best use of the time. If you see conversations are derailing, or you're sort of moving away too much from the agenda you've identified, it's a good point for you or a good moment and for you as a meeting leader to stop the derailing that's happening at the moment, and use some of the process skills such as making procedural suggestion to move back to the agenda points, or talk about something in a different meeting. So really being mindful of people's time and sort of keeping the goal of the meeting still at the top of their heads.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, I think that's one aspect that just can't be overlooked. The importance of keeping people on the agenda. We've all been in those meetings where they can really go, really kind of run, run into their own direction that you never intended them to be.

I like your concept of being a great host for the meeting and really the agenda and making sure you have everything planned. Now in my head, I'm having a hard time shaking the idea that I think you should provide snacks for everyone. But I guess in the virtual world, we give those up. But I was thinking about this a lot lately, some folks may have seen Jeff Bezos step down at Amazon recently and one of the big things that I have seen in the news is him talking about how important they made meetings.

So trying to keep meetings small, trying to get them super focused and people would spend weeks putting together their, any advanced work, the brief memo, they would tell people about what this meeting is about, and the agenda. So can you talk a little bit about creating a great agenda that helps things move smoothly?

Greta Permann:

Yes, definitely. So I think what you really want to start with is the goal. Like, what's the goal of the meeting? I think this is something so valid being it for a face-to-face meeting or a virtual, really start with the goal. Like, what do I want to get out of this meeting? This is where it all starts. 

And I think from there, then you will be able to draft your agenda and to get an understanding of who needs to be in this meeting, or even do I even need a meeting? Because if the goal is, you sort of reflect and the goal is you need to bring some information across, you figure out, all I want to do is just bring information across. 

Then I think a meeting is probably not the right method and you might just want to choose something else such as, as simple as an email, or a recorded webinar, or something like that. So I would say really reflect very well, what do I want to get out with? And take it from there.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, I think so. One of my favorite memes, I think I've seen is just a mug that says, "This meeting could have been an email." So it's such a great point like, could you have gotten across the same amount of information and in a quick email rather than a meeting?

Greta Permann:

Yeah, exactly. And if you ask people, where do they spend most of their time? Lots of people would just say, yeah, in meetings. So it's really around, where could I even skip the meeting? 

And I think that's another thing, maybe another pitfall, if you think about the virtual meetings it's just so much easier now to set them up. All it takes is a click of button, and I might click another plus and just add someone else. And here we are, we have a meeting of three people in an instant, right?

Beth Almes:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greta Permann:

So yeah, in those situations that maybe you're not prepared, you don't have an agenda, but you're asking for a lot of time from people. So maybe, this could have been an email for example, or just something else. So yeah, almost. Be even more, how quick it can be now to be included in meetings, much quicker than it even would be in the face-to-face world that we were living in before.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, absolutely. And I did want to ask about inclusion. You had brought that up a little bit earlier as well. And I think it's something a lot of us struggle with, even in face-to-face meetings. The most dominant personality, they might unconsciously end up leading and dominating the conversation they don't necessarily mean to, but they do. 

And then people who feel like they have different views or they have less power, they end up staying quiet. And that was hard enough when everyone was staring each other in the face, to be inclusive a lot of times people had hard time with it. And now when people are virtual, it can be even harder. So how can we be more inclusive really intentionally in these virtual meetings?

Greta Permann:

Yeah. So it just makes me think of a very nice story from our team actually. So most of the people in our team are located in Europe and there is one team member, she is located in the United States. And obviously, since about one year now, we're having all our meetings virtually. 

And recently she said to me, "You know what, Greta, I have just never felt more included, more inclusive in the team since sort of the last year." Because we've been holding all these virtual meetings that just doesn't differentiate anymore, where you're sitting, where you're based, where you're calling from. We're sort of all equal and all the same. And in a way I think that's such a nice thought and it's so true because all of a sudden, it's just the geographical location by your face.

It doesn't matter anymore and everyone is sitting in the same seat. There is no such thing as you will show a sitting arrangement, for example, that just gives maybe some people different advantage. And in a way everyone has the same space aspired to speak up. So I think in that sense, maybe virtual meetings in a way already provide a platform for inclusivity in that sense. 

What's important, I think, and that's one of the points I've mentioned earlier already, is to still, as a meeting leader, still keep an eye out for those who just haven't been so vocal as obviously, as I already said, for people it's just easier to speak up and for others, it isn't.

And that will be the same in whatever format you're having a meeting in, but I'm also addressing those that have been quiet and seeing what input that they want to share as they might just need to address those a bit more proactive than others, calling them by name, asking open questions.

And one thing that a meeting leader could and I think should obviously do as well, if it's important for the meeting leader to be inclusive and also ask for feedback after a meeting or a couple of meetings. Just asking people, how inclusive that you feel by my meeting style to get a bit of an external view as well.

Beth Almes:

That's a really great point to ask for that feedback and to... You don't want to put anybody on the spot. The point is it to quiz anybody or make sure, were you really listening? But make sure you're giving the opportunity for folks to speak up. And imagine it really helps with engagement in the meetings as well, rather than if everybody is off camera... People could be on their phones or doing other multitasking and you have no idea, and I think that, that's a great, great way to keep people engaged.

Greta Permann:

Yeah.

Beth Almes:

So for my last question, which I ask all of our guests on this show, what was the moment of leadership that had a big impact on you and your life? Whether it was for good, for bad, in a meeting, out of a meeting, just a moment of leadership that had a big impact.

Greta Permann:

Yeah. So here comes a more positive story than to my negative example that I shared earlier. So one thing that really comes to mind is that a few years ago, a previous manager of mine has given to all the women in his team, the book called Lean In written by Sheryl Sandberg. And it's just left such a footprint really in my life because probably it's just really been one of those examples where you move away from, hey, this is what you could do, I have an idea of what you might be able to do, maybe here's a book recommendation, to here is a book.

I have bought a book for you, I have written something inspiring for you on page one. Take it, go away read it and, really make it yours. Like lean in, take charge, make the ask, and not just to me, but to other women in his team. It's just really something I will always remember and I will always want to look at this book, it makes me think back to his leadership style and how much I've learned under his supervision. So, yeah.

Beth Almes:

He was really focused on the potential, and building that, and for all of you, that's a wonderful story. Thanks Greta.

Greta Permann:

Yeah.

Beth Almes:

So thank you for joining us today, Greta. I hope all of our listeners found this to be a good use of their kind of quote, "Meeting time with us virtually here." Thank you for spending part of your 480 with us today. I'm Beth Almes reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.


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