What Can Great Concerts Teach Us About Having Better Meetings?

This is a guest post from Greg Elwell, principal of B2B Inbound, music lover and proud grandpa to 13 grand kids. This is the story of one of them and what she’s taught him recently about music and meetings.

If you’re like most business professionals, you want your time to count. You don’t want to waste time, yours or anyone else’s, in meetings that don’t add value. Or, that in some way aren’t meaningful to you or your organization.

Still, there’s far too many meetings that, for one reason or another, fall flat and way short of being productive or something that inspires change. It’s like listening to music that too sharp, flat, or all over the place.

On the other hand, some meetings just seem to capture our attention, get us involved, and collectively move us in a positive direction. They make us glad we attended. They make us want more. Great music, wholeheartedly and skillfully performed is like that, too.

Recently, I attended my 16-year old granddaughter’s spring band concert. There were actually 3 concerts performed that night: the first by the 9th grade band, followed by the Concert Band and finally, the Woodwind Ensemble – the school’s top band (pictured below).

woodwind ensemble

I had never heard any of these bands play before, and because I had lived out-of-state for 10 years, neither had I heard my granddaughter, Ali play her flute in any of them. Her participation and that of her band mates in the Woodwind Ensemble blew me away, and left me wanting more.

Later I got to thinking, what was it about their performance that was so great? And, if I could look at it like it was a well orchestrated meeting, what made it stand out? What can we learn and apply to how we lead or participate in meetings – to make them truly exceptional?

Prepare extensively

When we walked into the performing arts center it was apparent we were in the right place and everything was set up for us to enjoy the event. The bands had thoroughly rehearsed their numbers, excitement was in the air. Have you ever walked into a meeting room and wondered if you were in the right place? Or worse still, have you ever been in a meeting when either the leader or attendees was ill-prepared?

The biggest reason meetings are a waste of time is because people fail to prepare. This was pointed out in last week’s blog on meeting fatigue where research indicated most managers fail to properly prepare for leading effective meetings.

I’ll never forget the time my manager and I traveled to Chicago for a meeting with the regional VP. He had me fastidiously prepare for the meeting and we went over the presentation materials time-and-time again until he was finally satisfied. I was second up to present our plan to the executive. The first presenter from another district was totally unprepared, didn’t have a handle on the business, where they were going or how to get there. Thanks to my manager’s coaching I was ready and nailed it. We walked out with high-praise, and better yet, the funding to execute our plan. “You see, Greg,” my manager commented after wards, “It pays to prepare.”

As the meeting host, think of yourself as the conductor and meeting participants as players in the band. You’re giving a concert and your program is the agenda. Imagine your audience is the entire organization. Is it well put together? Have you adequately prepared yourself and the players to make it the best it can be?

Work through adversity

It takes time, maturity, and practice, practice, practice to play at your best, to be able to play in the top band (or orchestra). It doesn’t happen overnight. The 9th graders were good, the Concert Band was better, but the Woodwind Ensemble was truly the best. Having better meetings is like that, too. One needs to be a student of the fine art of leading people to constantly improve. And to never give up when adversity strikes.

Having better meetings is hard and requires hard work. You can’t just show up and expect to get positive results. You must have a mindset to keep at it, to not give up, to not succumb to the sentiment that meetings are a necessary evil and therefore a waste of time. No. there’s a learning curve to being part of great outcomes through meetings, just as there is with being an accomplished musician in a renowned orchestra.

The Minneapolis Orchestra recently survived a 16-month lockout over contract negotiations. Meeting after meeting failed. Talks broke down. It got ugly. Yet finally, the musicians and management reached agreement. And last week I attended one of their first symphonies (have I mentioned I have a thing for music?), “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” by guest conductor, George Daugherty. During which, Mr. Daugherty had nothing but high praise for the quality of the orchestra, their work ethic and perseverance through hardship. “This,” he said, “Is one of the best orchestras in the land.” (Well may be just a tad bit better than my granddaughter’s Woodwind Ensemble!) But it got me thinking, and I wonder how much more determined and better they’d become because of the adversity they’d been through over the past 16 months?

On the onset, I don’t like a lot of the meetings I’m called to attend. (There’ve been times I’ve felt my job was doing email and attending meetings!) But if I’ve learned one thing about meetings it’s this: be prepared, do your best and over time good things happen. The music gets better.

Recognize achievement

Throughout the evening concert and for every band, the director gave awards for the most improved band member. And for the concert and ensemble bands he recognized those who had lettered, while telling the audience how very difficult it was due to the number of hours one must put in to letter. I’m not suggesting we give people awards for being the most improved, or commendations for attending the most meetings. But what I am thinking is a little bit of appreciation and recognition for the sincere efforts people make to add value to our meetings might go a long way towards making them feel good and inspire others to higher levels of performance, too.

Instead of taking it for granted that people show up, pay attention and contribute, why not find some creative ways to recognize those who stand out? The key is to understand what motivates people. Sure, some are self-motivated and don’t prefer to be singled out in a group setting. For them, maybe just a sincere thank you will suffice. Perhaps they’d enjoy lunch out, or tickets to the next symphony! This might not work, but what about giving them the next meeting off? What if as a leader you cultivated a culture where people felt empowered to only accept meeting invitations that compelled them to attend? It’s the difference between “I get to attend” vs. “I have to go.”

Build camaraderie

The music director loves to travel and every year he takes the band on a trip. This past year my granddaughter got to go to Hawaii with the band for a full week. Can you imagine how many pictures were taken (and not a selfie in the bunch)! We got to see them in the form of a media slideshow (set to music of course) as part of the concert. More importantly, they relived the camaraderie of doing things and having fun together – outside of the band room. It may not be possible or in your budget to take off for Hawaii with meeting team members, but what are some things you can do to build a sense of mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together?

One idea might be to hold a meeting outside the office. Go someplace fun and inviting. Make sure virtual members are cared for as well so they feel part of the team. If you can’t bring them in to the face-to-face venue, bring a little of the venue to them. My wife worked virtually for the past 10 years and her company would often send gift cards, apparel and knick-knacks from the places or themes of their off-site meetings (ahead of time). It wasn’t the same as being there, but it said they cared and it meant a lot.

So there are four lessons gleaned from my granddaughter’s band concert and the world of music – ideas for tuning up your next meeting plan and making it better. Ali tells me she’s looking forward now to marching band. It seems they practice all throughout summer vacation. She doesn’t mind. She gets to play in the marching band!

Oh, and she’s looking forward to her senior year, which is two years away. You see the music director is retiring then, and she figures with his love for travel and taking the kids on trips, they’ll probably get to go to Europe! Why didn’t I stick with the clarinet and playing in my high school band?


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