How to run an effective meeting: it’s a question many people have asked themselves as they’ve moved up in their careers.
Whether you’re just starting out at a startup or a seasoned vet managing a team of hundreds, learning how to run a meeting effectively is an essential skill everyone from the C-suite on down needs to develop.
Running a meeting effectively can improve communication, decision-making, problem-solving, transparency, alignment, and motivation. But not enough people sit back and ask themselves if they’re running an effective meeting or merely wasting people’s time.
“Meetings are what happens when people aren’t working,” Elon Musk once said.
Tough, but true. If you want to get more done, you need to learn how to run a productive meeting—otherwise, what’s the point in even having one?
Thankfully, over the years, many of the world’s top CEOs and business leaders have shared their thoughts on how to run a meeting.
Here are a few of them.
Read their tips below, and try incorporating some of their suggestions into your organization.
How to Run an Effective Meeting, According to Five of the World’s Top Business Leaders
Ben Horowitz (co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz) on How to Run a One-on-One Meeting
Ben Horowitz has one of the most storied careers in Silicon Valley, having invested in the early stages of countless successful startups, including Twitter, Skype, Airbnb, GitHub, and Stripe.
As the former CEO of Opsware (acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2007), the co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (aka a16z), and a New York Times best-selling author, Horowitz has a proven track record for providing sage-like and practical advice to today’s business leaders.
“Perhaps the CEO’s most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company,” Horowitz writes on his blog.
According to Horowtiz, one-on-one meetings are one of the best ways to discuss and identify “pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations” in a workplace.
Horowitz says the key to good one-on-one meetings is to understand that it’s the employee’s meeting, not the manager’s, and that their job is to facilitate the drawing out of important issues (“if you manage engineers, [this] will be an important skill to master”).
“The best ideas, the biggest problems and the most intense employee life issues make their way to the people that can deal with them,” he writes. “One-on-ones are a time-tested way to do that.”
Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla) on How to Stop Wasting People’s Time with Meetings
You don’t become the richest man in the world without pushing the limits—of technology, society, and, yes, sometimes even your employees.
“When we met with Elon, we were prepared. Because if you weren't, he'd let you know,” someone stating to be an employee once wrote on Quora. “If he asked a reasonable follow-up question and you weren't prepared with an answer, well, good luck.”
Musk is straightforward to a fault, especially when it comes to meetings.
In a 2018 letter to Tesla employees, Musk described excessive meetings as a “blight [to] big companies,” especially the larger they get.
His fix? Don’t be afraid to leave a meeting if you aren’t adding value to it.
“It is not rude to leave,” Musk writes. “It is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
Sometimes it’s impossible to know, but all meeting organizers should look at their attendee list before sending an invite and question if everyone needs to be there.
Steve Jobs (co-founder and former CEO of Apple) on How to Set Up an Agenda and Run a Meeting
Steve Jobs practically created the blueprint for the modern tech CEO.
After years spent practicing Zen Buddhism, Jobs honed the ability to identify and remove anything he deemed distracting or unnecessary—whether that involved clothing, designs, people, or meetings.
Jobs was ruthless when it came to inviting attendees to a meeting (he famously declined a meeting with then-US President Barack Obama because he felt the guest list was too long).
In his book Insanely Simple, Apple’s ad agency creative director Ken Segall details an awkward moment when Jobs spotted someone new in their weekly meeting.
“He stopped cold,” Segall writes. “His eyes locked on to the one thing in the room that didn't look right. Pointing to Lorrie, he said, 'Who are you?' Calmly, she explained that she was asked to the meeting because she was a part of related marketing projects. Jobs heard her, and then politely told her to get out. ‘I don't think we need you in this meeting, Lorrie. Thanks,’ he said.”
To reduce ambiguity during meetings, Jobs made each action item in a meeting agenda have a DRI (aka directly responsible individual) listed next to it, so everyone knew who was responsible for a particular task or project.
He also banned PowerPoint presentations because he thought they limited constructive conversations.
“I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. “I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint."
Phil Libin (former CEO of Evernote) on the Benefit of Switching Things Up During Meetings
Evernote pioneered digital note-taking thanks to he and Stepan Pachikov’s forward-thinking dream of overcoming the limitations of human memory by giving users the right tools for building a second brain.
Libin brought that same ingenuity into the workspace with Evernote’s “Officer Training” program.
Inspired by a friend who served on a nuclear submarine, Evernote implemented a voluntary program where an employee would sign up and get randomly assigned to another meeting.
“So pretty much anytime I have a meeting with anyone… very often there is somebody else in there from a totally different department,” Libin told the New York Times in 2012.
The idea is simple but genius. By having people from different departments join meetings, organizations can build transparency into work processes and decision-making, generate new ideas, and foster deeper connections amongst employees.
“They're not just spectators,” Libin said. “They ask questions; they talk.”
Jeff Bezos (founder and former CEO of Amazon) on the “Two Pizza Rule” and Why PowerPoint Presentations Suck
Like many executives on this list, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hated “social cohesion” during meetings and encouraged leaders to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagreed, even if it made them uncomfortable.
He also hated PowerPoint presentations.
Beginning in 2004, anytime an employee had an idea they would want to discuss, they were asked to structure their pitch in the form of a four-to-six-page memo, internally referred to as a “narrative,” which would be presented for the first 20 minutes of a meeting, followed by a question and answer period.
“The narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important,” Bezos wrote in an email to his senior team. “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness [sic] of ideas.”
But perhaps one of Bezos’s greatest tips on how to run a good meeting is the famed “two pizza rule.”
According to Bezos, if you’re trying to decide how many people to invite to a meeting, ask yourself: could I feed them with just two pizzas?
If you follow the “two pizza rule,” your meetings will be more efficient, and you’ll save money on catering: win, win.