5 Lessons Learned from Running 1,780 Team Meetings in 2017

Andy Cook
March 27, 2020
Interview with Mark Kilens

Count the meetings you’ve attended over the last year.

Whatever your number is, it’s probably nowhere near the 1,780 meetings that Mark Kilens, VP of HubSpot Academy, participated in over the last year.

(That’s an average of seven meetings per day, by the way.)

Here’s the real paradox: Mark happily participated in all of those meetings. And not because he has some weird fetish for the torture of wasted time, but because he genuinely believes that, as a manager, that’s the highest contribution he can make to his team and company.

Mark Kilens

Management consultant Peter Drucker wrote that “meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization.” And those who nod in agreement point to the high cost of meetings in money and employee time.

Mark doesn’t disagree with the sentiments, as long as we’re talking about bad meetings.   In fact, he thinks that the cost of bad meetings is far higher than simply time and money wasted

Losing trust as a leader and losing respect from the people who look to you for guidance are two costs of bad meetings he considers much higher. But there’s an even greater cost: “The biggest consequence of a bad meeting is not learning from it and taking action.”

Managers, Mark says, are responsible for holding good, high-value meetings that contribute knowledge, decisions, and results to their team every single time. Mark’s overarching goal for all of his meetings is to have participants say at the end: “This meeting was the best use of our time.”

With literally thousands of meetings of all types under his belt, Mark has turned running good meetings into an art. In what follows, he shares five of the most important lessons he’s learned about scheduling, structuring, and running meetings that your team will love to attend.

1) Make Every Meeting POP 

If you want to be as happy as Mark about the meetings in your schedule, reject any meeting invitations that came without an agenda. No agenda means no plan, and no plan means a waste of time. That’s step one.

Step two is retracting or editing all meeting invitations you’ve sent without an agenda. If you want the meeting to be good and your participants to come prepared and remain engaged, you must first tell them what the meeting is about.

An agenda, Mark warns, is neither one sentence on the general topic nor a random collection of bullet points. To run good meetings, HubSpot has adopted the widely known framework POP—Purpose, Outcome, Prep.

Every meeting needs to have a purpose. Every meeting should end with some type of outcome for everyone in the meeting. Every meeting requires some element of prep from participants.

When you define a purpose for your meeting, rather than a topic, you define what the meeting will accomplish (which should be something that can’t be accomplished otherwise.) When you think about the desired outcomes for each participant, you clarify who needs to attend and who doesn’t. And when you write down the preparation required, you ensure that everyone comes ready to contribute.

“Discuss current campaign” for example, is not a meeting agenda. That’s just the topic of a meeting. Here’s what a good POP meeting agenda from Mark’s calendar looks like:

As you can see, the POP framework is clearly outlined for all invitees. Under “Purpose,” Mark has clarified the five things his team needs to accomplish in this meeting and has given each item a timeframe. Timeframes, Mark has learned, are a crucial element of the POP framework because they help keep everyone on track with their presentations and discussions.

The “Outcome” may sound simple, but it’s paramount. How many meetings have you attended where no next steps pertained to you? Probably many, and most of them were probably bad. By defining in the agenda that everyone must leave with next steps, Mark is getting everyone to think about what they should be doing for this project, but he’s also holding himself accountable to inviting only the people who are needed at the meeting.

For this specific case, “Prep” means everyone should come prepared to speak. In other cases, Mark adds, it can be something the team needs to review on Airtable beforehand, or a resource they need to read on Tettra, or a memo they need to be prepared to discuss. Whatever it is, all participants should know what prep is required for a meeting.

And after each meeting, you need to follow up with an email with the outcomes decided and the people responsible to deliver. Everyone should have it in writing as an agreement about what they’ve accomplished and what they will accomplish before the next meeting. Otherwise, Mark says, there’s no point to that meeting.

2) No phones, No Laptops, No Gadgets

No kidding. The HubSpot Academy implemented this policy years ago, and everyone just knows that’s the standard rule now. The only exception, Mark says, is for emergencies, and even then he asks people to take it outside.

This practice, Mark says, “has paid off with dividends.” Having no gadgets in the meeting room means that all participants are giving their full attention to the issue at hand. It means that everyone is respecting the effort others put in to prepare for the meeting and the time they’re taking to sit in that room. As Mark puts it:

If you’re not giving your attention to that meeting, I don’t think you deserve to be in that meeting.

For Mark, participating in these meetings is a privilege that has to be respected by everyone. If you’re going to be distracted the whole time, there’s no point in attending, so you should just leave (or decline).

3) If They’re Disengaged, You’re Doing It Wrong

With no phones and gadgets in the room, all attention is on you. And it’s your responsibility to engage your audience and get them interested in what you’re saying. Many managers, Mark says, lament that the team was “disengaged” during a meeting; but it’s never the team’s fault.

You have to make adjustments in the meeting to keep people engaged.

For Mark, preparing for a meeting means knowing your topic so well that you can adapt your pace and structure on the spot, based on the sentiment you get from the room. Mark says that lack of preparation is a problem that he experiences in about 20% of the meetings he attends: Presenters don’t adapt on the spot.

Here’s an example of how Mark stays attuned to the room and deals with dips in engagement during a presentation:

“So we’re going through the numbers and we’re digging into a specific number. I really want to make sure the team’s focused on this number, but I can see people are just not getting it. They’re confused, or they start to drift away, because I’ve been talking about this for three minutes. You’ve got to change it! Change the subject, or change how you’re describing it, or change how you’re delivering it in that moment.”

Presentations, however, aren’t the only way to keep participants engaged in a meeting. In fact, sometimes they can be the wrong way. That’s why Mark often incorporates exercises into his team meetings.

Exercises give people a break from passive listening, get them collaborating, and get them actively involved in what’s happening. When people “get their hands dirty” with something, they can really understand what’s happening and what should be done next.

Here are some of the exercises Mark has recently done with his team in various meetings:

  • Brainstorming ideas for new pieces of content
  • Reviewing customer feedback and creating action plans from them
  • Reflecting on their monthly priorities together and adjusting for their goals
  • Writing thank you notes to users
  • Practicing hands-on project management best practices

Exercises are not only a good change of pace but also a great way for you to connect with your team. They help build team spirit, trust, and openness—all of which are necessary for applying the next lesson for running good meetings.

4) Ask for Feedback (and Give Feedback, Too)

When was the last time you asked your team what they thought of a meeting you’d led? You may have a general sense of how the meeting went, but if you don’t ask for feedback from others, you’ll never know where and how you can improve.

The way you get good at meetings is by never settling on how you do meetings and by always asking your team for feedback. If you’re not constantly searching for feedback, your meetings will not get much better.

Take the time for each session Mark uses on his agenda, for example. “That feedback,” Mark says, “came from a lot of people on my team. It’s been about a year and a half since we’ve started timing, and we’ve not stopped.”

Mark asks people for feedback at the end of every meeting. Just a friendly tap on the shoulder and a question about what they thought and what could be better can provide a lot of insight. But he also collects written feedback. About three times a year, Mark sends his team a Google form with questions. Completing the form is optional, but all of the feedback that comes in helps make team meetings better.

Besides asking for feedback, it’s a manager’s job to give meeting feedback to others. Think about the last time you sat through a bad meeting at your company. Did you approach that person to give them feedback about the meeting? Did you offer ways they could improve some things for next time?

If not, why would you expect them to learn and get better at meetings? When you don’t give feedback, it’s like signing up for more bad meetings. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to both ask for meeting feedback and deliver it.

5) Use Monthly Team Meetings to Fuel Plans, Not Recap Them

Monthly meetings often turn into repetitive and gratuitous events that offer no more than a recap of everything that’s already been discussed in all the other meetings of the month. Team members get bored, check out, and start looking at their to-do list for the “real work” they could be doing.

Not on Mark’s watch.

Mark’s monthly team meetings are two-hour events that help team members bond, get realignment on their purpose as a team, and forge a strategic path forward for the month ahead. Monthly team meetings are the time to get everyone excited about their work and eager to roll their sleeves up.

To achieve this goal, Mark has developed and refined a special agenda for his monthly team meetings, and it goes like this:

The “Leadership system” is the team’s “why.” During these 20 minutes, Mark introduces various exercises that get the team to discuss the three crucial components that make up the team’s DNA: the team’s purpose as part of HubSpot, their principles, and the people who make up the team.  

If the team doesn’t have a purpose, is it really a team? If there aren’t people who believe in that purpose, should we even meet? Probably not. And if the team doesn’t have a set of principles to operate by, will it ever become a strong, high-performing, and cohesive team? I don’t think. So we talk about those three things every monthly team meeting.

One of the ways Mark is fueling the team’s purpose is by having them see the actual transformation their work has for their customers. So far, the team has been sharing transformation stories from their users, but Mark plans on having users call in or visit the office during some of these meetings to relate their transformation stories directly to the team.  Talking about real-world transformation is a powerful way to bring the team together and help them remember their purpose.

Once the team gets realigned on their purpose, it’s time for the “Management system” on the agenda. This is all about the MSPOT framework that Brian Halligan, HubSpot co-founder and CEO, has developed for scaling up.

Using this framework, Mark’s team reviews their Mission; their Strategy for accomplishing it; the Projects they have underway for that strategy; their Omissions, which are projects they’ve decided not to continue; and their Tracking numbers for measuring progress.

The management system is how we operate, how we manage ourselves.

Mark explains that getting through their why and how in new, interactive, and engaging ways every month is important because it gives the team alignment on what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what they’re planning. This is the basic fuel the team needs to run at full speed and stay excited about their work. And it’s worth every one of the 45 minutes they devote to it every month.

Jumping to the last two items on the agenda, Mark closes every monthly team meeting with the Rocket Awards, which highlight the projects from the previous month that had a big impact. Recognizing team members and the impact their work has made helps tie everything back to the team’s purpose: This is why anything else they do matters.

Mark closes all monthly meetings with a final thought. A lot of the time, he runs this as an exercise for his team because he wants them to participate and to discuss an interesting idea for a few meetings. Last month, for example, he gave them two questions: “What does the last 10% mean to you? What is the last 10%?” Mark simply facilitated the conversation and took notes on what that idea meant to the team.

The middle section of the monthly meeting is divided into two or three sessions, during which anything that’s new to the team is discussed or practiced. The Team Habitus from the example above was a session with exercises familiarizing team members with their new project management system built in Airtable.

Using this template, Mark is able to inspire his team to continue doing good work. The monthly agenda makes sure to cover both the deeper work of the team—digging down to their why and how every month—as well as the more practical skills and topics that need coverage and alignment as things shift and change.

Keep Learning and Refining

Meetings are a necessary part of teamwork, and when structured and organized the right way, they can be one of the most vital aspects of the team’s success. One thing to remember, however, is that great meetings take work.

Meetings are not about status updates or long discussions that run over time. Good team meetings are about making decisions, moving forward, and bonding. As the meeting leader, Mark says, your job is not to come in with all of the answers.

As a manager leading a team meeting, your job is to be a great facilitator so your team can identify the problems and come up with the solutions to execute.

These lessons learned from thousands of meetings can help you set a framework for good meetings that help solve your team’s biggest problems. From there, every leader should keep learning from his team and keep refining meetings until they become the best use of everyone’s time.