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Keep your eye on the ball

More than a few summers ago, my Dad spent hours in the back yard with my brother and I teaching us how to hit a baseball. I can still hear his patient instruction, “Keep your eye on the ball. Watch it all the way in, until it connects with the bat. Keep your eye on the ball ….”

I thought of my Dad’s coaching when I was reading through folder after folder of the Mansfield papers. Several of the “top secret” folders contained minutes of the Democratic Caucus meetings. Usually 5 to 7 pages, the minutes begin with the usual date, list of attendees, and a short agenda. In the period I was reviewing, 1960-1963, they often included a request from President Kennedy to discuss the situation in Cambodia and Laos (Vietnam was a late arrival in the Southeast Asia discussion.) or the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Civil Rights bill.

But reading down through the notes, I discovered that often none of these issues of national and international importance made it into the discussion. More frequently, the topics discussed were who had what space in the Senate Cloakroom, which office would get the new IBM Selectric® typewriters, who was back in their district campaigning, or who had missed the most recent floor vote. It’s no wonder the minutes were classified, “Top Secret”.

This is a challenge that faces many organizations. Over the years, I’ve sat through more “Monday morning staff meetings” than I can count. Yet I can remember very little that was accomplished in those meetings. When I worked at a CPA firm, I used to look around the table and count of the thousands of dollars in billable time represented by persons who sat through those meetings.

So what does a productive meeting look like? Beyond the obvious need to make meetings serve their intended purpose and run on time, I have two other questions: Do we have the courage to invite only the people who need to be there? My assumption is that the meeting notes can be more widely circulated to those who have interest but don’t need to be “in” the meeting. And, do we have the courage to cancel meetings when we haven’t had adequate time to plan and prepare for the discussion?

What are your secrets for leading meetings that matter – that help everyone “keep their eye on the ball”?

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