Dec 06, 2017

The skills engineers need to run effective meetings

We’ve all been in engineering meetings. We’ve been invited to them, organized them, sat through them, loved them, hated them, wished we were not in them, avoided them or even simply skipped them. Whether your company is big or small, it seems there are too many meetings and nothing seems to ever get accomplished. Right?

Believe it or not, meetings CAN be effective if run well, and one Lingo Live customer had some words of wisdom for developing the skills necessary to run an effective meeting, while also developing the skills needed to be a good manager.

Start by asking yourself these questions about your own meeting skills

  • Do I run meetings and lead projects on a regular basis?
  • Am I an expert in my domain, or in multiple domains?
  • Am I constantly learning?
  • Am I an effective public communicator (in written and oral mediums)?
  • Do I think big and understand how the entire organization works?

Our customer feels that there are specific skills that any IC or engineering manager should develop if they hope to establish themselves as a leader within their team while running an effective meeting. He’s outlined those skills below:

Skill to develop: captivate people and have them look up to you during discussions

Imagine a weekly team meeting. Do your peers frequently seek out your feedback about which task to assign to a particular engineer? One does not become a leader overnight, you know you are a leader if other engineers request feedback from you.

If your team members don’t naturally treat you like a leader, how do you assume that role on the team? Here are some things you can do to develop leadership skills and behavior:

  • One quality that distinguishes leaders from followers is that leaders show interest in their team members’ projects. This includes asking questions and serving as a sounding board during brainstorming sessions.
  • As you learn about your coworkers’ respective projects, you can offer a unique perspective and point them to useful resources, or connect them with other colleagues. (Keep in mind that a lot of this work is outside of the formal meeting context.)
  • You need to make time to read their design docs and project updates.
  • Remember to also give feedback in larger meetings, not only in private 1-on-1 sessions.

Skill to develop: drive the conclusions and action items

Whether you are formally leading a meeting or not, there are several things you can do to improve its effectiveness including:

  • At the beginning of the meeting, make sure everyone has a clear idea of the goals, and that someone is taking notes.
  • If it’s a brainstorming session, write down the main points on the whiteboard to provide structure.
  • During the meeting, check to see that everybody is on the same page, and don’t be afraid to encourage attendees to speak up if anything is unclear, and then have them explain the point that gave them trouble in their own words.
  • A valuable meeting should conclude with clear actionable next steps, otherwise everyone has wasted their time. Finally, be sure to email important conclusions and action items to all attendees.

Skill to develop: come prepared and ask the hard questions

Imagine a small engineering meeting that you participated in or even led. Did you come prepared with an agenda? Did you send the agenda to all attendees prior to the meeting, or write it on the whiteboard as soon as the meeting began? One way to know if you were sufficiently prepared for the meeting is to take feedback from the attendees at the end of it. Effectively leading a meeting also means that everybody who attends feels that it was time well spent.

If you find yourself in a meeting where you’re struggling to get actively involved, there is at least one trick you can follow: Ask questions! It’s important to understand that (1) no question is a stupid question, and (2) others might be contemplating your very question. There may even be situations where everyone could use some additional clarification. Start by paraphrasing the topic you have an issue with, and then follow up with a request for further elaboration. This not only sheds light on the topic at hand, but it also inserts you firmly into the dialogue, which in turn grants you more opportunities to participate.

Leaders are experts at asking questions. They’ve graduated from just making clarification requests, to posing the hard questions that no one else is asking. Have you been in a meeting where everybody is hyped over the results of an experiment, but the engineering leader is confident enough to step up and ask the hard questions, even if they go against the group consensus?

Of course, the first step in becoming an expert at asking questions is to start by asking any question at all. Be sure to ask a question in the next meeting you attend!

Skill to develop: be able to context switch and stick to your calendar

We’ve all had the experience of discussing unresolved meeting topics long after the meeting has ended. While individual contributors have the luxury of brewing over a select theme for longer periods of time, an engineering leader does not. He or she has to be an expert at maneuvering a meeting-heavy schedule that covers a wide-range of topics. In other words, context switching is an inevitable part of your future as you move up in the ranks. It’s best to accept this fact early on to give yourself ample time to practice.

Context switching isn’t the only issue that engineers have with meeting-heavy schedules. Many engineers feel that a meeting in the middle of the day impedes productivity. For individual contributors to perform at their best, they need large chunks of uninterrupted work time. The only, highly effective way to reserve this time for yourself is to proactively block it on your calendar. Try, for example, to group as many weekly meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays, leaving the other days for IC work like thinking, writing, coding, recruiting, and other ad-hoc XFN meetings for long-term initiatives. Check your calendar to see if you have sufficient blocks of time for IC work. If you don’t, be sure to block it now.

Finally, be certain to end meetings on time so that they don’t eat into your personal work time or hinder your ability to context switch. You can clearly communicate the end of a meeting by using expressions like: “This meeting has a hard stop at…” or “To be mindful of everyone’s time, we’re ending the meeting at…”.  

Lingo Live would like to thank our customer for his recommendations on which skills an IC should develop to be able to run an effective meeting while developing valuable managerial skills. We hope that his advice to “put in the work today and begin to distinguish yourself from your peers” is a helpful reminder that managers are not born… they are developed with practice and conscious actions and behavior.

Action Steps Recap

  • Show interest in a colleague’s project. Specifically, serve as a sounding board and ask them engaging questions.
  • Consider the main objective of a project you are currently working on. Then ask the project leader for his thoughts on the main objective. How well do your thoughts align with the project leader’s point of view?  
  • Take the initiative and ask someone to clarify a particularly confusing point.
  • During your next meeting, take note of the exact time it begins and ends. Was it in-line with expectation? If not, why?
  • Look over your calendar and make sure you have a good understanding of meetings scheduled for tomorrow. Then, block off two chunks of time and label them “Blocked for Work.”

Follow our customer’s advice, and you’ll be a team leader running the most effective meetings in no time!

The Lingo Live Team

Interested in learning more about how to develop your soft skills? Learn how to improve small talk and improved your skills for managing software development teams

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