How to Lead Great Virtual Meetings

Richard Eaton

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

Recently, because of COVID-19, millions of people around the world have been thrust into the world of virtual meetings in a way not dissimilar to the way that I was introduced to swimming, many years ago: chucked in at the deep end. Over the past few weeks we have watched, amazed, as some have adapted effortlessly, merely continuing to interact as they already have been doing for years. Others, and you may find yourself in this position, continue to struggle mightily right up to the point of despair.

Berlineaton has been delivering both in person and virtual meetings for many years, engaging directly with a total of more than 20,000 people in the process. Most recently, for obvious reasons, we’ve been engaging with our clients mainly in the online world. Of course like many others, our learning curve has had its share of zig zags due to the sheer volume of time being spent online.  

Here are three things we’ve learned about how to lead great online meetings:

  1. It’s not a meeting, it’s a sandwich

Think of a good meeting like a sandwich. The meat is the meeting. The two pieces of bread? Preparation for, and follow up from, that meeting. Of course, everyone knows that to have a great meeting you should prepare thoroughly to ensure maximum engagement. In our experience however, preparation is frequently the hardest part of the meeting sandwich. The most important part of meeting online is the preparation otherwise you can lose people, mentally and/or physically, even before the meeting even starts. Preparation activities include: interview participants beforehand to ensure they understand the purpose of the meeting and solicit input to the agenda, ensure the online platform works well for them, and send out materials well in advance. We’ve all heard the maxim ‘prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance’ and, in the case of virtual meetings, this is more of a golden rule. 

  1. Facilitate, don’t dictate

We all know what a meeting dictator looks and sounds like. Dominating the conversation from the start, the meeting dictator marches through their agenda, treating it more like they’re giving orders for a military operation than an opportunity to involve everyone in some important problem solving. In a virtual world, meeting participants have far more choice about how, and even if, they choose to engage in meetings. So, during the meeting itself avoid ‘holding people prisoner’ and build in lots of breaks, give permission to turn off the video and sound, use the breakout room features in your chosen platform, and aid group progress through paraphrasing in various ways. Should you choose to adopt a facilitative posture from the outset, and come armed with more questions than orders, you will see much more involvement, engagement and innovation than you might otherwise. Top Tip: if you’ve never facilitated before either learn how or bring in a skilled facilitator, otherwise you’ll find that, over time, fewer and fewer people will be available for, or attentive at, your virtual meetings.

  1. Elicit the right kind of leadership

Like golf, with virtual meetings, most will readily admit that it takes time to get good at this. Being consciously incompetent e.g., ‘I know I’m not very good at this but will give it a shot’ is the perfect learning posture that will help enlist empathy and support, right from the outset. This openness gives all participants a chance to help to make the experience a successful one, for everyone. And in this mode, we all have the opportunity to move from a directive role, into a service role which, of course, is the fundamental building block of what we believe is the most effective of all leadership methodologies: servant leadership.

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