How to Become a Meeting Master

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Meetings, meetings everywhere – no time to stop and think.

I once worked in an environment that was made up entirely of meetings: all day, every day. I’m still not exactly sure how I managed to fit in the actual work these meetings generated.08320020

If you work in a company, any size company, eventually someone will ask you not just to attend, but (gasp/horror) to organize a meeting. So, in anticipation of that day, here are the steps to follow to ensure that your meetings stand out in the sea of others – for the right reasons.

1. First and foremost: do you need the meeting? I kid you not, people don’t ask this nearly often enough, and odd though it may seem, not all meetings need to happen. Make sure you know the reason for the meeting: is there a question that needs answering, a project to work on or a problem to be solved? If you have your reason, move to step 2 – if you don’t, go back to your day job (which is, chances are, not organizing meetings).

2. Alright, you have your reason (well done!), now you need to set the agenda. This is another task that seems to stump some. If you can’t come up with any agenda items then your reason for holding the meeting might not be solid – go back to step 1 and double-check. Keep in mind that agendas need to be relevant to the topic at hand, not long for long’s sake…the length of your agenda does not, I repeat, does not, reflect the importance of your meeting.

3. Ok, you’re getting there. You have a good reason and a solid agenda. Now, who needs to attend? And I mean each of these words: who-needs-to-attend?? Not the ‘nice to haves’, not the higher ups, not the boss you’re trying to impress or the head of the department you’re trying to break into. WHO NEEDS TO BE THERE? No one enjoys using valuable time sitting through a meeting that isn’t relevant to them – equally, no one likes to be left out of a meeting they think they ought to be included in. So, think carefully about the list of people to include: decision makers, stakeholders, team members. If in doubt, discuss the list with a colleague or superior.

4. Now you have all the elements you need, you just need to get everyone together. If you’re in an office where you can make use of shared calendars, then do – no point in playing ‘meeting Battleships’ with people’s schedules. If you’re including people outside your organization, or have no shared calendars, then consider using an online tool, such as Doodle.com, to set up the meeting. No matter what method you use, try to keep your attendees in mind when setting the time and place – 7:00am breakfast meetings might not work well for commuters; meetings immediately post-lunch might give you a room full of lethargic participants.

5. You’re half-way there, well done! You have managed to pull all the elements together and your participants are arriving. Do you wait for the tardy few? No. It’s always best to start on time (a friend is so serious about this that he sends a link to the atomic clock with every meeting request!). Those who are on time are respected; those who are late can catch up. The side benefit of this is that if you start all your meetings this way, you will have fewer and fewer latecomers.

6. You’ve corralled everyone – now: keep to your agenda. No point is setting one if you aren’t going to stick to it. Veering away from your agenda can lead you down any number of rabbit holes and eat up a lot of time. Any topic raised that isn’t covered by the agenda can be discussed at the end of the meeting, under ‘Any Other Business’. This keeps your meeting tidy and to the point.

7. Assign a note taker. This is another crucial step – you need to be sure that the discussions and action points are being captured and recorded. Not only is it useful for future discussions but also helps keep the attendees accountable for actions they have been assigned (which might required follow-up…or nagging).

8. Keep to time. It’s as important to respect everyone’s time at the end of the meeting as it is at the start. Meetings that overrun not only seem sloppy but can end up interfering with the rest of the day. If you can’t get through your agenda in the time set for the meeting then set a follow-up meeting for a soon as possible. I guarantee you that you’ll be in everyone’s good books if you finish on time!

9. Follow-up. Make sure to send out the notes or minutes of the meeting within 48 hours. Not every meeting requires formal minutes but all need notes, particularly if there are points that require action by attendees. This helps keep everyone informed and on top of what needs to be done next.

10. If you really want to stand out, learn the Art of Facilitation (which I will cover in a future post). A good meeting facilitator runs an efficient, useful and timely meeting. Attendees leave feeling that their time has been well spent, that action will take place, and that they haven’t been meeting ‘for meeting’s sake’.

If you follow these simple steps you will be a Meeting Master! Your meetings will be more efficient, you’ll need fewer of them, and people won’t groan nearly as much, or as loudly, when the calendar appointment pings into their inbox.

Putting Presence in your Presents

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This time of year – a time of peace and goodwill – can be one of the most stressful for us, particularly when it comes to buying presents. We often feel an enormous amount of pressure to get it all ‘right’.  To help ease some of the strain, I’ve come up with a few suggestions.

How do I decide?

Delivering PresentsGenerally we give presents because it feels nice to make others happy, right? Therefore the key thing is to give our purchases some thought. Even a little goes a long way.

“Sure”, I hear you say, “but where do I start?”

Start by making a short list of some of the things you know about the recipient – even as few as five things will give you ideas (and if you don’t know five things about them, do you really need to give them a present?). For instance, a list about me would look like this:

  • Wears jewellery
  • Reads biographies
  • Likes a nice G&T
  • Loves tea
  • Hates being cold

Now you have at least five ideas of presents that would be very well received.

  • Wears jewellery – Earrings / A necklace
  • Reads biographies – The season’s newest /best selling release
  • Likes a nice G&T – An unusual gin or a step up from what I might buy for myself
  • Loves tea – A sampler of tea / tea pot
  • Hates being cold – Cosy scarf / gloves / blanket

In addition, these days you can get a gift receipt for almost all purchases, so if you’re nervous about your choices then include the receipt (and don’t be offended if an exchange is made).

That’s all great, but I have limited funds this year.

Give your time. Receiving the gift of time is a wonderful thing, particularly for those who lead hectic lives. Babysitting, snow clearing, lawn mowing or dog walking can be invaluable to those on the receiving end.

Share your know-how. Perhaps you have a particular skill or expertise that you could offer, such as web design, accounting, organizing, time management, painting, plumbing or social media advice – although these might seem boring or commonplace if you’re good at them, they are hugely useful and valuable to people who aren’t.

Can’t I just get a gift card?

Absolutely! Brilliant invention, and particular good for friends who don’t tend to splurge on themselves. But the same rules about thoughtfulness still apply – don’t just pick up a random selection and hand them out. Put some thought behind it.

Does this friend like going to the movies? Reads like its going out of style? Loves great coffee shops?  These days the gift card possibilities are nearly endless: hardware stores, spas, pet stores, even the liquor store. If it’s thoughtfully done, and given with a nice note or wrapped in a box (don’t just hand it over!) then it can be a great present.

I’m tired of all the usual stuff…what can I do that’s different?

You can sign them up for a “______ of the month” club (wine, beer, book, bacon, coffee, pie…). Again, the possibilities are mind-bogglingly endless.

Or perhaps you would like to name a star for them, or a crater on the moon. Yup, you can do that too!

With the Internet at your fingertips, unusual and creative ideas are just a search away.

Bigger. Better. Bolder.

Keep in mind that your present doesn’t need to be the most expensive or exclusive. It doesn’t need to be imbued with special significance. It doesn’t need to be ‘the best present ever’. It simply needs to show that you thought about the recipient when you bought it.

Thank you. Always, thank you.

One final note: always say thank you, even if you get a present that isn’t entirely to your taste, say thank you, because it’s the thought that counts.

Season of Goodwill

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Chart by Dave Lieberman*

December is fast approaching and thoughts are turning to our various holidays, and these days that gives way to the inevitable discussion about ‘holiday’ greetings.

Over the past number of years I’ve seen an increase in the number of “It’s not Happy Holidays, it’s MERRY CHRISTMAS” posts.  The frustration that leaps from these posts is palpable.  I think some of this stems from those who feel that ‘their’ holiday has been usurped by another, or worse, commercialism.

Whether your faith or belief system is based in deep religious roots or a certainty that Santa does live at the North Pole, it should not be so easily shaken that you rail against a ‘happy’ greeting.  Instead of touting one greeting over another, we would do well to recognize that no matter which one is being used, it comes from a place of affection and warmth.

I think that we are immensely fortunate living where we do, and when we do: our melting-pot-cities and societies are made up of many traditions and holidays, and this is what gives our lives richness and depth. Let’s embrace it, not fight it.

So when someone wishes a Happy ____, Merry _____, or Great_____, smile and say ‘Thank you. You too!’  Because it’s the sentiment that counts. It’s the thought behind the words that count.  It is how you say it, not what you say, that counts.

It is, after all, meant to be a season of warmth, celebration and goodwill.

Happy happy, merry merry to you all!

*with grateful thanks to Dave Lieberman for creating the chart and Joey DeVilla for posting here.

Wondering how to wear your poppy?

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Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 13.28.55In late October and early November the inevitable questions arise: when and how to wear your poppy?

When should I wear my poppy?

The practical answer about ‘when’ is that, in Canada, poppies officially go on sale on the last Friday of October, so that generally dictates timing, unless you have one leftover from previous years.

I know that this year, after the events in Montreal and Ottawa, many people were keen to wear their poppies early as a show of support and sympathy, and I see nothing wrong with that.   No matter when you start wearing your poppy, it should be worn through November 11th, then tucked away for next year.

I’ve been asked whether it’s acceptable to wear a poppy year-round.  While it’s a nice thought to show support throughout the year, the impact of the symbol starts to wane over time, so it’s best to restrict it to a few weeks a year.

Where do I wear my poppy?

There are many people who feel strongly about this. Left-side, right-side? On a cap or hat, or not?

It’s generally accepted that we wear our poppies on our left-side, which is not only the traditional place for medals to be worn, but also considered to be closer to our hearts.  If you wish to wear it on your cap or hat the same applies.

That said, it is in fact the wearing of it that matters.  Not where you wear it.

Red or white?

I realize that there are some who view the wearing of a red poppy as promoting the idea of war, and for that reason white poppies, symbolizing peace, have appeared over the years.

We all have to make our own decisions about this. I take great pride in wearing my red poppy and view it as an important reminder of the past, rather than an encouragement to future conflict.  If you have questions about whether or not to wear a red or white poppy there are many articles and opinion pieces that can help you decide what is comfortable for you.

Poppy keeps popping off?

No matter which poppy you choose, you will lose it.  There are no two ways about it, we will all go through at least two poppies a year, if not more.  I have never had a problem with this ‘planned obsolescence’ – let’s face it, those pins are far too short – and I’ve never minded donating to get another one. But what I don’t like is being without one in the interim.

This year, I decided that I would donate a larger amount for one poppy (the equivalent of the five I usually run through) and secure it with the little rubber backing used for earrings. That way the Legion doesn’t lose the money, and I don’t lose my poppy!

Lest we forget

Whether or not you wear a poppy (red or white), November, and the 11th in particular, is a good time to reflect on what we owe to all the men and women of the military, past and present, who have helped shape our country, both in times of war and times of peace.  They have lived through experiences we can never imagine and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Making Moves

Three years ago today I arrived back in Canada. As with all my continental moves, I had virtually no plan other than getting myself from A to B (you’d never know I DSC_0652organized stuff for a living…).

There have been ups, downs, ‘zeds’ for ‘s’s, crazy-busy jobs, crazy people, travel from coast to coast, humidex heat alerts, ice storms, the chance to see cherished old friends and the opportunity to make fabulous new ones.

The biggest change, though, has been starting my own company. I’ve wanted to do this since Washington seven years ago and can’t believe I’ve finally got to a point where it’s possible. The germ was planted by Aunty Bubbles (40 years ago!), fostered by Mum and Dad (and Sandra & the Maj), executed by me, and helped along by countless others.

Although I miss Blighty (it’s my heart’s home) and ‘my’ people more than I can say, had I not made this move, in all its undefined-ed-ness, I would not be doing half of what I’ve managed so far. The trade-off of place is worth it; the benefits of new experiences and new friends, beyond measure.

Sitting writing this from my cosy local cafe, where I know the owners and locals alike and where I have made friends, it feels as though there might finally be roots extending into my ‘new’ community.

Three years is a tiny slice of time but it’s been immense to me in many ways. It’s gone by in a flash and I can only imagine what the next three will bring….perhaps an international division of MAJ Communications?

With love to my all my lovely, supportive, funny, crazy, loving and kind people, all over the world, who make living on any continent a true pleasure.

Seeing etiquette through a different lens (it’s not always about which fork to use)

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WindowThere are occasions, when telling people that I provide training on the subject of Etiquette & Protocol, that they look at me like I have an extra head.   Every now and then I can even see their internal dialogue written on their face: ‘that’s so old-fashioned’, ‘she’s clearly living in the past’, ‘oh no, she’s going to critique everything I say and do’.  This last one is the most common; at a recent event the host of my table looked up as I approached and exclaimed, more-or-less in jest, ‘great, I’ve got the etiquette expert!’ (I don’t by the way, unless asked.)

I put these responses down to the fact that many people equate etiquette with ‘rules’ – rules that govern our every move, and get us into trouble if we don’t follow them.

Yes, there are rules when it comes to etiquette and protocol but though they can seem frivolous, they are actually very helpful.  Many stem from common sense and are in place to help us navigate business and social settings; some are driven by interacting with other cultures; others, leftovers of bygone eras, fading into the past.

However, I believe, firmly, that etiquette is so much more than simply a set of rules.  You can take your pick of words and phrases: etiquette, courtesy, civility, polite behaviour, consideration for others – but when it comes down to it, all of these ensure that we carry out our daily interactions – be they business meetings, hosting an event, or passing someone on the street – in a thoughtful, kind manner, which, in turn, shows others that we value their time and attention.

I don’t view the ‘rules’ as being stiff, old-fashioned directives.  I see them, instead, as the tools we use to give us the confidence and freedom to interact with others under any, and all, circumstances.  Sometimes it is about which fork to use – and if you know which fork to use you can ignore your place setting and pay attention to your guests. 

And, the great thing about knowing the rules is knowing how, when and where you can break them.

Small but Perfectly Formed

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There is an act of kindness and civility so small that it goes practically unnoticed…until it’s not done, and then it can become quite literally a slap in the face – or at the very least a near miss.

‘What is it?’, I hear you ask.  It is this:

When you walk through a door, check behind you.  If there is someone there, or someone approaching, then hold the door open.  Small yet kind.  Simple yet thoughtful.

Looking for an even smaller, easier act of kindness?  If someone does hold the door for you, say thank you.

Interested in sowing the seeds of thoughtful behaviour and good manners? Encourage everyone in your life to embrace this small, but perfectly formed, act of kindness.

When Compliments Confound

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DSC_0141Compliments are lovely.  We all like to hear nice things about ourselves, don’t we?

While most of us like hearing compliments, not all of us feel comfortable receiving them.  Instead of being left with a sense of accomplishment many of us stumble for words, look at our feet and probably mutter something self-deprecating.  Not only does this leave us feeling slightly embarrassed but it also leaves the person giving the compliment feeling awkward and takes away from their good intentions.

There is, however, a lovely, simple and gracious way to deal with the situation: say ‘thank you’.  That’s all you have to do.  You don’t have to expound, you don’t have to justify why, you just need to say thank you.

‘Job well done!’  ‘Thank you’
…not ‘Oh, I was just doing my job.’

‘You look gorgeous!’  ‘Thank you’
…not ‘Oh, I, um…in this old thing?’

‘Great presentation.’  ‘Thank you’
…not ‘Oh, anyone could have done that.’

When we make excuses and try to rationalise the compliment we run the risk of turning it into a much bigger ‘event’ than the other person intended.  Keep in mind that people don’t have to say anything; so when they pay you a compliment, pay them the compliment of accepting it graciously.

My lovely friend Karen reminded me of this the other day when she sent me the following, out of the blue…and in doing so, she paid me a compliment (thank you, Karen):

“I once mentioned to Hilary that I found it very difficult to accept compliments. Every time anyone said something positive to me, about me I found myself denying it, justifying myself or making a joke. Which inevitably ruined the intent of the comment and sometimes made things awkward.   Hilary looked at me and said, ‘All you have to do is say thank you’.  Simple, obvious, brilliant.  I trusted Hilary and tried it out, it works. In one sentence she solved what was becoming a regular stumbling block in my professional and personal interactions.”

And thank you to my mum, who taught it to me in the first place.

 

How to Help Friends in Grief

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IMG_0286I wrote it several years ago (although have little memory of doing so) but because the subject is too often part of our lives, and advice about it is often wanted but not sought out, I thought it was worth re-posting here:

I’ve recently been on the receiving end of condolences and it has caused me to give some thought to the way in which we deal with having friends who are in mourning.

The conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved, not just immediate family but friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and even people we see casually or sparingly throughout life – the friendly dry-cleaner, the nice woman at the deli.  No one really knows what to say, what to do or how to act, including the person doing the grieving.

I had this pointed out to me afresh the other day.  Someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since all this happened sent me an instant message saying “how are you? how’s the family?”.

I, in my still slightly foggy state, couldn’t remember when we’d last spoken and couldn’t actually remember if he knew my news. What to do?  It seemed blunt to just come out with it and stupid to beat around the bush so I took a half-way approach and said that I was fine but mourning was a tiring business.  He, because he knew of the underlying situation, understood immediately and sent his condolences but, poor thing, was then completely stymied about what to say next. He felt badly because to his mind he didn’t have the ‘right’ words. He felt like he should say something profound.

Should I call?
Telephone calls can be difficult so unless you are very close to the person grieving stick to writing a note.  Aside from the fact that there are many arrangements that need to be made in the first few weeks (all by telephone) it is also a much more wearisome thing for the person having to say “I’m fine thank you” or “We’re about as you’d expect” and so on.

When they are ready for calls, they will let you know.

Should I write?
I think many people are put off writing letters of condolence because they don’t know what to say.  Somehow they think they need to be profound and have the ‘right’ words, or they think they’ll sound stupid, overly-sentimental or that the person they are writing to won’t want to be reminded of the situation.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I feel sure it’s not unique: it was lovely to get notes, letters and emails; it was lovely to know that the person I loved, respected, admired and missed so much, was loved and missed by others and that friends had me in their thoughts.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone you care about has lost someone they care about, write to them.  They will, eventually, be glad to have it; it may even be passed to other generations – we still have all the letters written to my grandmother after my grandfather died and they give me an insight into someone who exists only on the edges of my memory.

If you think you would struggle with what to say in your letter, card or email (in these cases hand-written is so much nicer, but email works too), here are some places to start – it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not necessarily meant to be:

If you were well acquainted with the person who died and spent time with them:

  • Include a few of your memories of them, such as: “I remember when we…” or “I still laugh when I think of…”
  • Talk about their character or personality “I always admired the way he…”
  • Don’t be afraid to say that you too will miss them: “I’ll miss the way she brightened up a room”.

If you really only know the person or people left behind simply speak to their sense of loss and/or use things that you know about the person who has died:

  • You can use phrases such as,  “I know you will miss his tenacity and strength of character” or simply, “I know how much you will miss her.”

There are a few things that it’s best to steer clear of, at least for the first while:

  • Talking about it being a release; best for the person who has gone; that they have been relieved of their suffering.  All this may be true but it doesn’t take away from the reality that a much loved person was taken “too soon”, for whatever reason – keeping in mind that too soon can be from 0 to 102 – and that this pill is a bitter one to swallow.
  • Be careful about religious references unless you know the strength and depth of the person’s faith; grieving can test these things, so tread lightly.

What do I say?
Often times running into someone in mourning is the most difficult thing of all. Grief is the elephant in the room. Should you ask them how they are? Give them your condolences? Give them a hug? Tell them it will be get better with time?

The best thing to do is judge the situation carefully – the better you know someone the easier that is. These few tips might help no matter how well you know the person:

  • By all means, give your condolences but keep the encounter short, not ‘rude short’ just not prolonged. There are only so many ways for someone to say they are fine when they don’t mean it.
  • Be careful about asking how they are, sometimes the mere question is enough to provoke upset (usually unexpectedly for all concerned).  You can get around this (if you feel you need to ask the question) by asking about other family members and working your way back to the person in front of you.
  • Hugs are great if you are somewhere out of the way and if you know the person well, otherwise, steer clear.  Someone gave me a hug at the office – quite unexpectedly – and it really threw me.
  • The thing that should be avoided is telling someone things will get better with time. Things will, but no one in that situation believes it and all it means is that they have to summon up the strength to agree with you.

Should I bake a pie, make a casserole, send food?
One of the loveliest things that someone did for us was send a grocery order.  An old and cherished friend went online and ordered all the things we had loved and shared in my parents’ kitchen over the years.  It made us all cry but it also made us laugh as we unpacked and commented on her choices.

Others made food or brought over good coffee or dropped things off on the front porch.  It was all welcome – we certainly weren’t going to be cooking, even eating was touch-and-go; having the food in the fridge ensured that if we were hungry we could eat.

Kindness is the key
As I said at the beginning, the conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved.  The key thing to remember is to be kind.

To the person in mourning: Be kind to yourself. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy (or sad), to go out or stay home – you get a pass, pretty much, to do what you need to do for yourself.

To the friends, family and others who surround the person grieving: Be kind. Mourning doesn’t finish at a funeral, it merely begins. It is a very strange time and no one ever knows how it will affect them; some days are good, some are less so.  Give the person the space they need, or the company they crave but feel they can’t ask for.  Keep in touch but don’t force; call but don’t bombard. 

Make sure they know they are loved and supported and you will be doing your job as a friend.