CC#13: Team meetings: Do's & Don'ts from a former Microsoft Executive

Former President of the Windows division at Microsoft, Steven Sinfosky, shared some great insights on making meetings efficient and productive, as well as avoiding commonly made mistakes.

Last night on the Good Time Show on clubhouse, the usual suspects shared some great insights and things to avoid for successful meetings.

To start off the show, Steven Sinofsky distinguished the two kinds of executive review meetings: one he said is known as “being called to the carpet” where you’re suddenly being asked to respond to a particular crisis and you have to scramble. The other is something like an annual sales meeting—where it’s planned in advance and everyone adjusts their schedule to be able to attend.

Aarthi started by asking Steven about the “crisis situation” meetings.

Steven said “The natural human response is to want to tell a story that builds up to how they got into that particular situation. So people will create these presentations that don’t address the crisis until the last slide, which finally states the problem. However, in these moments, it is absolutely crucial that the very first slide addresses the elephant in the room. A good way to do this is to simply put a SWOT Analysis on the first slide, or a basic chart that addresses strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The important thing is to know in your head if you’re making a decision during the meeting or if you’re conveying the answer that’s already in your head.”

Aarthi added that decisions in meetings never stick. She asked Steven why that was.

Steven replied “Well the biggest reason is there’s always more information that the person leading the decision might not be aware of. The boss might know more than you, but you gathered all this information. The boss is absorbing it in real time. There’s a really good chance that everyone’s gonna revisit the decision at the end. Also, people like to come to a meeting with 3 options the team can take—however, any VP will always choose the 4th thing that has all the upsides of the first 3 and none of the downsides. And of course, that never works.

Back when we had printed slide decks, Bill Gates used to look at the first slide. If it didn’t address the key issue at hand, he would flip through the deck, rip out the last page and put it on the front.”

Avichal chimed in by saying his preference for meetings was a very strong pre-read. “A lot of mistakes comes down to not doing the pre-work. You need to do the ‘meeting before the meeting.’”

Sriram added that if you’re going to have an important meeting, you should meet with all the important players of the meeting, before the meeting. He also shared his thoughts on pre-reads “Nobody ever reads a pre-read, so then you end up with this weird dynamic where some people have read it and some people haven’t. A good lesson from Amazon is that the first 10-15 minutes of a meeting should be spent reading the pre-read. This is valuable for 2 reasons:
1. it makes sure that everyone has read the pre-read
2. It allows some of the folks who don’t normally speak up to write in some of their comments/thoughts”

Garry shared “I’ve never worked on a bigger than 2-pizza meeting. But the thing that does resonate in a sub-20 scenario is that even if you’re the leader/CEO, you don’t want to be the person who makes the call without hearing what the other people have to say. Especially considering these are people you hired because of their intelligence/expertise. At the same time, I think it should never take more than 2 meetings to make a decision.

Sriram: “No meeting that has ever required more data, has ever led to the gathering of more data.”

Steven: “Getting more data is often just a delay. A very common failing of meetings is to not have the right people at the meeting. There’s almost always too many people there, and not always the right ones. I remember one meeting I had, this whole thing was about HTML and office docs but one of the features that Mark jammed into HTML was tables nested into each other which we didn’t know how to do. Bill [Gates] being bill, called a meeting to let us know this was trivial. I knew Rob was the guy handling this particular task, so I brought him to the meeting. He had never been to one of these meetings before, but I figured it would be best for him to argue with Bill and get it sorted.”

Often times you think you need to have every step of the organization there, which causes the meeting to be bloated. Like I just brought Rob and told him to deal with it, because he was the key person. The meeting was straight to the point and we all left being clear on the next step.”

Sriram: “You’d be amazed by some of these meetings with a manager of a manager, where often times you’re missing the key person and you end up with a lot of people with no context trying to speculate.”

Aarthi agreed that sometimes meetings are filled with many people who don’t need to be there, but added the question “how do you respond to people who might feel stressed that they are missing some key information in that particular meeting?”

Steven: “It’s never easy, but you have to realize there are meetings happening all the time. So simply point out all the meetings they go to that they’re not stressed about. Unless you’re directly contributing, you’re just making the meeting worse. This is especially true in a crisis situation where you have to fill the room with people who are going to do the work to resolve the situation.”

The topic then began to shift to the culture and pre-production of meetings.

Aarthi said “At Facebook, the culture has always been to have a very basic deck, almost the opposite of ‘pre-produced’ and they would get straight to the point in the first slide.”

Also, not everything requires a meeting. If it can be an email, make it an email. Often times ‘update meetings’ can just be an email.”

Steve shared “You definitely want to be careful about over-producing meetings, such as have a very nicely designed deck or a video that took a lot of editing hours because it sends a message that we’re not really working, we’re just talking about working.I remember when color printers first came out and anytime somebody would print out the meeting notes in color, the meetings would always start off talking about how much was spent on the printing and so on.”

Sriram: “At Facebook, it was a very nerdy, engineering driven culture. If somebody had spent a lot of time polishing a deck, it would have sent a weird signal and come off the wrong way. However, I have heard that the internal slides at Snapchat and Square are so elegantly put together—they have specific designers who’s sole jobs are to make them look nice. It depends on the culture.”

Steven: You have to calibrate with the content and the culture of the company. There was a person who ran hardware at Microsoft and when he first joined, he used to show up to meetings wearing a suit and would bring a 3-ring binder. In the beginning it was super awkward.

Different parts of a big company have different standards for meetings. At some point, when a company scales, you end up with different cultures that span—like a separate culture for the sales people, finance people and talent people.

The tricky thing about the deck you put together is that the whole point of the meeting is to look at the data differently than you’ve been looking at it before.”

As the session was getting ready to wrap up, Aarthi asked about the “DOs and DONTs” of meetings.

Steven: “I mentioned always bring the experts into the room and don’t prepare too many slides or words. A pet-peeve for executives is if you hand them an appendix or ‘backup documents' because it leaves them wondering if they should read this or not. Do not talk about any other team or person, or blame someone for something unless they are in the room. Work with live data. Microsoft salesforce used to have a slide called “feedback to corp” and it might’ve as well been called ambush. Make everyone who works with you look good—if they freeze, help them through that moment. Jump on the grenade if one get’s thrown. If the exec is a jerk, help them to become less of a jerk.”

Steven shared a story he recalls from working with Bill Gates “We’d been working for 9-months on our product. We’d spent a month, building our own apps in this new framework. They all sucked and none of them worked. The boss scheduled a Bill review. I was one of the newest guys on the team. The conclusion was this: our product that was supposed to compete with NEXTStep, was practically non-existent because it didn’t function. Bill was shocked “You’ve been working for a year on this!?” We had nothing to show for it. Bill could’ve yelled at us forever. However, he handled it pretty calmly and at the end of the meeting asked us “Do you know what you wanna do here? Are you going to make the same mistakes again? Because if you come back in 6 months and make the same mistakes again, that would be really stupid. But if you make different mistakes, then that’s ok.”

Aarthi: “For me its the accountability and lack of follow-up. Reviews are expensive and a lot of prep & time goes into it. There’s typically nobody holding people accountable and no follow-ups.”

The final comment was a fascinating statistic shared by Garry: “Can you guess what percentage of meetings startups and businesses have a proper follow-up? Only 14.7% of all meetings have a clear next step and follow-ups—around 40% of meetings have neither!