Dazzlingly effective CEOs are equipped with an array of talents, and the ability to run meetings effectively is one of their core skills. Unproductive meetings cost U.S. companies an estimated $37 billion each year, representing a large chunk of the 11 billion meetings that American workers sit through every year. Poorly-run meetings sidetrack everyone’s energy and waste valuable worker time, dissipating initiative and lowering productivity.
Elon Musk approaches meetings the same way he approaches every aspect of his work. With his fiercely driven personal style, he has elevated the practice of efficient meetings to a science by following these four key practices:
1. Require That Everyone be Prepared
There’s no point in scheduling meetings until each participant has their contribution well-researched and fully ready for prime time. Proactive preparation should be the whole basis for gathering face to face, rather than just fulfilling some pre-established routine meeting schedule. The sheer force of Elon Musk’s personality makes it very difficult for an employee who isn’t prepared to answer a followup question or otherwise demonstrate that they’ve done their homework.
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2. Reduce Everything to Basic Facts
Elon Musk famously articulates a paradigm of “First Principles.” This term refers to his reliance on basic truths and facts rather than on comparisons to what’s already been done. When Musk holds meetings, he expects his team to break down a topic into its molecular facts and then present those in a coherent way. He relies on his team to not only think outside the box but to deconstruct and analyze the whole way the box is put together.
According to an in-depth profile published in GQ, “Elon Musk’s leadership, his ability to inspire and motivate the people who work for him, derives completely, and only, from his knowledge. The knowledge — the millions upon millions of facts that he has not forgotten — is itself a form of charisma, that infectious ‘thing you just can’t put your finger on’ that we normally expect to see in the form of ‘star power.'”
3. Keep the Long-Term Vision in Sight
The path to success may be littered with failures along the way, and team members can get discouraged if they don’t feel connected to a vision of eventual success. Musk’s company SpaceX had three failed launches of its Falcon 1 rocket, and the team was feeling deeply disheartened. Musk’s response was as follows: “For my part, I will never give up, and I mean never.” His clear determination helped renew the team’s focus on finding solutions. One SpaceX employee commented on the power of Musk’s statement: “I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that. It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have ever witnessed. Within moments the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began to focus on moving forward instead of looking back.”
4. Don’t Expect More at Your Meeting Than You’re Doing Yourself
“No matter how hard you work, someone else is working harder.” This is a SpaceX expression that was shared at meetings to keep everyone moving. And a Tesla employee comments “If you believe that a task should take a year, then Elon wants it done in a week.” Musk’s intense level of expectations may not be comfortable, but all his employees know that he models the same dedication that he requires from his staff.
A Cautionary Note
Many managers recognize that Musk’s driven, intense style of running meetings — or managing companies — isn’t necessarily one that they want to emulate in its entirety. While you may be able to improve the efficiency of your meetings by adopting one or another of Musk’s techniques, you might find that trying to copy his full approach could have a negative outcome. Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, explains this caution in a Fortune article entitled “Admire Elon Musk all you want, but please don’t manage like him.”
Wartzman observes that Musk’s micromanagement style and explicit disregard for his staff’s personal needs regularly results in employee burnout. Wartzman cites a study showing that workers in high-trust environments are 19 percent more productive than those in low-trust environments (such as Musk’s companies), and he emphasizes the importance to workers of “having the freedom to take on projects the way you choose to.”
Making Your Meetings Build Productivity
Typifying his demanding style of leadership, Musk commented once that “Meetings are what happens when people aren’t working.” Clearly his intense demands that workers put in whatever time is necessary on preparation represent his efforts to maximize the effectiveness of the meetings he can’t avoid. CBS MoneyWatch reports that “73 percent of professionals admit to doing unrelated work in meetings and 39 percent even dozed off in meetings.“ To avoid contributing to these statistics, channel Elon Musk’s style of wringing every drop of productivity out of each person, and balance that intensity with a more supportive management style. This synergy is likely to result in meetings that will be maximally productive, innovative and engaging.
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