Illustration: Simo Liu

Jessica Powell, the former Google vice president who wrote The Big Disruption and told you how to quit your job, is here to answer your common but tricky work questions. Check back every other week for more management advice with a tech inflection.

I am a manager with a secret: I hate meetings. I’m at a big company and spend my whole day in meetings — either meetings I have been added to or meetings I myself organize. Can you give me a great excuse to get out of them? Or if not that, tips to make them less terrible?

Since you asked for it, here are some handy excuses to get out of useless work meetings:

  • I have a highly contagious illness.
  • I am allergic to humans.
  • The end of the world is tomorrow, and I want to spend the last 24 hours on Earth doing something meaningful with my time.

But it’s hard to play the apocalypse card every time a dumb meeting pops up on your calendar, and really, you’re probably not as anti-meeting as you may think you are.

That’s because meetings — in moderation and when well planned — do have value. Long before whiteboards and PowerPoint, the Romans had plenty of meetings about how to maintain and expand their empire. If a meeting was a good enough managerial tool for them, it’s probably a decent tool for the team at

It’s a better use of your time to figure out how to make meetings work for you than ways to wiggle out of them. Let’s start with what’s entirely in your control: all those meetings you inflict on your staff. (I’m not going to dive into 1:1 meetings — although they are really important.)

How to improve the dreaded team meeting

You probably have a weekly team meeting — most likely to keep people aligned on day-to-day issues and updated on longer-term efforts. It’s particularly common in larger companies, where the weekly meeting is one of many attempts to keep staff aligned.

In theory, it’s a good idea. In practice, it can be the worst of big company bloat, where, in a matter of months, the well-intentioned, initial framing of “let’s focus on the big stuff” can devolve into all of the staff (or at least the more senior staff) feeling like they need to provide an update on their area of work. The meeting loses its purpose, and attendees notice. Attendance numbers decline, and more people work on their laptops while others speak.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to not let this happen. If there’s a standing “hot topics” meeting — like the weekly meeting I just mentioned — then you need to keep people moving. Set the ground rules and remind everyone of them at the start of the meeting. You don’t need a manifesto; a simple reminder that “we’re only talking about burning issues here” should suffice.

If someone starts to update on a less urgent topic, you can politely stop them and say, “Yes, let’s definitely talk about the venue choice for the team holiday party offline, but given the time limit here, let’s keep this meeting focused on the 50% drop we saw over the weekend in sign-ups.” Do this a few times, and people will get the message.

That said, it’s important that employees who don’t have an important update still have a means of communicating with you — with a 1:1 meeting, for example, or office hours or email (if you are good about responding to email). Otherwise, they are going to feel like they aren’t being heard, and you’ll have a different managerial problem on your hands.

How to bring focus to meetings on specific topics

Next, let’s talk about those one-off meetings aimed at focusing on a specific issue or project. I’m not talking about open-ended brainstorming. While that can occasionally be useful, meetings more often should have a particular purpose.

If you’re setting a meeting, you “own” the meeting, and you need to be accountable for it. With that in mind, here’s how to make it a success:

  • Set an agenda: If you can’t articulate the purpose of your meeting, you probably shouldn’t be holding one.
  • Drive the meeting: Lay out the problem, invite others to speak, allow debate, and make sure you listen. But ultimately, you need to be able to synthesize the opinions and decide on the next steps. That’s on you.
  • Be inclusive: Too often, meetings become a forum for people to assert or jockey for power. Those who are quieter tend to get overlooked or find it hard to insert themselves in the conversation. As a manager, you need to seek out those voices and create an environment where people aren’t shouting or droning on too long.
  • Make a record: You, or someone you appoint, should take notes and sum up any agreed actions. This is useful for anyone who missed the meeting and keeps people aligned on what was agreed upon.

Avoid meetings that are just for show

Finally, be conscious of the tendency, particularly in larger companies, to create meetings that are largely for show. Two examples of this immediately come to mind:

First, there are meetings with the sole purpose of socializing a plan and getting buy-ins from key people before meeting with a larger group. It’s a classic scenario: A team individually presents their plan to the head of product, then the head of engineering, then the head of marketing — not because they need these individuals’ feedback to iterate on their plan (which would be a very legitimate reason for a meeting) but because they want to make sure that if these people have objections, they get voiced ahead of the larger management team meeting.

Yes, sometimes it’s necessary, particularly if there are weird dynamics or politics at play in the group meeting. But as a general matter of course, nothing screams big company bloat more than having a meeting in order to fix the outcome of a subsequent meeting.

Second, there are meetings that end up being 30 minutes or more of people showing off their work. While this seems like a good idea, you will fail in your attempts to be even-handed, and your staff will start to tally which employees are getting the most airtime. Plus, hearing other people’s wonderful moments of career success is generally pretty boring and unhelpful — like looking at someone’s vacation pics, but in PowerPoint.

That’s not to say meetings can’t also serve to recognize good work. But shift how you frame and think about this meeting. Focus instead on best-practices sharing, in which you force people to reflect on not just what they did right, but also what they could have done better. This way, you provide something that can actually be useful to other staff while simultaneously putting the spotlight on a particular individual or team.

All of the above meeting tips are harder to put into practice if you’re not the meeting organizer. Nonetheless, it’s always fair to ask who owns a meeting and whether there is an agenda. If someone can’t provide that to you, and there’s no way — either because of hierarchy or company politics — for you to ditch the meeting, then you can always use the ultimate manager magic trick: Delegate the meeting to one of your subordinates, giving them the career-growth “opportunity” to learn from your long-winded and ill-focused peers!

Technophile, technophobe. Music software start-up founder. Former Google VP. Author, The Big Disruption. Fan of shochu, chocolate, and the absurd.

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