8 Tips for Leading Effective Conference Calls

In one of my previous roles, I was tasked with executing central technology deals (we had multiple brands and I worked on deals that affected several brands at a time) and then managing conversations to ensure we were meeting our deal obligations. Essentially this meant a ton of conference calls. Conference calls with clients, with various brand leaders and internal stakeholders, with our tech teams, with client tech teams... Some days I had more conference calls than I had time to eat, grab coffee or even use the bathroom. My calendar was essentially a color coded visual masterpiece. Realizing my days would usually be jampacked with calls, I quickly had to develop some practices to make these calls more efficient and stay on task for the days when there were more than 10 on the line. Whether you have a plethora of calls, a few calls with a plethora of people joining, or even just one a week, you should be actively strategizing on how to keep these calls effective and make it feel like a good use of time for all parties involved.

Who is joining? Frequently, some of my calls would have up to 40 people invited and sometimes all 40 would join or sometimes more than half couldn't make it. If the invite goes out a month, or even a week in advance, do a check in the week of to see who actually plans to attend. Do you really need all parties invited to be on the line? If you do, have a clear why on the need for so many people. If most can't make it, will you still be able to accomplish the meeting's goal? If not, you may need to reschedule for a time when the majority of the folks needed can be on the line.

Book a conference room. If your call is internal and there are more than a few members needed to join, go ahead and book a room for the people joining at your office location. Allow the folks in other offices (and those who don't want to commute to the conference room) to still dial in, but have a room available for those who do want to join in-person. By doing this, you are enabling your colleagues to have face time with each other, which can create unplanned opportunities. Some people want to get out of their cubicle and network for a few minutes with parties across the company. You are allowing that to happen. Furthermore, in-person side conversations (while the line is muted) can be very helpful for addressing key topics or assigning follow tasks quickly.

Set an agenda and meeting goals. If you're leading the call, plan ahead and decide with your manager or other necessary stakeholders what the goals should be for this conversation. List and prioritize what must be discussed. Send a brief of topics to discuss the day before or hours before the call so everyone knows the agenda for the conversation (perhaps when you're confirming attendance). This also allows those who are unable to join, but want to weigh in, to share their input in advance.

Keep time and table items that detract from the agenda. If you called a 30 minute meeting at 11, don't wait until 11:25 to discuss that high priority item because the first 20 minutes were focused on something irrelevant to the meeting's goal. As the call leader, you can interject and manage the conversation to maximize everyone's time. If you know that a conversation surrounding a certain topic shouldn’t last more than 5 or 10 minutes, it's ok to cut in and wrap it up if you see it going way beyond that. You will need to really be focused to end on time, as many of your colleagues may have meetings directly following yours.

Ask who has a hard stop. There will be times when your call is around a topic that needs a great deal of conversation and perhaps even a brainstorm to determine next moves. If you want a more fluid agenda, when the meeting begins, ask who has a hard stop at the end time and who can be flexible. Make sure you get the input of those with a hard stop first. Share the takeaways with those who had to leave on time later, if your call does in fact run over.

Follow-up is key. If you’re running the conference call or took the notes, send a follow-up email to everyone who participated within 24 hours, while ideas are still fresh. This is a great way to keep a record of who was delegated a task, as well as what expectations were set at the end of the meeting for next steps.

Research everyone participating in the call. Especially if your call has external participants, but even if there are internal participants you may not know, do some research. Who is joining? What's in it for them? Where might they be able to share expertise? What are they going to be advocating for based on their role? Having this info handy in advance can help you have a deeper and more valuable conversation.

Finally, make sure a call is really necessary. Ask yourself before you hit the send button on each calendar invite, can I make this an email? Does a discussion really need to take place for my team to achieve our goal, or can I get the info I need in a well-constructed email? Don't be that person who makes everything a meeting when a meeting is barely necessary. If you do this, you will see your attendance rates drop off and when you do need insight of various parties, you may have a tougher time getting them to be involved.

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