Making Your Organisation Work: Avoid Meetings Like the Plague

13 August 2009 Peter Hargreaves

In an extract from his book In for a penny, author and Hargreaves Lansdown CEO Peter Hargreaves explains why "meetings are where people go to abdicate their responsibilities".

Let’s get one thing straight. Meetings are the scourge of industry. Anyone in business should be constantly campaigning to abolish all meetings. If the public sector abolished meetings, it would probably be able to operate with 3% of the people that it currently employs.

Meetings stop people from doing their jobs. If you cut out the meetings, you could probably also lose 90% of your middle management. I have never relented in my quest to stop meetings. The truth that a camel is a horse designed by a committee is so true that it’s sad. Often when I see a meeting in progress at Hargreaves Lansdown, I open the door and join it. I sit down at the table. The striking thing is that when I sit down, someone will look up and say, "We are just finishing." I remain seated. Someone else will then repeat, "We are just finishing." Then I say "Well, finish then." They all walk out. Had I not gone into the meeting, you can be sure that they would have stayed there another hour. A good way to stop lengthy meetings is to make sure there are no chairs – in fact, nowhere to sit at all. You can always find out which are the worst parts of your business. They will be the ones where the meetings culture is greatest.

I once read an article entitled A day in the life of…, which featured the chief executive of a well-known British airline. His day started with a breakfast meeting at 7am. All that a breakfast meeting does is extend your working day. It costs money because somebody has to organise and pay for the breakfast. Breakfast meetings are terrible things because they happen at the best time of the day for getting things done. The telephone doesn’t ring early in the morning because everybody else in industry is having a breakfast meeting.

After his two-hour breakfast meeting, the article reported that the chief executive's chauffeur drove him to his "first meeting of the day" (which actually was his second). That lasted an hour and a half. Then the chauffeur drove him on to the next meeting of the day, which lasted for two hours. He then had a lunchtime meeting (for lunchtime meeting, read a breakfast meeting that costs more and lasts longer). After lunch he had a board meeting which went on all afternoon. He got home at 8pm.

While he could claim to have spent long hours on his job, in my book he hasn’t done any work at all. What he should have done that day was buy a ticket and fly incognito on one of his planes.

That way he would have found out what was really going on in his airline. He would have found that the seat he had booked had been cancelled because the plane had been changed. He would find that even though there was a huge number of staff, there was still a queue at the check-in desk when there didn’t need to be one. When the plane was late leaving, he would have discovered that there was no communication about why and when it would actually leave.

"Even when they are essential, you should always decide in advance how long the meeting should be."

He would have learnt more from that one trip travelling incognito then he would have learnt had he been in six months of meetings, which probably was the agenda for the next six months. It was many years ago and he is no longer the boss but even without him his airline hasn’t improved, so I assume it still has the same meetings culture. In other words the chief executive probably thinks he is working hard because he is in meetings all day. I shall continually fight the meeting culture as long as I am chief executive of Hargreaves Lansdown.

Meetings should take place in the following way. If you want to meet someone, walk over to their desk. (They might even be there if you have abolished meetings at your firm). Your arrival will almost certainly cut short a phone call and in the time you have saved, you can say what’s on your mind, get a response and be back at your desk, all within 5min. In my firm, you won't be able to sit down because there won’t be a chair near the desk. If you really want to stay any length of time, you will have to get down on your knees to talk. Believe me, there is nothing that makes a meeting shorter than having the chief executive on his knees next to somebody’s desk.

The way the average large company operates is very different. In between board meetings, the directors tend to spend the rest of their time talking to the next tier of management below them. That takes up about half that tier of management’s time, and they in turn spend the other half talking to the next level down from them. And so it goes, all the way down the line of command.

What that means is that the company is being run by managers who are a long way down the management chain. Many of the people who have been promoted to run the company are in fact merely passing messages up and down the line – a completely fatuous and pointless exercise. In my view, one of two things should happen if (by ill-chance) you happen to find yourself in charge of a company that is run this way. One way is simply to sack all the upper echelons of management, including the board, and while you are at it, get rid of their secretaries and assistants as well, so as to free up the space that they are occupying.

The cost of employing them will drop straight into the bottom line, increasing profits. The alternative is to pick the eight people who are really capable of running the business and let them get on with it. That way, while you wouldn’t save quite as much in the way of meetings rooms, secretaries, assistants and middle managers, at least it would be clear who was running the company and could therefore be held to account for how well it was doing.

If you get no other message from this book you should understand that meetings are bad for business. Even when they are essential, you should always decide in advance how long the meeting should be. If it’s going to be half an hour, start it half an hour before the end of the working day, or half an hour before lunch. There is no better stimulus to finish a meeting than the start of the lunch hour, or the closing bell. Sometimes meetings are not just a waste of time, but positively detrimental.

When we started advertising in the press, for example, we talked regularly to one particular gentleman on a national newspaper. In our minds we had a clear and positive picture of this individual. He was efficient, we liked him, he helped us, we gave him business and everything was hunky-dory – but it was never the same after he came to see us. His visit shattered our image of him. He turned out not to be the guy we thought he was. The same went for a journalist that I used to get on with very well. We talked regularly on the phone and she gave us huge amounts of publicity by quoting us in her articles. Although I had suggested meeting a couple of times, she had always declined. I should have left it at that. When eventually I did agree to meet her for lunch in London, she stood me up. What is more, she never contacted me again and never quoted us again. To this day I don’t know why. I learnt the wisdom of that old adage "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it". If someone is doing good business with you, why risk the chance of ruining the relationship by meeting them?