Ever walked out a of a meeting thinking, “wow, we didn’t get anywhere?”

Getting a group together can often be the most efficient way to move forward on a big decision or a plan. But it only works if the meeting is set up right.

So, when it’s your turn to lead, use these five steps to set your meeting up for success—before you even walk in the door.

1. Invite the Right People

Nothing can de-rail a meeting like having the wrong people in the room. If your goal is to have the group make a decision by the end of the meeting, make sure everyone who has a major stake or veto power over that decision is at the table. Discussing a new sales strategy for a product? You’ll probably want sales leaders and the product manager to be there, or nothing will get decided.

On the other hand, having too many “extra” people—or people who are significantly more senior or more junior than everyone else in the room—can throw off the dynamic. If you don’t need the head of PR chiming in on a manufacturing change, then don’t invite him. If everyone’s intimidated by the CFO, leave her out of an initial brainstorming meeting.

2. Think about giving homework

Do you want people to start from a clean slate, or would it be helpful for everyone to walk into the meeting with some background information? If you’re presenting a plan you want input on, send it out the night before (not the hour before), so chances are at least some of the attendees will have time to look over it and digest.

And if you want people to bring ideas to the meeting—tell them.

3. Set an agenda

If you’re organizing the meeting, you need to set the agenda. If you start the meeting off by saying, “We’re here to discuss our social media strategy. Who has ideas?”—well, you’re asking for chaos.

Instead, hand out—or write on a white board or flip chart—the topics you plan on having the group discuss, in the order you want to cover them. For example, your agenda might be:

  1. Review results of last month’s Facebook campaign
  2. Discuss new advertising opportunity for The Product on Facebook
  3. Share plans to launch sponsored Twitter chats
  4.  Brainstorm new social media initiatives for The Product
  5. When everyone knows the plan, they’re more likely to stay on topic. Plus, the agenda gives you a structure to fall back on: if the discussion gets off topic or stalls, you can remind everyone in the room what you’re supposed to be discussing.

    4. Tell people the objectives

    Objectives are not the same as an agenda. An agenda is what you’re going to talk about. Objectives are what you want to accomplish, or goals for the meeting: decisions that need to be made at the table, next steps that need to be agreed on.

    For example, objectives for the hypothetical meeting above might be:

    • Decide whether to pursue new Facebook advertising campaign
    • Clarify next steps to launch Twitter chat
    • Identify 1-2 new social media initiatives to investigate
    • 5. No surprises: “Pre-sell” your big ideas

      If you’re presenting a big plan or recommendation, it’s always to your advantage to know how people in the room are going to react. Who’s likely to support you? Who’s likely to challenge you, and what objections are they likely to raise?

      Before the meeting, identify key people whose opinion matters, and share your plan or recommendation with them one-on-one. Ask for input. “Sell” your idea before the big meeting. Make note of any concerns they raise, and adapt the way you present your plan to address those concerns.

      The VP of Finance thinks your launch plan is going to cost too much? Make sure you prepare a budget estimate, and find out the cost of other launches so you can put your proposed budget in perspective. That way, the conversation won’t de-rail when she says your plan “sounds expensive.”

      On the other hand, if everyone loves the social media component of your plan—great. Don’t waste 20 minutes justifying why social media is important, just jump into the details of your actual plan, or focus the group’s attention on other areas where you do have decisions to be made.

      If you organize yourself ahead of time, get the right group together, and avoid surprises, you’ll set yourself up to make the most of the group’s time together. Plus, you're sure to impress everyone in the room with your preparedness and get a chance to shine as a leader.

      Photo courtesy of Ambro.