It has become pretty cliché that meetings are a waste of time. I would correct that to say meetings that are poorly organized and managed are not only a waste of time, but also demotivate attendees and undermine the credibility of the organizer. Well-organized meetings led by a skilled facilitator can be very effective and can even leave attendees feeling a sense of achievement.
For internal auditors, meetings are an essential element for building relationships, collecting information, sharing ideas, and communicating results. With so much at stake, the importance of well-run meetings seems obvious. The reality, however, is that few internal audit department cultures demand and even fewer individuals invest the time and energy necessary to ensure meetings will successfully achieve desired outcomes.
Many years ago, I showed up at an audit kick-off meeting as a senior auditor leading the assignment. It was my first time in charge of a large audit, but I was feeling pretty confident. I had updated our agenda template and sent it out with the meeting invitation a few weeks before. I eased my nervousness by rationalizing this would be a "check the box" meeting limited to introductions, audit scope, timing, and communication protocol.
I was dead wrong. The business unit's vice president quickly launched into a series of questions politely challenging the audit scope and methodology. I was not prepared and after fumbling through a couple of clearly made-up answers, I was finally saved by the audit manager who had joined the meeting a few minutes late. The damage, however, was done and my credibility leading that audit never fully recovered. It was a painful lesson to learn, and one I never wanted to repeat.
Over time, I came to realize that every meeting, large or small, represents an opportunity. They set the tone, make or break our credibility, and are the primary method for setting and managing expectations throughout the audit. I developed a number of guidelines to ensure meetings are used as a powerful tool rather than a crippling trap. Here are five that I believe are essential:
- Define the meeting's objectives, outputs, and outcomes. Your first consideration, which determines whether you even need a meeting or not, is to understand what you are trying to accomplish via the meeting and questioning whether the same goals could be accomplished with an email or by simply walking over to someone's desk for a quick chat. Assuming you need a meeting, document your objectives, outputs, and desired outcomes. These become the basis for an effective agenda.
- Do your homework. Before you even consider scheduling a meeting, you should be gathering as much information as you can on your own. By taking some extra time up front, you may find a meeting may not be needed. This preparation is a continuous process to ensure you are going into any situation armed with as much information as possible. Going in thinking you know it all and coming out realizing you knew very little is uncomfortable at best.
- Develop a sufficiently detailed agenda. I once had a boss who wouldn't show up for any meeting that didn't have a detailed agenda. Her thinking was that she would not be adequately prepared to participate or, even further, couldn't be sure that she was the right person to attend. She would say, "I despise sitting in a meeting and realizing that I don't need to be there. There's no good way to make a graceful exit once the meeting starts so I've just lost 60 minutes that could have been spent on something impactful. On top of that, I end up resenting the person who invited me to the meeting." The agenda lets everyone know what the meeting is about and should be leveraged to keep the meeting on track.
- Send the agenda and pre-read materials well in advance. At the same time, make sure everyone is aware of what they need to know before coming to the meeting. Too much meeting time is wasted rehashing previous conversations and filling in the blanks for those who may not have been involved with all aspects of the audit. Laying this out in advance and giving people time to prepare helps to minimize this waste. People are busy, so this won't always work, but it is a cultural change worth working toward.
- Reschedule a meeting if you are not ready. This is a simple rule. If you are not ready, don't have the meeting. Nothing undermines your credibility faster than wasting the time of a room full of people. Remember, when you are working on an audit, the business unit is likely sacrificing other work — or putting in extra time — to accommodate you. If they miss their child's rehearsal or their personal time at the gym for a useless meeting, you won't be making any friends. In fact, I would guess that scheduling future meetings will become more difficult.
A quick internet search will provide a bunch more tips and even templates that you can leverage. The important thing is that you invest time and brainpower in planning every meeting and using everyone's time effectively. When used appropriately, meetings can be leveraged to build relationships and collaboration that lead to more productive audits. They are simply another tool in the internal audit tool belt, and, like most tools, can do great things when used correctly or be quite destructive when they are not.
That's my point of view, I'd be happy to hear yours.