By: Erin Wilson, senior vice president and associate general counsel for Stearns Lending, LLC. 

Conference calls are the norm for many business interactions, which include, but are by no means limited to, internal and external meetings, strategy sessions, document reviews, and negotiations. While calls are convenient for bringing together attendees in multiple locations, they are also used for people in the same building and even on the same floor — which lends itself to a less congenial atmosphere.

One setback to conference calls is the multi-tasking aspect to which many attendees subscribe, and often happens when attendees are less than fully engaged on the call. Multiple calls in a day can add to an overall frenetic work environment and an often overwhelming sense of back-to-back discussions and tasks.

In an attempt to overcome the multi-tasking and general malaise associated with such calls, my own conference call set-up has morphed over the years into using the five factors below. These are common sense considerations, but many are often missing from day-to-day operations.

1. Invitation: People, subject, access, time

Calls can become pointless without the right planning. The attendees only reiterate the prior issues, and fail to have a meaningful discussion or make important decisions. To guarantee a successful meeting, make sure the right people are on the call (e.g., those who can explain, have expertise, and will make decisions). If you don’t know who the relevant folks are, ask.

In the invitation, a brief narrative of the subject is helpful, especially when the meeting may be scheduled further out. Most of us go through dozens of emails a day, and two weeks from now, your attendees may not remember what the meeting is about if it is not in the invitation. Putting the call-in information (phone number, passcode, etc.) in the “Location” field so that it shows up right away in the email summary is assistive. This makes it easier to find, and attendees can access the number(s) without having to open the invitation completely.

5 Important Questions You Must Ask Before Scheduling a Meeting

The appropriate meeting length is also crucial. A 10-minute meeting does not require a one-hour block. One last thought on timing, I wish Microsoft would adopt a “spa hour” default in their meeting notices (50 minutes, instead of one hour). But since they have not, I often manually change the time to allow a five- to 10-minute window for transitioning. These days, back-to-back meetings are often the case, and a holdover creates a domino delay effect for subsequent meetings. Are you listening, Bill?

2. Agenda

Every meeting needs a basic agenda, which should be included, even if typed in bullet points within the invitation. It only takes a few moments to draft a road map of what you are going to discuss. Detail is not usually necessary, but a rough outline helps the organizer keep the call on track, and reminds attendees of where the call is headed.

Staying on the agenda path is also critical. Be prepared to table peripheral issues that are not critical to the task at hand. If they are correlative, but require further input and/or attendees to address, put it on your to-do list to set up an additional meeting at a later time. An organizer should jump in when someone is on a diatribe, and (politely) guide the meeting back on track.

3. Documents

This should be considered separate from the invitation section due to its importance. If there are documents that need to be reviewed, discussed, or referenced on a call, please include them in the meeting notice. If they are not ready as of the invitation date, attach them as soon as possible; I strive for a minimum of 24 hours prior. If you are not the meeting organizer, but know there are documents involved, contact the meeting organizer and request that they be attached.

It is difficult to have meaningful conversation or decision-making if people are seeing documents for the first time on a call. This is especially true of contract negotiations and business deals. There is nothing worse than getting on a call to discuss a contract, only to find that the attendees have not had time to review the document prior, do not know which version they are looking at, or are digging through old emails to find the documents. It’s another time waster that your day doesn’t need.

4. Roll call

When there are more than three to five people invited to a call, and especially when there are more than 10, call roll. The five minutes wasted while waiting for everyone to join the call, finish talking over each other, and correct misheard names are a time vampire. They suck the life out of the call before you even get to the subject matter.

Everyone has their own sense of when to start a meeting, but a decent timeframe to wait is not more than one to two minutes on a call with multiple people. Time is valuable, and respect should be given to those who are attendees as well as the organizer.

6 Work Email Rules You're Probably Forgetting

While deference may be warranted if there is another senior leader attending, too much delay is still disrespectful to others. If you hear someone join during the course of the call, let the speaker finish, then ask who joined. This allows you to keep track of attendees, but not hold up the others. As an attendee, if you know that you’ll be late, kindly let the organizer know, so that they can adjust the discussion accordingly.

5. Follow up

A common tendency is to think that everyone is making notes and will remember what they are supposed to do after a meeting; that is the optimist in us. The realist knows that while most attendees have great intentions, they may have a meeting directly after yours, and they might forget what the takeaway was from your meeting.

Maybe they wrote it down wrong, or perhaps did not understand the extent of the inquiry. A follow-up communication (email) with a very brief summation, and list of any to-do items and to whom they apply, is helpful. It also allows people the opportunity to correct information, if needed, and prevents any “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that” deflections if someone drops a ball.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it works well for most conference calls. Attendees will appreciate when meeting organizers follow a similar path.

For further reading, please download the ACC Guide to Process Management that provides a framework for applying Lean Six Sigma principles and practices to Legal. With a methodology to understand value from the client's perspective, you can apply structural improvements to address root causes of inefficiency, eliminate waste and improve quality through consistency and effective controls.