Nobody Drown in Meetings this Fall: Leadership Lessons from Lifeguarding about Making the Most of Meetings


Long lasting, successful and responsible Rescue Swimmers have some lessons for leaders who have meetings.

  • Here is how I plan to apply lifeguard rules to my meeting schedule this fall.
  • Some rapid fire tips are at the bottom of the post if you are rushing to a meeting and don’t have time for the full article. 🙂
  • After you read my thoughts, read the “Death by Meeting” by Patrick Lencioni and the Q & A PDF I’ve inserted below.

September means that schedule demands will increase. Are you ready with a plan?

Are you fearful that you will get to November and be sucking wind because you are over scheduled with pointless meetings or over exposure to emotionally draining people? How are you going to help others and help yourself have good meetings? Do you plan to handle the influx of requests for your time, energy and physical presence the same way this fall or do you need a better way? How many times have you heard, “Can I talk to you for a second”, “Are you coming to the meeting?”, “Give me a call when you get this”, “We should get together for coffee and talk.” How do you respond to the diverse quagmire of demands for your face and facts? You can’t avoid it: People seek our advice.

One of my professional goals entering the fall is “apply a triage and timetable to my meeting schedule in order to set boundaries around my emotional resources and my intellectual property while maintaining helpful and accessible demeanour in service to all.”

I have re-evaluated my plan to get the most out of my meetings using my past experiences. Here are some tips from my lifeguarding career that help me answer the question: “When is it important to meet/plan/think face to face?” This goes deeper than deciding who/what issues are legitimately important/unimportant, urgent/not-urgent. It is about creating efficient and effective meetings that benefit all involved. It is about triaging, prioritizing, delegating, referring and best-practices in meeting management to better serve people and protect ourselves. This plan will help me serve more people in a better way. I hope it helps you make a triage and timetable plan.

Lifeguard Lessons:

Lifeguards are taught a phrase to use when faced with a decision about their
degree of involvement in the risky business of a water rescue. Each word is a step that increases the level of personal safety risk and expense of effort for involvement. It works on the “put your own mask on first” idea from the airplane safety videos we ignore. Memorize it and use these measured degrees of personal involvement to get and give the most benefit for your meetings. Here it is: Talk, reach, throw, row, go, tow

1. Talk: A lifeguard on shore becomes aware of a distressed swimmer. They first attempt to talk them into the deck, dock or shore. Never underestimate words. Never underestimate the power of a 3 minute spontaneous conversation. The key is get it up, running and over quickly. For example, when someone at the snack table or water cooler says, “We should grab coffee to catch up sometime to connect?” you could say “sure” then walk away, or not mean it, then feel that hanging over your head. Another response is ask “why would we do that?” and risk offending the person. To have a great 3 minute conversation, consider saying “We can have 3 minutes now to connect if you tell me the one thing on the top of your mind. What do you most want me to know about you right now and then we can have prayer right here and now.” Often that is enough to hear an issue, pray or even refer them to a written or human resource. Everyone leaves happy. Instant gratification. You might even scan the room for a few more 3 minute convos during the break time if you get confident. Work the room. However, if you do not have 3 immediate minutes because you are pressured for time or emotional resources, you may suggest that they write you an email with what they want you to know in order to feel more connected to you. That requires no response in the moment. If the invitation to “connect” seems murky or conveluded, then advise that they write their thoughts down and pray about them for 1-2 weeks and then seek an audience with whomever seems a biggest part of the problem or the solution. This allows them a coping strategy for impulse control, soul searching and reflective thinking. Also, document your meetings in one full sentence. Keep contact info and updated files on people. Think like a lawyer who writes down all billable hours for each client! I try not to give more than 5 hours to one issue. After that, it is a referral.

2. Reach: If the lifeguard finds that the safest approach of talking them in doesn’t work then the reach a pole out to the person. This way the guard is still safe with both feet on deck, yet has offered greater involvement in the rescue. The meeting version of reach is a written reply calling for clarity to catagorize. If the request for face time comes through an email, twitter or facebook or voicemail then say something like this: “Can you write me about what this is regarding and what you are asking me to do exactly. In order for me to be best prepared to give you the best guidance I can, please write what this matter is regarding and list what specific services you are asking me for? Is it crisis counselling, social loneliness, spiritual direction for decision making, theological education, leadership development?”. The request for catagorization has 2 benefits: 1. The reflective prayer and writing often allows the person to clarify their motive and needs. 2. It allows you prayerful preparation as you read their replay and agree with what you see as the best course of action. You may suggest that each item be handled differently. Pastors, like doctors and layers, are allowed to refer and refuse clients. You may decide that referrals to medical doctors, social workers, police, layers, politicians, family, friends may have the greatest help-factor. Some people with dramatic social troubles think professionals (like Pastors) are an on-call rent-a-friend. On the other hand, someone may just want to socialize as friends, and if you want that, then go for it! 🙂 These ideas can save you hours of a face to face while giving efficient guidance on access to right services that are beyond your scope or scale of service skill.

3. Throw: The Lifeguard throws when the talk and reach have had minimal effect. The throw comes in the form of your response to their written request for action. You can call them or write them to inform them of your guidance. Guidance may be a referral to other services, redirections to other departments, a phone call with you or a face to face that involves all the right people. Think long and hard about how effective a phone call after an email from a requester can be. The emailed agenda and a follow up call cuts hours. Reduce email chains by calling once you have gotten to the agenda of services requested. Knowing when to move from email to phone call is golden wisdom. Jumping to phone call or visit before categorizing service requests can waste time. Not moving to phone or visit at the right time can feel like you are remote and distant. Usually one or two emails can get an agenda for a focussed phone call. Walking into a meeting without knowing what they want is not making the most of your meetings. If someone refuses to do this kind of research and writing, then they are not very likely to take you prescribed advice and spiritual guidance very seriously towards action. Triage your cases because it filters out requests that are outside your specialty, plus it filters the fake drowners who just want attention too! They will get their attention fix from someone with lower boundaries and less professional discipline. You are a specialist.

4. Row: Sometimes the lifeguard needs to escalate involvement by getting off our the dock, deck or beach and onto a surf board/into a row boat or motor boat in order to allow the non-swimming drowner to grab the boat and climb in. I see face to face meetings like rowing out to the person. It is risky and rewarding when it is warranted. Face to face meetings are a big investment of time, energy, thoughts, words and emotion so make sure you are prepared to the event. I love a good face to face interview. I get all the nom-verbs! Always factor travel time into your meeting schedule. A 1 hour coffee across town can be a 3 hour event and may throw off your day plan in many ways. Use face to face as a peak to progress to, not a
base to start from. It can be a group or one on one face time and the same idea applies!

5. Go: This step is when the drowning person cannot hear the encouragement to swim in, or grab the ring buoy or swim to the boat themselves. This is the most dangerous level of rescue because you leave the safety of the deck and get into the water where they are desperate. The only recourse for the life-saving guard is to get in the water too – but about 3 feet away without touching them. They can drown you in the water. Drowning, in the meeting session world, is the death you can die which Lencioni calls, “Death by Meeting”. Drowning you this fall may be: poorly facilitated consensus planning sessions, poorly mediated panel sessions, emotional counselling sessions, light bulb teaching moments, decision-retarded boards, meetings with the wrong people in the room, or dramatic theological conversion teachings that happen face to face. Meetings that save organization and people have a need and a nature from the agents present, the agenda presented and the actions published. I know a friend who says NO to any and every meeting that (1) doesn’t provide an agenda in advance of, (2) is not chaired by a decision oriented facilitator and (3) action items are not published in response to! Be selective about offering your presence to unsafe people. Help them by setting terms first, then decide. Face to face is best for making team decisions within established time and target parameters.

Tow: A Tow is when you attempt to put your life at risk by embracing and dragging the non-swimmer in. This is what you see on ocean rescues, like those depicted in the movie Guardian (2006). The most dangerous threat to a healthy, strong-swimming lifeguard is a desperate, drowning non-swimmer because they will climb the lifeguard like a ladder just to stay breathing. Many rescuers die because they dive into the Tow without all the other steps. In my field, many pastors burnout trying make everyone happy and trying to make people like them by becoming doormats. They try to put out every complaint fire immediately, attend ever meeting even if it is poorly run, listen to chronic-case complainers who always want more attention and invent issues just to get the attention. Only tow somebody when you have gone through all the other steps and the non-swimmer is so tired that they can’t drown you too. Be wise this fall so that you make it to Christmas and they do too. Nobody drown!

Make the most of your meetings with these Rapid Fire Tips:

Know your speciality skills. Put your own mask on first. Ask for a written agenda before attending any meeting. Press for action items and decisions to be sent out . Use phone services like Skype, conference calls. Communicate your response time expectations in voicemail or email signature. Send leaders you are developing to attend the meetings for you. Referring people to specialists is wise and sometimes the nest help they can get. Do not schedule non-urgent meetings less than 2 or 3 weeks out. Book recurring appointments selectively. Create blocks of time for each category of services requested. Develop a list of people you refer clients to. Say “No” to some people’s plans for your life, but give them context of what you are doing and why. Delegate. Consider what you are losing the opportunity of doing when you engage unworthy meetings. Have your execution tools and administrative assistant help in the triage and timetable plan by scheduling and categorizing inquiries. Accept your limited resources of time, energy and ideas. Ask: are the right people in this room? Ask: who else needs to be in this meeting? Ask: Is this the best agenda to effect action? Ask: Will accountability for action be enforced? Read Lencioni’s “Death by Meetings” & this PDF : Author Q & A Pat Lencioni – Death by Meeting

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