The one hour meeting manager

Eng Mwangu had just taken over an exciting job as CEO of a government agency meant to regulate the rapidly growing telecom industry. Scouted and recruited from the US where he had been at the helm of the exploding cellular industry, he had taken up this job, because he saw an opportunity to make a difference back in his African country. With newcomers to the industry, some opportunistic and quite unscrupulous, he felt there was a need to develop a strict regulatory policy without deterring innovation.

Because the agency was meant to serve diverse stakeholders one of the things clear on his mind was to run an efficient organization, where clients were not kept delayed and telecom licenses would be issued expeditiously.  He had all these ideas when he dropped in for his first Senior Management meeting, where he decided to let his Deputy chair the meeting as he studied the organization. But then he was in for a rude shock.

First, while the meeting had been scheduled to start at 9 am, which is exactly when he showed up, quorum only materialized half an hour later. Eng Mwangu had left some bills on his desk which needed urgent clearance for payment. He had scheduled an appointment with a diplomatic official at 10:30 am interested in offering capacity-building support. For this reason, he was impatient to start the meeting but staff casually checked in, looking quite surprised to find him already waiting.

But that was just the beginning. The interim chair started by asking members to first draw up an agenda. A debate started and it was 15 minutes before issues for discussion where agreed on.

Once the meeting got underway, it seemed like a freewheeling debate of ideas. Eng Mwangu observed that members had to first rapidly peruse through documents before giving their views, though others just jumped in the middle and argued vehemently without any basis. The meeting was interrupted with servings of teas and eats. Eventually, it took three hours to conclude on all matters, but then Eng Mwangu wasn’t clear on what was agreed and who was to report back on what.

Back in his office, he found his visitor had left. Eng  Mwangu decided to call up his deputy. “I want to make a few changes concerning the next meeting,”  he shared.

“At your service,” his deputy agreed, eager to know the direction.

“First when a meeting is scheduled to start at 9am, this should be so, without waiting.”

“But our people are slow!” the deputy hesitated.

“Then a meeting can’t start without an agenda,” Eng Mwangu went on, decisively. “If there are papers to be discussed they must be sent well in advance and not read in the course of the meeting.  People should come to the meeting with the agenda already known. After prayer, I will open the meeting with 10 minutes of Chair’s remarks and responses. The time allocated for issues will be 40 minutes. The last 10 minutes will be for resolutions and reporting on last meeting action log items.”

“But Sir these people hate being rushed,” argued the deputy. “You will miss out on ideas.”

“Then we must choose between having organization full of good ideas but hardly executing them,” countered Eng Mwangu, “It’s about the urgency of time.”

In the following weeks, this system of managing one-hour meetings was introduced. At first resisted, staff quickly adjusted once it was clear this was the new norm, and it soon became a standard. What was even more interesting is that given the leadership support, staff further down the ranks adopted the same practices, too.

Meetings are key to running organizations. They bring together participants to agree on action items and follow up on past decisions. They provide a forum for exchanging and debating new ideas. Unfortunately, as we have seen here and know well, many organizations are paralyzed with poorly structured meetings. Many meetings are uncoordinated and without focus, eating into the organization’s time, ultimately affecting results. Given all the time they take and effect on organization results, time should be given to how to run effective and productive meetings in the workplace.

The manager and how to fire staff

Mabati Ltd, which dealt in iron sheets, had not been doing well for some time, due to low business, precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Kiso, the CEO after going through company finances, finally decided to slash certain expensive positions as one measure to bring down costs. He called in the Human Resource chief, Ms Mpola, whom he asked to come up with a list of those positions not considered critical but bloating the payroll. “We need to save money and save the business,” he directed her with a sense of urgency. “Get me that list before end of the week so as to inform those we can no longer have here not to report back next month!”

“But sir!” Mpola, the Head of Human Resource felt uneasy. “Whatever list we come up with we need to first look at their contracts and make sure we abide by the employment terms. Then we need also to prepare them for the eventual exit before announcement. Perhaps you may share how the business has been slow.”

“Am I getting you correctly!” wondered the CEO with some annoyance. “You mean we need to first call in these staff and talk sweetly to them about their rights before releasing them!”

“Yes,” agreed Mpola. “And not only that I suggest we also provide counseling services for those who may not easily embrace their termination, as some are quite hardworking and their esteem might be affected. There are specific training programmes we could also provide for exit transition like Financial Literacy and business development.”

“You are getting things muddled up,” Kiso waved at his HR chief. “First of all we don’t have the time and then neither are there resources for these additional expenses.”

“Well, my fear is if we don’t do it the right way,” advised  Mpola, “it might end up costing us more!”

Against the advice of his HR chief, once he got the list, Mr Kiso called in over 100 staff for an urgent meeting and without wasting quickly informed them, “The company has decided to release you. Your services will no longer be needed next month and plan to hand over. Here are your termination letters.”

There were loud moans of disbelief from the gathered staff. One hypertensive staff almost fainted. After a tense moment one person shot up his arm with a question. But Mr Kiso got up abruptly.  “I have another meeting to head to. You can talk to HR.”

In the following week one staff after another queued up at HR office  to discuss terms of disengagement. It soon became clear not much thought had been given over the fact that there were different contractual terms to be considered for each staff. The termination letter had been too general without spelling out clear severance terms. Mr Kiso was not available to discuss anything. Soon the affected staff decided to go to court. Mabati Ltd was found guilty of not adhering to her contractual terms. She was fined heavily. The news went out to the public, generating a lot of negative press, which the company hardly needed at the time, affecting her business revival.

As CEO of a struggling company,  Mr Kiso, might have had his reasons to downsize staff payroll. Yet, it was important that he should have heard from his HR chief and adhered to best practices. In this particular case, it was not only important to first revisit the contracts with the affected staff and determine how to properly severe off relations, but it was also important for the sake of company image, release staff in the most friendly manner possible. The suggestion by Miss Mpola, to go beyond and offer counseling and other personal development programs like Financial Literacy, was a good one. These programs where they have been offered during staff lay off, have ended up creating a good spirit far from an acrimonious and costly exit as we see here.

Weather it is the Covid -19 pandemic or any other development affecting normal business progression, this should not be an excuse to forsake best labor practices regarding staff termination. Failure to adhere to such might prove too costly.