How to Run a Successful Meeting

May 28, 2012

We all attend them, run them, and complain about them.  But there are things you can do before, during and after a meeting to make sure it is productive and efficient.

BEFORE:

Before you call a meeting, determine the purpose.  What the goals are, and what resources (people and information) do you need?  Does it need to be a discussion?

Prepare a written agenda – a brief list of all the topics to be covered, in descending order of importance (with time allocations if needed). Having a formal, written agenda lets everyone know what to expect, how to prepare, and allows them to start thinking about the issues ahead of time.*

In addition to the agenda, what other background material should you provide ahead of time? Make sure to send it well in advance.  Yes, people will probably read it at the last minute, but if you’ve sent it well in advance they are more likely to actually do that.

If you are an attendee (opposed to the organizer), make sure you understand why you were invited, and what you are expected to contribute.  Are you the right person?  Depending on the type of decisions to be made, could you provide this in advance and not attend?  (If you need to explain the data or answer questions; you probably need to be present.)

DURING:

Arrive on time, with all the materials you need, and with enough time to mentally transition to the topic of the meeting. If you’re the organizer, allow extra time to set up room logistics, deal with last minute problems and greet attendees. This sets a friendly tone, and shows your respect and appreciation for other people’s time.

Make sure to identify the scribe (to take notes of action items), and the moderator (to lead the discussion).  If you’re not the scribe, you can still keep your own notes – especially of action items that were assigned to you.

Unless you are expecting an urgent call, turn off your cell phone and avoid distractions.  (No checking email during the meeting.)  Try to avoid side conversations with your neighbors.  If it’s related to the topic under discussion, then everyone needs to hear it.  If it’s not related, it can wait until afterwards.  The more everyone focuses on the meeting, the more efficient it will be.

Don’t be afraid to speak up when you have something to contribute, keeping your remarks on topic and as brief as possible.  Face the group, speak at the proper volume for the venue, and enunciate clearly. Make sure your idea is developed enough to be expressed, but don’t be afraid to share an incomplete idea that others can expand – especially if it’s a brainstorming meeting.

Really listen to other’s ideas, and see how you can enhance them.  Confine your comments to the issues, not personal attacks.  Avoid making hasty judgments, or becoming defensive when someone suggests a solution that conflicts with one of your ideas.

If you are the moderator, remember to pay attention to those who are not talking.  They may be waiting for you to ask their opinion.  Keep the discussion on topic, and make notes of ideas that are outside the scope of the current meeting, for future discussion.  If a particular subject is taking longer than allotted in the agenda, as moderator you may need to hold it over, and move on.

Don’t get caught up in rules. For small groups, formal rules of order may not be necessary.  As the group gets larger, more stringent rules can make sure everyone is heard, and no single person dominates.  Most organizations follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but you can use whatever system your organization chooses.

At the appointed time, bring the meeting to a successful close.  A brief review and explicit follow-up plans (including assigning action items) are often the most important parts of the meeting.

AFTER:

Make sure the minutes properly record the disposition of each item, and who has responsibility for each action item.  Circulate the minutes to all attendees for agreement.

If action items were assigned to you, complete them in a timely manner, and report your success.

If necessary, set the date and time for the next meeting.  Any agenda items that were carried over, or topics outside the scope of the last meeting, can form the basis of the agenda for the follow-up meeting.

So there you go!  With a little planning and some common sense, you too can have productive, efficient meetings – and use the time you save for something even more fun!

*I have been known to send out an agenda with detailed questions, and then tell the attendees that if they can answer all the questions beforehand, I will cancel the meeting.  I get the information I need, and they get their hour back.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Working from Home: It is the best of places; it is the worst of places

May 21, 2012

Working from home is great.  You can saunter into the office at any time, wearing pajamas and bunny slippers, and no one cares.  Working from home is awful.  When you need help, there’s no one around to ask.

Whether it’s writing a paper, reviewing a grant proposal, or analyzing data, there are lots of tasks that you don’t need to be in the lab to do.  In fact, many of these tasks can be done more efficiently without distractions.  So will working from home work for you?

The good news is the office is always right there.  You can run in and check email or look something up in a file at any time, without having to drive across town to pick up a missing folder.  No more wasting time commuting into the office, you can just step in and work whenever you want.  Whether you’re a morning bird or a night owl, your desk is always handy and ready to go.

The bad news is the office is always right there.  The temptation to check email, or answer the office phone when you’re “off duty”, can be too much, and just checking to see if there’s anything important can turn into several hours before you know it.  You never get away from work, because everything is always right there.  And being in the same place all day and all night can be draining – especially when you realize it’s been three days and you haven’t been outside.

The good news is there are no colleagues around to distract you.  You can focus on a task, and no one will break your concentration. If you learn to ignore the phone and only check email at infrequent intervals (and you should), you can have large blocks of uninterrupted time, and most people find they get much more done, and are much more efficient, when working from home.  If you need quiet time to focus, this may be your idea of heaven.

The bad news is there are no colleagues around to distract you.  When you need help, you can’t just walk down the hall and ask a colleague to take a quick look at something.  No one will pop into your office to ask a question about a project, or stop to chat as you’re walking down the hall, so you’re much less likely to hear rumors about the new direction a project is taking, personnel movements, and early rumblings of change. In fact, you’ll need to work at sustaining relationships with your co-workers – balancing discussions of work issues with small talk, being connected without being cloying.  If you thrive on personal interactions, being alone all day may seem like a prison.

The good news is your family members are around, so you see them more often and can interact with them on a more regular basis.  You can fit your work around their schedules, and enjoy breaks with your loved ones.  You can break your work day up into several long chunks, taking breaks in the middle of the day to take care of personal issues when stores are less crowded, then working again in the late afternoon or evening.

The bad news is your family members are around, and if they don’t respect your work boundaries, they can be just as distracting as your colleagues were.  If you’re in the house, it can be very easy for them to interrupt you for “just a second”, and being continually brusque with them can strain your relationship.

Working from home requires discipline, and the ability to balance personal and professional needs on daily.  You will be pulled in both directions, and when they’re all in the same location they’re harder to ignore.  Some people solve this by putting hard lines between work time and home time, while others prefer allowing them to blend and optimizing over both realms simultaneously.

Very few things in life are black and white (except skunks and zebras).  If you check email at night, or keep your work cell phone with you at all times, you’ve already started merging your personal and professional lives.  If your supervisor is agreeable, set up a dedicated work area in your home, and spend some of your working hours there.  You might be surprised at how much you get done – or it might make you appreciate the professionalism of your office.  Either way, you will have learned something.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.


Money, Money, Money Makes the World Go Round

May 14, 2012

First the bad news: salary budgets remain tight at many companies. Your annual raises may be modest at best. Some firms are under salary freezes. Now the good news: even under these conditions there are strategies you can use to receive more money from your employer. These are summarized below.

Your 401(k) Plan

Put enough money in your firm’s 401(k) plan so you maximize the matching funds your employer contributes. A lot of people don’t do this according to Mark Schmidt, vice president of research at the Society for Human Resource Management. If you don’t collect the entire company match, you’re “leaving money on the table” according to Schmidt.

Education Subsidies

Some firms offer employees subsidies covering college or short course tuition and books. These subsidies may also be available for certifications, licensure and professional development courses. These courses usually have to be job related or useful in your future career development. You will probably need your manager’s approval to obtain a refund for these expenses as well as maintaining a passing grade.

There may be other restrictions. For example, studies must be at accredited institutions and you may only be reimbursed if you earn a minimum grade as defined by your company. The first $5,250 of reimbursement funds (per federal standards) per year is not taxable. You company my not offer the full federally allotted amount, so inquire with HR on your company’s benefit policy. In addition, your company may also award scholarships for your children going to college.

Medical Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA’s)

Many employers offer employees flexible-spending accounts (FSAs). These allow you to set aside part of your salary before taxes for spending on eligible medical expenses. If you should have a good idea of what medical expenses you’ll have in the coming year you can put that dollar amount in your FSA. This allows you to save money on your income taxes while having money set aside for planned medical expenses.

Health and Life Insurance Programs

Obtaining your health, disability and life insurance from your employer is usually cheaper than obtaining insurance from other sources. The disadvantage of this insurance is that it isn’t portable. This usually doesn’t matter if you leave your employer for a job at another. However, it could matter very much if you become unemployed. In particular, look into the U.S. Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Under COBRA employees who lose their jobs can continue to receive health benefits by their employer’s group health plan for an extended period, usually 18 months. However, the former employee must pay the full cost of the insurance. The advantage is that you and your family do not go without health insurance between jobs.

Employer Wellness’ Programs

Many employers want their workers to be fit. They subsidize gym memberships, smoking cessation programs and other health programs. Reimbursement is generally taxable; however, you could have lower medical expenses by taking positive steps to improve your physical and mental health.

Job Exit Strategy

If you lose your job, you may be able to receive some additional funds from your employer. Try to negotiate a severance payment that provides additional benefits beyond your firm’s standard severance package. For example, when I changed jobs I had several invention disclosures approved for filing as patent applications. I was paid a consulting fee to work with my former employer’s patent attorneys to prepare these patent applications.

Be sure you are paid for the vacation time you have accrued but have not yet used. Determine if you have any money left in your medical flexible spending account. If so, spend the funds appropriately. For example, you might go to an optician and get an extra pair of prescription eyeglasses or refills on prescriptions.

Don’t feel embarrassed about asking for these funds. Since the last recession began, the average time it takes to find another job is becoming longer and longer. So any additional funds you obtain from your employer could prove to be very useful and keeping you on the right track to finding your next opportunity.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1400 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


How do I Prepare for a Networking Conversation and What Do I Say When I Get There?

May 7, 2012

There are several job searching strategies, but  few as valuable as building strong networking contacts. That means meeting as many people as you can who are willing and able to provide job leads, resources, and other contacts.  When you do get a contact, you’ll want to make the most of the opportunity.

That means treating every networking conversation as if it were a job interview – being prepared with information and smart questions to ask.

There are three main areas you need to research:

  • The industry (trends, main competitors) using sources such as Standard & Poor’s, and Hoover’s.
  • The company (strategy, structure and performance) using sources such as annual reports, analysts’ reports, news releases, etc.
  • The person (background, experience, interests) using the ACS Network, Facebook and LinkedIn to learn more — how long they have been at the company, job title, career moves, etc.

Based on your “due diligence,” you can plan good quality questions. If your conversation goes well, you will have valuable information, new insights, and new leads.  Achieving these results means you need to prepare more specific questions to draw out the kind of information you need.

There are four kinds of questions you can ask during the networking conversation:

1.  Questions about the company:

How does this company differ from its competitors? Why do customers choose this company?

How would you describe this company’s culture?

How has the economy affected the company?

Why did you decide to work for this company? What do you like and not like about working here?

2.  Questions about the job:

What does your typical day look like? What kinds of problems do you deal with?

What are your main responsibilities? What kinds of decisions do you make?

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

What part of this job do you find most satisfying? Most challenging?

3.  Questions about the person:

How did you prepare for this work? If you were entering this career today, would you change your preparation?

What abilities and qualities do you believe contribute most to success in this field/job?

How does a person progress in this field? What is a typical career path in this field/ organization?

4.    Questions about your own fit for the job:

What are some typical entry-level job titles and functions?

What kind of advice do you have for someone pursuing a job in this area?

With the information you have about my education, skills, and experience, what would you say are my strongest assets for a job in this area?

What other fields or jobs would you suggest I research?

A well prepared conversation will provide invaluable information, relationships, and connections that will last throughout your career.  For additional resources to help you with your career planning, check the ACS Careers website (www.acs.org/careers) and attend the ACS Onsite and Virtual Career Fairs (www.acs.org/careerfair) offering opportunities to build your network.

Get Involved in the Discussion!

The Career Tips column will be published the first week of every month in C&EN.  The articles will be posted on the ACS Network and the ACS Careers website, where you’re encouraged to get involved in the discussion.  Tell us what you think, share your experiences, let us know topics you want us addressed.