Meeting the profits away over tea and biscuits
ONE of the greatest drags on performance in an organisation, be it in the private or public sector, is the meeting. When one thinks of the money being paid to people who spend hours sitting in rooms talking to each other or listening to someone else droning on it boggles the mind.
When I was an executive I sometimes amused myself at meetings by calculating what it was costing the company for these worthies to be gathered together for endless and usually useless discussions. I have, thank goodness, never been in public service, so I can't speak for that sector but, if anything, I suspect it is even worse than in the private sector. Certainly, in my experience of trying to get hold of civil servants and politicians the perception is that they do nothing else but sit at meetings.
It is maddening when you phone someone and are informed by the secretary that he or she is in a meeting. Sometimes you are told, in hushed tones, that it is an "important" meeting. Meanwhile all you want to do is make them some money by giving them an order or asking them to bid on some business.
Meetings should be short, sharp and action-oriented. Nothing could be further from this description than the board meetings of a company I ran in Australia which had for its first chairman a former governor-general of the country who was an academic lawyer who had also been an Oxford don. He was a believer in what he called the collegial method. Everyone had to be heard, preferably at great length and preferably often. The result was nine-hour board meetings which ended in the gloom of the evening with a hard core remaining after others, mumbling their excuses, had drifted off to more important events such as a drink at their clubs.
Quite often, of course, the objective, particularly of non-executive directors, is to cover their backsides. God forbid that the minutes should reveal that they agreed with something that subsequently went wrong and, of course, something always goes wrong. One of my non-executive directors, having agreed to a certain course of action, subsequently wrote to the company secretary stating that although he had voted in favour he had serious doubts and went so far as to insinuate that he had been coerced into voting aye.
My response was to have the secretary reply to the effect that his letter would be circulated to all the other directors (who had voted unanimously in favour of the proposal), and that unless he wrote a further letter saying he had no reservations I would take the matter further, hinting at legal and regulatory actions. He rapidly changed his tune. He lacked the courage to stand against his board colleagues but, at the same time, wished to cover himself. And for this sort of pusillanimous behaviour he earned fat director's fees. There are no doubt many of his kind around the world with their snouts in the shareholders' trough.
In the public service it seems that frequent and seemingly endless meetings are a way of life. And there are no more skilled practitioners in the art of covering one's rear end than the civil servant. The higher up the ladder they go the more meetings they seem to attend. As the minutes, hours and even days tick by these well-paid mandarins ensconce themselves in comfortable, air-conditioned offices where they are fed a steady diet of tea and biscuits while they chatter away wasting the taxpayers' money. As every civil servant in the land seems to have a cellphone, I wonder if they switch them off for their meetings, risking severe withdrawal symptoms as they are denied the pleasure of wasting more of our money jabbering away on those infernal machines.
Some meetings are unavoidable, but what all meetings need is a firm chairman who moves matters along, allowing debate but cutting off long-winded discursions and making sure that decisions are promptly arrived at with clear courses of action provided for executives. And to guarantee short meetings everyone should be made to stand and no refreshments should be provided.