How to lead high value meetings with senior executives


Published on: November 2022

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

In advance of an important meeting with company executives, most leaders provide an agenda along with a set of pre-read materials.

The ask of the senior leader audience: Please review these documents before our meeting.

It seems like a simple request, except for the fact that for many of us, getting an audience to even skim our pre-read materials in advance of a meeting is a minor victory. Pre-reads are tricky. Just ask anyone who has started a meeting by asking the audience if they reviewed the slides, charts, or documents that were painstakingly crafted and shared in advance. Cue the awkward silence, as audience members explain how they were too busy, they just didn’t have time to get to it, so could you please walk through the pre-read materials now, blah, blah, blah. On the other hand, you may have one or two colleagues that seem to enjoy poring over your pre-reads, ready with their tough questions when the meeting time comes. Let’s appreciate the thoroughness of these individuals, rather than wish they were more like everyone else who just ignored the pre-reads in the first place.

Done right, pre-reads play a valuable role for leaders and teams to lead productive meetings. They provide important background and context, enabling meeting leaders to make well-informed decisions and engage in productive, strategic discussions far more efficiently.

How do we consistently create these types of meeting outcomes? Here are some simple principles to consider: 

Always link the pre-read to the meeting purpose and desired outcomes. A CFO and his team had scheduled an important meeting with the CEO and executive leadership to determine future capital expenditures at the company. In advance, the team prepared a detailed set of materials for the senior leaders to review, including a 60-page document that contained important information that would be relevant to the discussion. Knowing that the meeting would not succeed unless the executives had thoroughly reviewed the document in advance, the team prepared a short note to accompany the pre-read that reminded the audience of the purpose of the upcoming meeting, the relevance of that purpose to the audience, and the role the pre-read materials would play in achieving that purpose. The simple note paid off when company executives told the finance team it was one of the best meetings any team had ever led at the company.

As the CFO shared: “The note made such a difference. Too often, we assume the purpose of the pre-read is obvious, but we must make the connection clear to the audience. It isn’t enough to send slides in advance. If you really want people to read them and absorb the information, provide a compelling reason. We learned that by saying, ‘If you read these, we’ll achieve something important together,’ made all the difference.”

Make it very easy for your audiences to be prepared. Let’s imagine that you were part of the audience described by the CFO in the above example. No matter how compelling the note and materials provided in advance of the meeting, there’s no getting around the fact that you’ve been asked to read and absorb a 60-page document. For your average senior leader, it’s challenging to find the time to prepare for meetings and one of the biggest reasons that pre-read materials don’t get the attention they deserve.

Here’s where you can help your audiences. Provide questions and answers. This easy step can be a game-changer when done right. One simple technique is to raise a few relevant questions in a short email to your audience in advance of your meeting that includes your pre-read. For example:

  • What is the overall purpose of the project?
  • What do we want to accomplish in our meeting?
  • What role will the pre-reads play in accomplishing that objective?
  • How are the pre-reads structured to enable our discussion?
  • What role will you play?

Don’t forget to provide simple, bullet-point responses to your questions as part of your note. The question-and-answer format is a powerful combination that helps you set the stage for your meeting by guiding participants in advance. You’re not just sending an agenda with an attachment: You’re taking charge and helping your audience understand how to show up prepared and ready to engage in a very productive discussion with you.

Good pre-reads take time to create, and even outstanding materials may get overlooked because the value they provide may not be immediately obvious to your audiences. The moral of the story? Don’t let your efforts go to waste. Good information provided in advance of meetings leads to better discussions and smarter decisions, but those outcomes won’t just happen on their own. With a few small tweaks to your pre-meeting process, you can achieve far better post-meeting results.

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