Owl Labs (OL): Tell me about how you got to where you are in your career today.
Elise Keith (EK): I'm the CEO and Founder of Lucid Meetings, and I write an "Ask the Meeting Maven" column for Inc. This isn't the sort of thing you start out thinking you're going to do — I never thought I'd dedicate my career to meetings!
Like most others who work in this space, it was a long and winding road to get here. After I had my first child, I decided to get a job in tech so we could all eat regularly. From there, I worked in design and UX. I also did project management and product management and had the opportunity to see how different enterprise-level clients worked. From there, I founded Lucid Meetings.
OL: I'll start with "Ask the Meeting Maven." What are some of the things you write about for your column?
EK: If there's a question we're getting regularly, I'll dedicate a column to answering it. We see many of the same questions come up across all industries and sectors. How do we get people engaged? How do we work with a boss who thinks he's God's gift to meetings? How do we make this a productive use of time when things never seem to get done? These are the same questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years.
If you go back and look at advice columns from the 1950s, they're responding to the same questions. I'll write about these things but I try to focus a bit more on innovative ways companies have found to make meetings consistently successful rather than just repeating the "Top 5 Tips" lists you can find anywhere else.
I also write about meetings in the news. Recently, there was a big news story about how one of our U.S. cabinet secretaries kept falling asleep in meetings. We received questions like, "How do you stay awake in a meeting?" It might help to not be 80+ years old and traveling all the time, but we'll come up with some other tips for things like that, too.
OL: That's so funny. What inspired your passion for improving meetings?
EK: It really stemmed from seeing what works well and how it works — it's revelatory. If you go watch TED Talks or the big business keynoters, they use fancy words like transparency, inclusion, psychological safety, and innovation. They say that's what you need to have. You need all of this awesome, big-word stuff going on in your company so you can get to your goals. But it's so abstract! How do go back to your desk and be innovative? Oh, look at that guy over there — he's super inclusive! What does that even mean? They're not wrong, but the concepts on their own are not particularly useful.
When you watch them talk, they'll give you an example like, "X company or team is doing it right and here's what they did." When I started looking at those examples and I started investigating what those companies were doing in practice, you could see that they don't tell people to go back to their desks and be innovative today. They bake innovation into their systems and processes. They design the way they're going to talk about innovation and make it part of the conversation every day. This means they always have a well-designed system of meetings. Once you see behind all these great big words, every single one of them is backed up with examples of specific, actionable meeting practices and you realize that's the key.
You can go into teams that are trying to solve all the world's big problems, right? They're fixing the climate, they're fixing engagement, they're working on social injustice, they're working on tech. You can help them improve this one thing that they're already doing every day. They're already meeting every day and they're probably doing it badly.
We can teach them how to meet and help them connect to make it about innovation, trust, love, and connection, every day. Why wouldn't you do that? How could you not get inspired to work on meetings? Because once you see it, you can't unsee it. It's everywhere, and when you get it right, so much more becomes possible.
When you watch them [business keynoters] talk, they'll give you an example like, "X company or team is doing it right and here's what they did." ... I started investigating what those companies were doing in practice, you could see that they don't tell people to go back to their desks and be innovative today. They bake innovation into their systems and processes.
OL: What are some of the things those meeting best practices have in common that you're seeing consistently?
EK: There are a lot of things they have in common but one of them is that they're designed. They're designed and they're using fundamental principles of good design. When there's a complex meeting that brings many different people together, all of whom have their own things going on, and the work is generally complex, scary, or maybe boring, there are many pieces you're trying to get together. There's a sequence you have to go through that helps unlock what's going on with all those people so that they can talk about the work.
Those who follow meeting best practices always have a moment at the beginning where they help everyone connect. They do it in many different ways. Some teams will do an icebreaker, some teams choose small talk, some teams do a cheer, and some teams meditate. Then, the way they work through the work is super clear and well-designed. They're going to be using the values that they talk about in their brochures in their meetings. Lastly, they always close by making sure that they're clear about the next steps.
OL: What tools and what software do you find yourself recommending to people to help facilitate meetings?
EK: The best software technology for the meetings you're running depends on the kind of meeting. When we did the research and looked into these deeper practices and patterns, we found 16 distinct types of meetings. For those that involve remote teams, you'll want to use video. In our office, we use Zoom and we'll pair it with a Meeting Owl for better engagement with our remote folks. You also need a way to write down what's happening. You have to be recording results in a physical and visible, "Here's what we agreed on," kind of way.
From there, it completely depends. I wrote an article with Lisette Sutherland that includes a graphic we designed that shows the landscape of meeting technology, including some of our favorite tools. There are over 200 companies designing technology to help make meetings better. But if you're doing brainstorming, you're going to want a brainstorming tool. If you're working on auditable records or repeatable processes, you'll want something like what we offer at Lucid Meetings. There are some great meeting technology options out there.
When there's a complex meeting that brings many different people together, all of whom have their own things going on, and the work is generally complex, scary, or maybe boring, there are many pieces you're trying to get together ... Those who follow meeting best practices always have a moment at the beginning where they help everyone connect.
OL: Your mission at Lucid Meetings is to make it easy for teams to run successful meetings every day. How do your meetings and offerings fit into the present and the future of work that's shifting more toward a remote and hybrid worker landscape?
EK: In 2010, we were founded as a remote team. It never occurred to us that it was a shift at the time, it was just accepted. Of course, you're going to have some remote people, it makes sense. We've always had remote expectations in the way that we engage with the world. When you look at most companies and what they're doing, they have that expectation built-in too, even if they don't realize it. It's not likely that those companies serve clients that live in the building with them. If you're engaging investors, shareholders, the press, clients, or external vendors, you're working remotely to some degree already.
In all those cases, whether it's an internal or an external situation, every successful remote meeting starts with the basics of an effective meeting. That's your foundation regardless of the modality. Beyond the fact that Lucid Meetings offers software that keeps remote teams in sync, there are several specific practices you have to modify when you go remote–especially for complex meetings.
For those really complex meetings — like a strategic planning session or a major kickoff — we always recommend breaking them into a series of shorter meetings if you’re working with a remote team. When we first experimented with this, we thought being remote meant we’d waste more time and get a lower quality result, but we knew we had to break it up because that was our only option.
What we discovered surprised us. It turns out that taking a day between each of the major parts of a planning meeting, for example, gave us way better results. People took that time between sessions to really think through the work, which made the quality of what they shared when we were together much better. Now, I prefer running planning meetings remotely, because I like getting higher quality plans.
OL: Are there meetings or situations or company circumstances where you'd recommend that they be in-person? Or do you think any meeting can be done remotely?
EK: Any goal can be achieved in remote meetings, except some of the deep personal trust things. In those cases, it's not about having the meeting. For example, when you fly your whole team to Sonoma and go wine tasting together for a weekend, you have that team bonding. People ask, "How can we do that in a meeting?" That's not a meeting. That's becoming a team. Trust-building is important and remote teams should get together in-person as often as possible.
For the things you can accomplish in meetings, they can all be done remotely. However, there are times when we recommend meeting in-person. For example, we have a service we provide to companies looking to quickly get a handle on their meetings. They don't have a system and they want one. And it starts with a one-day workshop. I would much rather do that one-day workshop in-person because you can do it in just one day, and in this case, a whole lot of work is about helping the team create new expectations for how they’ll interact. There’s a lot of interpersonal trust-oriented stuff to work through.
We could run that same workshop broken up over two weeks using remote workshop tech, but while we could still get a great result, we’d lose a bit of the energy.
In all those [meeting] cases, whether it's an internal or an external situation, every successful remote meeting starts with the basics of an effective meeting. That's your foundation regardless of the modality.
OL: We talked about the value of video when you're having a remote or hybrid team meeting. What are your other recommendations for having effective meetings where either everybody's remote or some people are in-person and others are remote?
EK: Video's a huge one. The other one is flexibility. You have to build in more time to manage interruptions and distractions like talking over each other or under each other, moving rooms, or Oh wait, there's a dog! You need to roll with these things more easily than when you're in person. If you're uptight, you need to relax a little bit and just think of all the money you're saving by not flying all these people to meet in person! Relax your control freak instincts.
Besides video, the second critical piece for effective remote meetings is having a way for real-time written communication. From there, with those two things in place, you have the ingredients you need to get everyone engaged at the same time. One of the realities of a remote meeting is multitasking. People in meetings think, Oh, I'm going to look that up quickly. Then all of a sudden they're in a browser and they're off, and that's okay. If you have a well-designed meeting, they'll be off and then they'll be coming right back because they'll be typing in what they've found because they'll be engaged in serving the group to achieve their mission.
Having both of those ways to communicate (e.g., video and written communication) and giving everyone a job to do keeps everything together when you're fighting more distractions than you would in an in-person meeting.
OL: With the growth of tools like Slack, sometimes folks think those are a replacement for meetings. What are your thoughts on tools that allow you to work together both synchronously and asynchronously? Do they harm teams? Do we need just as many meetings even if we have these tools?
EK: That's an interesting question, because many folks say, Well, we put everything in Slack and therefore we don't need to meet anymore. That's a mistake. A well-designed meeting accomplishes two things at the same time. It helps your team connect as real people. Plus, what we know from studies on performance and engagement, is that we do our best work and have our most enjoyable lives when we work with people whom we trust, when we believe we're doing work that has meaning, and when that work is acknowledged.
A thumbs up or a happy face in Slack is not the same thing as saying, Hey, nice job setting this interview up, you did a great job, or, I love your questions, you're well-prepared, this is really helpful. That real-time spoken feedback feels completely different.
When you meet, you get real people together in a real human situation — this is key. The other thing you're doing is you're connecting meaning to it. You have conversations that connect humans working through tough issues together.
Meetings also create focused results in a fixed time period. When you're dealing with electronic communications, it's scattered. It's asynchronous, it can take forever or just fizzle out. In terms of total time, written-only communication takes way longer.
We also have a tendency to treat other people as if they were bots when we only interact with them in text. We dehumanize them.
For example, I'm always surprised when I run into my friends who don't work in tech and they visit a website and have a terrible problem. They say, This was broken and I couldn't figure this out, so I’m not going to buy the product.
I respond, Well, write them and say you're having trouble. Write to customer support, and they look completely confused. They don't realize there are real people behind the screens. Tech-only communication runs a huge risk of increasing that dehumanization, fractured communication, and lack of trust — it's not very effective.
A well-designed meeting accomplishes two things at the same time. It helps your team connect as real people ... [and] we do our best work and have our most enjoyable lives when we work with people whom we trust, when we believe we're doing work that has meaning, and when that work is acknowledged.
OL: What's the company culture like at Lucid Meetings?
EK: We're radically redundant. Our deal is, how do you help teams run successful meetings every day? We talk about that all the time. We have a strong mission, a clear vision about what we're trying to achieve over the next 10 years, and strong values as guardrails.
The point of values is to say we can achieve our mission in many ways, but our values say we'll do it nicely. Within that, our systems and our processes are designed so we're talking about our mission, our vision, and our values every day. We have a strong meeting rhythm; we practice open book and every week we all look at the numbers. Everybody in my company knows what the revenue looks like, what our mission is, and how we're working.
We also talk about what's going on for us as people, because it turns out everybody in my company has a life! We've had babies, we've had puppies, we've had parents aging. Some of these things are challenging. We have some coworkers who are occasionally too sore from their workouts to type! It's important for us to be a company where we can be real and deal with it because then you can actually make good sound judgments about how to work together.
OL: You talked earlier about the importance of in-person time together and in-person connection to build that trust. How often is your team getting together in-person? What do those retreats or events look like together?
EK: We get together once or twice a year and generally they're full of lots of food! We get together in advance and talk about what we're going to accomplish. Then, we plan out all of our dinners because we like to eat delicious things! I have some team members who really don't want to do whitewater rafting or anything like that, so we mostly just eat very well.
OL: What is your approach to meetings in your office specifically? Do you find you're doing some meetings more than others? Is there one meeting format you find yourself doing on a more consistent basis with your remote team?
EK: There's no such thing as a generic meeting. There is no such thing as meeting "best practices" that apply across the board in all situations. There are best practices for specific kinds of meetings and in our team, we have a core cadence of meetings we run to keep the business going. We have our weekly team meetings where we're checking the books and all of that. Then we have other meetings we run with clients and we have a whole system for those. Plus, there are meetings we run with analysts or the press — we have a system for those as well.
The key to success for us and for everybody is to understand what you're trying to achieve as a business. They need to know what meetings are involved to get from 'Hey, I have an idea' to "Hey, I rocked my idea and we win." You have to map those out and design them. One of the things that's unique for us is that we actually do in fact have all of those designs.
OL: The parent company of Lucid Meetings is Second Rise which is a majority female-owned business. How has being part of a woman-owned business improved your company?
EK: My company is 75% female, and I'm not sure the ownership thing, in terms of our experience of the company, is a big deal. We work hard to be as distributed and open and transparent in our decision-making and our processes as possible. So, you know, man, woman, whoever it is, if they're coming here and they're part of the mission, that's what counts. Being a majority woman-owned business is important primarily from a government contracting perspective. There are times in that world where being a supposedly 'disadvantaged' company which, I don't think we are, is an advantage.
Meetings are absolutely a skill-based thing; they require education, design, and practice. Many meetings are also way more complex and way more expensive than any holiday dinner. Yet in most companies, none of those things are in place — no training, no systems, no clear expectations. It's an obvious waste of money.
OL: What is the biggest mistake you see companies making with their meetings?
EK: They wing it! They assume that by the time someone's a manager, they ought to know how to meet because lord knows they've been in enough meetings so far. They have each and every manager decide how meetings should work by themselves. Yet, while directors and managers and executives often spend 50%-to-70% of their time in meetings, fewer than 25% of them have any meeting training of any kind whatsoever.
That's a mistake, because meetings are not conversations like, "Hey, let's get the group together for a chit chat." Running successful meetings is an honest-to-goodness skill that's meant to create real business value.
It's like telling your teenage children that they're in charge of a big holiday dinner. Sure, maybe they know how to cook a bit. They're great with ramen. They've also been to lots of holiday dinners, so they know what a great dinner looks like. But that doesn't mean they have the skills required to plan and create this huge, fancy meal with success. It turns out there are a lot of steps involved!
Meetings are absolutely a skill-based thing; they require education, design, and practice. Many meetings are also way more complex and way more expensive than any holiday dinner. Yet in most companies, none of those things are in place — no training, no systems, no clear expectations. It's an obvious waste of money. Can you imagine any other part of our businesses where we invest that much time and allow 50% of it to be a waste? It's ridiculous.
OL: We made a meeting cost calculator that helps you do that exact calculation based on people's rough salaries. We did it for ourselves and thought, 'Oh okay, this is costing a lot of money.'
EK: It's usually expensive, and that's okay. It's okay for it to be expensive if it also drives the results you want. That's what businesses do. We invest to get results. But if you're investing and you're not investing to get results, that's just dumb.
OL: What's a myth you hear about remote work that you want to dispel?
EK: I'm always confused by this one because I've worked remotely since 2000. People who do remote work podcasts or interviews tell me about these remote myths. I was talking to a guy and he was like, "If you could go to a room of Silicon Valley CEOs and help them dispel one myth about remote work, what would it be?" and I said, "I'm completely confused why anyone in that room would even be questioning the value of this. It's just a no-brainer. You can't be a smart CEO and confused by this — I don't understand."
Meetings are a tool ... When you learn how to run a meeting well, how to structure it, how to phrase and frame a question, and how you order things, you can have a huge impact on controlling the outcome.
OL: That's great, a fair point. Who is somebody — they can be fictitious or a real person — who you think runs really excellent meetings? I was watching The West Wing recently, and President Bartlet was great at rallying people around a shared vision, even if it was hard to achieve.
EK: You can watch almost any decent movie or television series, and you'll see at least part of the plot is advanced because they have meetings. Take the Jedi Council from Star Wars, for example — it's a regular meeting at Jedi Headquarters.
In Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister ran great meetings. He's an awful dictator type of guy–not a very nice person–but he was very effective. That's one of the other secrets - if you can control the meeting, you control the result. That's a power you can use for both good and evil, which is why almost every TV show and movie has lots of meetings in it. Your example from the West Wing is a great one.
OL: Meetings need clear goals in order to achieve them. They're not simply time to hang out and talk to one another.
EK: Meetings are a tool. Here's what I learned when I took my facilitator training: When you learn how to run a meeting well, how to structure it, how to phrase and frame a question, and how you order things, you can have a huge impact on controlling the outcome.
How you frame the first couple of "hello" questions can completely change another person's mood, their mindset, and what they believe. Once you realize that intentionally designing meetings gives you that kind of control and power, you think, "Oh my gosh, that's a superpower!"
Isn't it reassuring to know that most of the bad guys don't have the patience to get facilitator training? What evil masterminds sit around and learn how to do icebreakers? They just don't. Good thing because if they were better at that then they'd win everything — it's amazingly powerful.
OL: What do you love most about working remotely?
EK: I like that I have the flexibility to be here for my kids and my dogs. When I need to take a break, I can go and work in the garden. I also love that I can work with more than the three people who happen to live in Portland on my team. The work we do is only possible because we're remote!