How Elon Musk runs an efficient meeting — and you can, too

Elon Musk, billionaire, A.I.-doomsayer prophet, and the CEO of three companies, goes to a lot of important meetings. And according to a Quora post recently highlighted by Business Insider, Musk wants to make sure every meeting counts — even if that efficiency comes at the risk of alienating employees.

Skyler Shuford, who used to work at Musk’s SpaceX company, recounted that he once heard a story about Musk telling someone in a meeting, “You haven’t said anything. Why are you in here?”

Oof. But Shuford could see the reasoning behind Musk calling out an employee publicly about their contribution.

“That may be borderline rude, but it makes sense. Don’t be in a meeting unless there’s a purpose for it; either to make a decision, or get people up to speed. In most cases, an email will suffice,” Shuford said about his thoughts on Musk’s alleged meeting technique. “Meetings are expensive. Assuming the fully-encumbered cost of an engineer can be between $80–$100 per hour, having a 10-person meeting can cost a company around $1000 an hour!”

How to plan an efficient meeting

If you don’t want to publicly embarrass your meeting members in front of their colleagues, there are other, more tactful ways to plan an efficient meeting.

1) Should there be a meeting?

The best way to start a meeting is by first deciding if there actually needs to be a meeting. Your employees’ time is valuable, and when they are in meetings, they’re not doing the work you’re paying them to do. Harvard Business Review has made a handy flowchart of questions for you to ask yourself before you schedule that meeting: “Have I thought through this situation?” “Do I need outside input to make progress?” “Does moving forward require a real-time conversation?” “Does this necessitate a face-to-face meeting?”

If you’re answering “no” to these questions, you’re not ready to meet with other people, and you may be better off writing an email, or brainstorming on your own first.

2) Who should be at this meeting?

Musk could have avoided the awkwardness of an underutilized member attendee if he had screened who would be at his meeting. To decide who should be at your meeting, it’s helpful to remember what meetings are for: making decisions, not just sharing information. Decision makers and shapers should be at your meeting, everyone else can find out what happened through different formats. Meeting attendees should review who’s on the guest list before agreeing to that invite.

It also helps to remember that even if there are many stakeholders who could be invited, including only essential personnel is key to giving everyone a chance to contribute. Invite too many people, and it starts to feel like a crowd where no one’s voice is heard.

3) Plan an agenda for the meeting —and follow it

Once you’ve set a time and date for the meeting attendees you’ve pre-screened, you’ll need to plan what will actually be happening in it. Everyone’s been in a meeting that’s been a waste of time for all involved. To avoid that, set everyone’s expectations with an agenda. This agenda, which should be distributed prior to the meeting itself, should include a summary of what attendees can expect to happen at this meeting and desired outcomes.

Annette Catino, CEO of the QualCare Alliance Network, believes in agendas so much, she won’t attend meetings without one. “Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting,” she told the New York Times.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos believes in this kind of preparation, too. The beginning of some of his meetings with top executives start with silence. A Fortune article said that he and his team can “consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes.”