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Forget seniority: Running better business meetings means letting millennials take the lead

The right way to run a meeting is to listen first, talk last

When Boston finally got a first-rate public market in 2015, like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Peak Market, one debate ended — and new ones began: Is it a food court or a supermarket? A place for people to linger and eat, or to grab and go? Are there too many seats, or too few?

So many questions to answer required meetings, lots of them, exactly the sort of high-pressure meetings Cheryl Cronin, CEO of Boston Public Market, has spent her entire career attending — and running. And if she’s learned one thing, it’s that meetings today should look nothing like the meetings she attended early in her career.

Cheryl Cronin, CEO of Boston Public Market

“I came up in a culture where meetings meant listening, and all the talking and opinion expressing was done by the VIPs in the room,” says Cronin, a veteran attorney and former political advisor to Senator John Kerry. “It came from a very traditional culture of law firms where associates knew nothing and they weren’t expected to offer opinions and partners did all the talking.”

That meeting culture, she said, has changed. Today’s workforce is filled with twenty-something young men and women thrust into positions of leadership, but with little experience actually leading. They expect to be heard, not lectured.

“Millennials don’t want to work in environments like that,” Cronin said, “because it doesn’t bring out the best and they expect to work in environments where their views are valued and where they have an opportunity to participate in decision making. So the meeting today has to recognize that.”

Cronin said she has a few strategies she relies on before every meeting. It’s a strategy she’s used at Boston Public Market, where she has to please food vendors who need to sell their products, and customers who just want a place to shop and eat.

“I have a big board in my office and what I do before each meeting is scribble things on the board,” she said. “But it’s more important to continually remind myself about all the goals I’ve established of empowering team members, of not expressing my opinion first — which could color the entire discussion —  and let the conversation move on its own.”

In the end, she said, there always has to be a leader — and that’s her. “I do end up being the facilitator with each issue, and sometimes I have to be the decision maker,” she said. “But I do that after everyone has spoken. I’m good at moving the conversation along. It’s easy to get bogged down, so you have to move it along. But you really want to prevent aimless meetings or even meetings where one person — me — overtakes everything.”

Daniel McGinn, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the just-published business book, “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed,” said sports psychologists have developed some smart techniques to prepare for big meetings. Those same techniques can be applied outside of the sports world, he said.

“They often create highlight videos of athletes’ best moments that they can watch before games,” McGinn said. “Visualizing past great performances can help get you ready for another one. There are ways to do this outside of sports. One simple way is to simply recall, in as much detail as possible, a time when you really crushed it in a similar meeting setting.”

Daniel McGinn, author of “Psyched Up”

If he has a big meeting to prepare for, McGinn said he’ll go back and listen to an old NPR interview he did that reminds him of a moment when he sounded well-spoken and authoritative. It boosts his confidence and helps him repeat the performance.

“Most of my meetings take place in the same conference room,” he said. “I try to sit in the same seat every time. There’s no special magic about this chair, but since I’m used to seeing the room from that perspective over and over, it very slightly increases my sense of comfort—sort of the meeting equivalent of a home field advantage.

Routines like that, McGinn said, can go a long way to improve meetings and minimize distractions.

For Cronin, routines are important — but more important is just being prepared to lead a meeting. “I’ve come around to believing that the best kind of meeting is one where you have an agenda, but there’s space within each agenda item to have a very open and free-flowing conversation,” Cronin said.

That way, everybody gets a chance to identify their own priority.

“Every person around the table brings issues they have identified as priorities, as well as those issues that they want feedback on,” she said. “The idea is it empowers each of the individuals and ultimately means that I haven’t really set the agenda. It’s them setting the agenda.”

Most important for Cronin is to simply sit and listen — and to observe her final rule of meetings.

“I always go last,” she said.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's BG BrandLab in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.