Timely lessons from the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, on how to be a more effective leader in meetings.

As I am spending more time in virtual meetings, I’m reflecting on how this time can be spent more effectively. I recently listened to the conversation Tim Ferriss had with Daniel Ek, COE Spotify, where Daniel shared his approach. Below is an extract of the conversation, and you can listen to the entire interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, episode #448. 3 December 2020

Tim Ferris:  I want to give an example of one question, that might, I don’t want to say surprise people, but be noticeably lacking from the mindscape have a lot of people from, from day to day. And this is, this is the question of. What your role is at a given meeting. What is my role. And I’ve read about your contemplation of this, of this question, but when you go into a meeting, what different roles might you have and why is it important to be clear beforehand on what your role is? If we actually take a step back and we think about work for a moment, and we think about work for knowledge workers, because it’s clearly different. The reality is a lot of knowledge workers that work in companies. 

Daniel Ek:  Most of the work that they’re doing is done. In meetings. Some of us do some actual other work too, but a lot of it ends up being in meetings. And it’s surprising to me that we spend as little time as we do. On actually thinking about the meetings, we’re having, if they’re productive if they’re worthwhile, and if they’re delivering on. What the ambition was. And I can only say that when you survey people that attend, when you ask if the meeting was effective or not, most people actually say that meetings are wasteful and yet we see more and more and more of it. And so. I like to think that a huge point of optimization can be done by designing better meetings for people. And. 

You know, early on, it started with my own sort of process at Spotify, not just thinking about how much time we were wasting, but frankly, In a meeting. What I found myself many times in was maybe meeting a person in the company. That had done a tremendous job, putting together a presentation of some kind. And if I put myself in that person’s shoe, this is a person that may get a meeting with me, maybe once, maybe twice during their entire career at Spotify. And for that person, it could be the chance to get noticed for a future promotion. It could be the chance to have a, something that fundamentally changes their career. And so, it oftentimes what ended up happening was the. 

Person came in. And they ran through a PowerPoint that someone had sent me the night before I had already read it. And they in verbatim read that the entire thing. And then in the end, that would be a short period of time. Usually less than 10% of the meeting was spent on that. Of us discussing what the next steps would be. Again, I understand why this happens, because again, the person that’s presenting this have all the incentives to kind of show off the good work that they’re doing and wanting to seem very competent and realize that a lot is on the line, et cetera. And instead, what I find is that’s, uh, quite often we haven’t been intentful about why the meeting exists to begin with. And in this case, if it’s recognition, we want to give I’m sure there could have been a better way you could have done. 

That, and we should have been clear that we were having a review meeting about the progress of a certain area, and it should have been clear too, that this person is an amazing individual and that we should all try to give constructive criticism. But then in the end also give. Feedback positive feedback as well, because we want to make sure this person feels valued. 

But oftentimes all of that context. It doesn’t exist. And so, my role in that meeting could sometimes be just being that person who says that kind of thing, but it really relies more often than not that I, to prep people. On how to do meetings. And set it up. Like I do read the meeting material beforehand. I prefer spending only five minutes in the beginning. 

Rereading the material or the person reading it, a summary out of it. And States the reason for the meeting upfront. And then we can spend more time talking about where are these, the right questions? Should we have considered something else? And what are the appropriate next steps? But you can be an approver, or you can be consultant. You can be informed in a meeting. And I think many people always think that if you’re the CEO, your job is always to be the approver in the meeting. But I find if you have a great team, that’s not at all the role you should have, you should be sometimes the person who is only consulted about what they’re doing as an FYI. Sometimes you can be the person who just isn’t the decider because there’s someone more competent making that decision. 

But you could be a person who is the sounding board where you can bounce ideas off. If we’re thinking aggressive enough, if you’re thinking. Roughly in this dimension, should we invest a lot? Should we invest a little in that decision? And all those things is highly contextual and your role in those meetings could be very different depending on. 

All of those variables and being clear and upfront about that meetings can have different forms. I think has profoundly changed how I look at meetings. And I think a lot of people at Spotify too.