I went on a bike ride this morning with my friend Jimmy and we got to talking about business (not the venture business because Jimmy's not in tech/venture/web/startups). I asked him if he takes a lot of meetings that he'd rather not take. And whether it would be better to stop taking them.
We ended up concluding that taking meetings that are likely to be unproductive for you is a worthwhile thing to do, but you have to know how to manage these meetings.
Here's some guidelines we came up with:
1) Limit the length of the meeting upfront. Seth Godin once told me (or maybe he wrote this in his blog) that he always limits his meetings to 30 minutes. If he chooses to make them longer, he can do that. But going in, they are set for 30 minutes and the person he's meeting with knows it. Jimmy told me that for many "informational interviews" that he offers young people looking to get into his line of work, he limits the time to 15 minutes. I don't do this religiously but I am going to do more of this going forward.
2) Have a hard stop and let your assistant (if you have one) know what it is. Ask him or her to interrupt the meeting when the hard stop has come. This is helpful if you are having a hard time ending the meeting gracefully.
3) Set an agenda up at the start of the meeting and be very focused on getting through what the person who asked for the meeting wants to cover in the time you have allotted. This means less small talk at the start of the meeting. That said, I think it's always good to have a little small talk at the start of a meeting to set the tone.
4) Don't say yes to every request that is made during the meeting (an introduction, reviewing some material, another meeting, etc, etc). Ask the person to pick one thing that is the most impactful thing you can do for them and agree to do that (if you can deliver on it).
5) Try to do it right in the meeting if you can. A quick email or phone call right during the meeting can be a great way to get the thing done you agreed to do. Jimmy told me he does this a lot and I agree that it's a great trick if you can pull it off.
6) Ask the person who you met with to follow up with an email with the specific request they are making of you. I do this all the time. I find that it is much easier than writing it down during the meeting.
I tend to take a lot of meetings that others might feel are unproductive. And they often are unproductive for me. But there is a lot of serendipity in this world and you never know when an unproductive meeting turns into a productive one. Plus what goes around comes around. Particularly with younger people who are in need of career advice. That's a particularly hard category because I could fill every day with those kinds of meetings and I can't do that. But I think you have to do some giving back. And when you do, you need to figure out how to be productive with the time you are giving away.