What causes ineffective meetings? You probably hate wasting valuable time or interrupting work for a meeting, but there are ways to make them better. Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management, and psychology, and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, has insight into improving your next meeting. Discover why it’s not practical to use 100% of meeting time effectively, why the best meetings contain conflict, and the importance of intentionality above everything else.
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Book: The Surprising Science of Meetings
Bio: Steven G. Rogelberg is Chancellor’s Professor at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, for distinguished national, international, and interdisciplinary contributions. He has well over 100 publications and recently won the highly prestigious Humboldt Award for his research on meeting science. His work has been profiled in the Harvard Business Review, CBS News, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Guardian, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind, among others. In addition to his research and teaching, he consults for small and large organizations, including IBM, TIAA, Procter & Gamble, VF Corporation, Family Dollar, Siemens, and others. Dr. Rogelberg founded and currently directs large outreach initiatives focusing on nonprofit organization health and effectiveness with over 500 nonprofits served.
This is an unedited transcript.
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Hello and welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman and I believe that the best leaders don’t try to do it alone. As the CEO of Bregman partners, my mission for over 30 years. And the mission of this podcast is to help successful people like you, close your leadership gaps, grow as leaders, and inspire your team, inspire all the people around you to get great results.
With us today is Steven Rogelberg. He’s a professor of organizational science, Management and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And most recently he has written the really excellent book, the surprising science of meetings, how you can lead your team to peak performance. And, uh, I’m just delighted to have, uh, Stephen on the show. Stephen, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. Hey, it’s great to be here. Steven, why do you study meetings?
Well, you know, I’m an organizational psychologist and I study the world of work from a people perspective. So in some regards you could ask yourself, how could you not be studying meetings, right? When you think about how much time people are spending in meetings, how much frustration it seems to be in gendering in individuals. So I saw it as a, an amazing opportunity to study something that is frequent, um, on people’s minds and ideally something that you could make better, um, for so many individuals.
So kind of on the one hand, people do seem to hate meetings. Like you hear that a lot. People talk about it a lot. On the other hand, there’s a sense that people aren’t connecting enough and they fall into misalignment and disconnection. So I’m kind of curious where the disconnect is.
Sure. It’s a great question. Um, basically the people don’t hate meetings in and of themselves. What they hate are bad meetings. What they hate is wasting time. Um, but meetings themselves are, I mean, a world without meetings is much more problematic, right? I mean, we need meetings for cooperative to promote cooperation, coordination, communication, consensus, decision making. So we don’t want to eliminate meetings. We, what we want to do is eliminate bad meetings.
Getting you build me a one minute case for, you know, just how bad meetings really are.
Well, um, it depends on what index that you want to use. If you think of it as what’s causing people the most frustration, uh, meetings consistently emerges kind of at the top of the list. You know, what my research suggests is that a better way of thinking about it is that it’s rare that an entire meeting is garbage. Um, that what I generally find is that around 50% of meeting time is not well spent. So typically people leave meetings and they say, okay, yeah, I picked up a few nuggets, or I had this positive interaction, but it’s just the ratio of like productive, constructive time to not so effective time, I think is a little bit out of whack.
So what, what creates the non-effective time in meetings? What’s going on during that time that makes it so ineffective?
Lots of different things could be going on. Um, what could be going on is that there’s this discussion of, uh, an agenda item that’s just not important, um, not relevant to the person that’s there. Um, what could be going on is that there’s individuals who are, you know, dominating, not listening to one another. Um, you know, there could just be a mismatch of um, the types of kind of the agendas with the people, the facilitation approaches. Um, there could be side conversations, tangents, there’s a whole host of things that could be happening that make it not so good.
It’s interesting and each of those things as I’m listening to you are in these different categories. Like one of them is structural, another one is skill based. Another one is just sort of culture or habit or how we, you know, like behavioral in a certain sense meetings. It’s actually interesting because in some ways [inaudible] and I didn’t think about this particularly when I read your book, but, but, but it’s like in this conversation it’s so clear to me like meetings become the focal point for every element of dysfunction in the organization and in individuals to show up because everything else can be hidden. When you’re in your desk. It could be hidden. But when you’ve got a group of people in a central location and then you’ve got the dynamics and then you’ve got the culture and then you’ve got skill levels and then the tooth is to make a meeting relevant to everybody in that room is oftentimes a little hard because you know, you’re covering five different topics and, and each topic, you know, like may relate to some people more than others. So it’s a real challenge actually.
Yeah, I mean, so a couple things like just to build on that, I mean one of the things I talk about in the book is really meetings are the very windows into the essence of an organization. Uh, meetings are the display stages for leadership. I mean, you can learn so much about the leader in the organization just based on the meeting. And the other thing I wanted to say, I’m in relationship to what, what you mentioned where you, let’s say you have a variety of people. Everyone has their own needs. Um, it’s impossible to have a meeting where 100% of the time is a good use of time. So it’s certainly 50% is too low. So what is that sweet spot? And what I talk about with organizations that I connect with is, you know, really shooting for 80, 85% of the time. I’m being like that good use of time.
It’s funny, I, I, I did an experiment for myself at some point and I, um, uh, committed myself to never multitasking. So I would not be at a meeting and check my phone at the same time. And I find that there’s certain elements, like there’s certain habits that if you get into like my tolerance for being in a meeting that was not engaging or useful, et Cetera, you know, when way down. Because if I’m not gonna allow myself to get distracted at points when I think I wasn’t useful, then immediately my demand for, you know, uh, a more effective meeting rose.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. You were, you were expecting a greater return on investment of your time. So I’ve done, I’ve been doing research on bit multitasking and I think there’s a lot of reasons why people multitask, I think. I think first and foremost is because people just have so much to do that they’re fearful. If they don’t multitask, they’ll fall behind. But meeting multitasking is also a symptom, right? It’s a symptom of meeting dysfunction. It’s a symptom of a non compelling meeting. Um, and I think that multitasking is often a coping device, right? So you’ve given up control and if the meeting’s bad, how do you get that control back?
And then it, it’s, it’s sort of a downward spiral because once I start to multitask, then I’m disengaged from the meeting and I’m not going to contribute and then it’s going to get both less interesting to me. And my whole reason for being there diminishes. So it’s, you know, it, it, um, it spirals on itself.
Well, and it’s a can, it can is a contaminant. So once people see others multitasking, they’re much more likely to do it.
I remember one of the first meetings that I ever led, I was working as a course director at outward bound. It was right after college and I was totally prepared. It was like my first meeting and I literally created little folders for everybody and, and, and created a really clear agenda. And I knew exactly what I wanted to get through and I had places where they’d be involved and I thought it went really well, but by the end, everybody was exhausted and it was clear that they thought it went really poorly. And I’m curious, and you talk about this in your book, can you talk about self inflation bias with regard to meetings?
Yeah. So I’m, well I commend you for trying to be creative. Like that’s good. Um, yeah, it’s interesting that when you survey people, um, at the end of the meeting, there’s one person that invariably says, hey, this was a really good experience and it tends to be that meeting leader. Um, so, you know, why does that self inflation, um, exist? So first of all, the meeting leaders in control and when we’re in control, that tends to help us, um, feel, you know, we’re empowered. Uh, so we’re in control. We’re talking a lot. Um, those, those are two nice ingredients for feeling good about inexperience. Um, so, you know, I could be doing this, this video cast with you and I, yeah, I think it’s going great, but am I really the best judge? Right? I mean, I’m doing all the talking. I liked the sound of my voice.
I’m like, yeah, this is really going well, but you don’t really know. So, and this inflation bias exists with everything. Um, you know, if you ask people how good of a driver are you, like everyone’s above average, right? Um, so we see this in lots of contexts. It’s just the human condition and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but what it speaks to is just the need to check in every once in awhile to see really is it a blind spot? And you know, that it’s easy to do. So for example, you know, when I do these media interviews and they keep pushing me, well, what’s the one piece of advice? One piece of advice. And it’s hard because obviously my book has lots of pieces of advice. But if I had to say, one major piece of advice is for that meeting leader to do some type of an assessment, you know, ask their folks who attend their meetings. Three questions, what’s going well, what’s going not so well and what can I do better, right? Just get voices, learn what people have to say and make some positive changes, um, that will take you a long way.
Alright, so for everybody who’s listening to this, you know, you’ve gotten a straight up request from Steven in the comment section of this podcast. You could point it towards Steven, you could point it towards me towards the podcast. What’s going well, what’s going poorly and what was your third one? What could we do better? Right? Alright, so, so feel free to shoot that out in the comments section. I promise you that we’ll both read them. I can’t promise you Stephen will read them, but I promise you I’ll read them. And if he doesn’t, I’ll send them to him. But I know him well enough, at least from this conversation that I know that he’ll read them too. Sure. Stephen conflict is very important to create in meetings, conflict around ideas. How can we promote conflict around ideas without also promoting conflict between people?
That’s great. Um, yeah, I mean the, the best, um, meetings do have conflict. Um, you know, conflict is really where greatness can emerge, right? When you have a group of individuals who are diverse, um, you hope that there’s, you know, this, these challenging of ideas and thoughts. Um, so there’s lots of ways of promoting good constructive conflict. You can kind of establish a set of ground rules at the beginning. You know, where you encourage people to focus on ideas, not the person, but you can also design processes to promote it. So for example, if I have people, um, for example, brainstorm, um, and they brainstorm in silence so they just take ideas and write them down or put them in the an app. Um, but it’s all done anonymously. Well, the ideas that emerged from silent brainstorming, besides being that there’s going to be twice as many as comparison to verbal brainstorming, they’re going to be more innovative and they’re going to be more disruptive, right?
Because people aren’t filtering, right? They’re bringing their full selves. So then once it’s on the table, well now it has to be discussed. So if there’s differences of opinion emerging through this process, it’s not going to feel personal, right? Because it’s not attached to particular people. So there’s just different ways. Um, another example is, you know, using a clicker technology, right? So if you put ideas, say, okay, here are four ideas we’re considering and people vote using their phones. Well now people are going to be willing to disagree perhaps of the idea presented by the most powerful person, right? Because the process promoted it. So I’m really keen on trying to kind of structurally design a meeting so that good processes emerge.
And I’m sort of curious because if you have a room full of people, you know, have you ever moved 10 people? And there is, there are a couple of people who are organizationally more critical than the other eight. Would you kind of want the meeting to be biased towards them in a certain sense, like the, the s the, you know, you, you kind of want everybody involved. But I wonder if, if that process might sidestep or ignore a certain dynamic that leads to the success of outcomes of these kinds of meetings. Do you understand my question? It’s a little,
yeah, I do. I mean, I guess the, the example that I’ll use, um, in response is kind of an Amazon one. So, um, when people are pitching ideas, they don’t do it via PowerPoint. They write a memo, right? And these are like six page memos. And what the thinking was is that these hosts didn’t want people to be influenced by the charisma of the speaker. They wanted ideas to be evaluated on their merits. And by having things written down, well then it goes to the merits of the idea. And so when we are designing a meeting, we really want the quality of the ideas to gain the most influence, not just someone’s personality. And you know, if you’re a great meeting and you’ve brought these folks together, um, I mean that’s your hope, right? So for these meetings to truly shine, you know, our job is to lift voices, bring descent, and really allow kind of the, the, you know, the things to be evaluated on their mayors as opposed to all the contaminants.
That’s great. And in the end, the people who are more powerful in the organization ultimately will probably be in a position to be able to make the final decisions anyway. So, yeah. And if you don’t want those other ideas in the meeting, then why are you holding the meeting?
I love it. Thank you. Talk about people should meet for 48 minutes. I love that, by the way, because 45 just feels too short to me. Um, and you know, you also suggest 10 to 50 minute huddles. So you’re trying to get rid of that 60 minute meeting. Can you, can you talk about that a little bit?
Yes. Um, so you know, where did the 60 minute meeting come from? Right carefully. Um, so you know, 60 minute meetings, they’re artifact of calendars and there are artifacts of, you know, Microsoft outlook and there’s nothing magical about 60 minutes. So, you know, I, I had this chapter of my book saying me for 48 minutes, but I don’t literally mean meet for 48 minutes, but I want people to be intentional. I want people to actually think carefully about how long they should meet for, especially given that Parkinson’s law exists and Parkinson’s law is this idea that work expands to what fill whatever time is a lot of to is. So if you schedule a meeting for an hour, it magically takes an hour. But we can use this to our advantage. If you schedule a meeting for 45 minutes, it’s going to take 45 minutes. Right? And this is a great thing. You know, this is particularly a great thing because if we can back down meeting times and we’re giving people not only the gift of time, but we’re also allowing intervals between meetings so that people have time to transition, people have time to check their phones. So maybe there’ll be less likely to do it in the meeting itself.
Yeah, I love what you’re saying and it, it somewhat answers this next question that I had as I was reading the book, which is that, you know, the extent to which all of these rules were particular to a culture, like an organizational culture or actually, uh, a national culture. And I, and it came to mind that Alan Malali, who you know, was the CEO of Ford and before that Boeing, he had like, he was an incredibly effective leader and, and you know, he would say, he has said to me that a lot of his effectiveness as a leader comes down to these weekly two hour meetings that he had with lots of people in it. He violated a lot of rules. Like, yeah, two hour meetings. He had all of his direct [inaudible] 15 people who were running. And then he invited other people who wanted to come and watch the meeting, could come and watch the meeting and sometimes be involved.
And it was this incredibly structured process, um, that ultimately he credits with turning around fort. And it has to do with people being accountable for, you know, what their top projects are, et cetera. And so what it left me with this question is, isn’t a lot of like how we structured meetings based on who the leader is, what the culture is, the outcomes that try to achieve. And you’re saying, at least from your last answer in terms of timing, yes. Like let’s think about the outcome we want to achieve and, and then, and then drive the meeting. Would you say that that’s also true for all other aspects of meetings? Um, are there some golden rules in a sense which she says every meeting should abide by these five things?
No. Um, I don’t, in fact, I mean that’s really one of the, I think big differences with my book. Um, because my book doesn’t say it doesn’t present a magic formula. It doesn’t say do a then B, then c and d. Um, each chapter is a very discreet kind of discussion and it presents a variety of tools and techniques that I want leaders to be intentional about. I want them to pick the tools and techniques that make sense for them as individuals and make sense for their circumstance and not a one best solution. But I think if you’re intentional, your chances of being successful are much greater. So in this particular case, yeah, this, the meetings are massive, but clearly this person, this leader was being very intentional and that really matters. And interestingly, this intentionality is, is almost a skill that so many leaders ignore.
And so the best meaning leaders recognize that there are inherently a steward of other’s time. And by recognizing you’re a steward of other’s time, you start making choices. You Act intentionally, you think carefully about what needs to be done, who needs to be there, how long it needs to be, what are techniques that you could use. And interestingly, we have this intentionality. Every single time we meet with someone, either much more powerful than us in an organization or we meet with a customer, right? We never dialed in. In those instances, we act intentional. We really think carefully about it. But for whatever reason, when we’re having meetings with our peers or direct reports, we take those skills and we shelf them, right? And so anything we can do to build that intentionality, I think it’s going to go a long way.
So I listened to you and I think that a big part of this, and maybe this is the Lens, the bias that I see things through because I’ve done a lot of work around emotional courage, the willingness to feel things, a, which I think is at the root of the willingness to be able to do things. Um, and, and a lot of this, it seems to rely somewhat on the emotional cards of the team leader. You know, they should interrupt, they should keep things short. They should drive to outcomes. Um, they uh, should, you know, generally focus people in the meeting even when it’s a little hard to corral people. And we’ve all been in, I was, I was in a meeting which was a facilitated group. It doesn’t really fit the definition of meeting but, but the point of this drove me nuts. I was in this meeting, it was like a facilitated group.
There was a rule that, you know, everybody should talk for two minutes and the first person started talking and they literally spoke for 30 minutes, 30 minutes and nobody stopped them. And it wasn’t my meeting. And, and also it was like, it was the kind of group where I wasn’t really in a position, it was not to go too much into depth, but it was like a, a group where we were discussing the idea of reparations and I’m like the white male in the room and like I’m not going to say, hey, stop talking. It’s been 30 minutes and we committed to two. But it takes a lot of courage for the facilitator at that point. Or maybe it shouldn’t, but it does where whatever the facilitator didn’t at that point say hold on. Like I appreciate what you’re saying. It’s really important. And out of respect for this process and for the other people, you know, we’ve committed to two minutes. So how do you help leaders show up in this emotionally courageous kind of risky way in a way that kind of keeps the meetings focused, which supports everyone, but it’s still kind of hard to do in the moment.
So a leader could, um, start their meetings saying, hey, I bought this great book and I learned a lot of new things. Um,
you’re not talking, you’re not talking about leading with emotional cards. You’re not talking about my product, right? You’re talking about the surprising signs of meetings.
No, I think you should all buy the surprising science of meetings. I do think actually your point is really good, which is, which is to to, I mean I interrupted you, but to sort of jump in with, hey, we know a little bit about what makes an effective meeting.
Exactly. I mean, I just think that the leader, I mean I actually was only half joking because I think a leader saying, you know, we have these meetings, we have lots of meetings and we know that people are frustrated. And while I can’t fix other people’s meetings, I can fix my own, right? I can make, I can be the light, I can do meetings better and I want to do what I can to make this the best possible use of time for all of us. So I’m going to try a few things and then we’ll look at it. And if it’s not working, we’ll stop doing it, but let’s try, let’s see if we can make these better and give it a go. And I think that’s courageous, but I also think it builds a culture, right? It builds a culture where people are going to look at their stakeholders and say, okay, how can I treat them better? How can I learn, reflect? How can I be the best person, the best leader I can?
I love that. And it seems to me, one of the things as I’m listening to you that feels important is if you set new guidelines for meetings, then don’t lose the opportunity of redirecting the meeting the very time it goes off. Because if someone, you know, if someone, if you’re talking, if you say two minutes and someone talks for 15, then you have lost your ability the next time that happens to stop them. So it’s like once you set the rule, you gotta stick to it and it becomes easier once you set the new rule.
That’s right. I totally agree. And even just your willingness to reevaluate the rules periodic, right, right. Because a set of rules that might work in the beginning might not work towards the end. And so we can make these more fluid.
You talk about the importance of creating positivity at the beginning of the meeting, which I, I, I like, I liked that idea. But if people are generally upset or negative, isn’t the leaders positivity discordant and likely to have maybe the opposite effect, um, or, or am I just providing a, uh, an excuse or a recipe for continuing negativity?
You know, so we know that meetings are often an experience similarly to how we psychologically experienced interruptions and interruptions tend to anger us and kind of put us in a bad state.
That’s it. Hold on, let’s slow down because I think that’s such an important point and it’s so interesting the way we see meetings as in an as is as an interruption to our work and, and already like, you know, if you’re assuming that you’re in there as an interruption to the real important work that you need to do, it’s like you’re at the bottom of a hill to climb. All right. Sorry for interrupting. But I just wanted to underscore that point cause it’s such an important point, Steven.
Thank you. Thank you. So basically as a meeting leader, I want to help people bridge that step. I’m going to help make that separation easier. And so I know that people are coming into my meeting with this mindset. I know that they were doing something else. Um, so while I’m not trying to invalidate their negative negativity and it might be relevant to the meeting and if it is, I’m going to fully explore it, but the fact is for the next eight x number of minutes, something else is happening, right? We called this together to achieve x, Y, and Z. And while I can’t address that other stuff at that moment, I still can make it so that your investment right now in this x number of minutes is done in an effective way. And so the positivity that I bring to it, and I don’t mean some kind of fake Disney type of positivity, but me saying, thank you for coming.
I’m really grateful that you’re here. I appreciate you taking the time to be here. Um, and looking for other types of host behaviors saying, oh, actually do you two know each other? Let me make an introduction. And basically me bringing some positiveness to this is only going to, um, I think elevate the meeting cause as you know better than most, I mean emotions are contagious and if I can build a meeting that has more positive emotionality, it’s actually going to foster more creativity and it’s going to foster more open mindedness. And those are all things that will benefit the meeting.
That’s great. Conference calls can be in sufferable, right? With sort of, especially if it’s, you know, a conference call, not just a phone call but a conference call and you ask a question and then there’s silence on the line and you offer a series of tips to make them better. Can you just throw out a couple of random tips that you think like, you know, if you do these three things or ready, it’s going to have a big impact on making your conference calls better.
Sure. So I have a whole chapter on this as you know, and it’s an important topic because dysfunction and remote meetings is crazy high a. So I’ll give you a couple of quick ones. Um, let me randomly, uh, generated, uh, so when at all possible do video, um, get people, um, you know, not being anonymous, um, when, uh, if you know, when impossible, uh, get people to come online five minutes earlier so all tech issues can be handled and then here’s your bonus. That’s going to be the one that’s crazy controversial is consider banding the Mute Button.
How are you going to know?
So well you’ll know because you won’t hear the dog. You know, like you’ll hear maybe some noise but, but I, I don’t literally mean to ban it all the time, but I like the symbolism of that. Right? We meet in an organization, the expectation is that we will all be in that room focused.
You’ve of course seen that video of like what would happen if an in person meeting was like a conference call.
Exactly. Exactly. So I like the, I’m thinking of it as kind of metaphorically or you know, just kind of symbolically that if you ban the mute button, then people have to be present. They have to commit to being in a quiet space. They have to commit to not having lunch, they have to commit to not walking their dog, you know, basically just because the meeting is remote doesn’t mean that you’re a passive participant. Right. So while practically you can’t always ban it. I just liked the symbolism of saying it.
Right. Great. All right, we’re gonna wrap up here and here’s my final question and it’s putting you on the spot. So, uh, and, and don’t worry because I’ve gotten a lot of emotional cards to hear it, but you know, we’ve just had a meeting. It’s an interview meeting we’ve just had, like, it’s you and me. And so I’m curious what you would do to make this kind of interview meeting more effective. Like how could I have used our time or our conversation or are there things that you saw me do that worked? But I’ll let me ask you the question that you were sort of asking the audience, what worked, what didn’t work and what would you do differently?
So I would say that this meeting was effective because you were intentional, right? You thought through the story in advance. You did your research, you did your preparation, you read the book. Um, so not only did you have kind of in mind how to honor my time, but you also had some flexibility to allow me to kind of go in some, some different directions. So you modeled intentionality. Um, so that takes us so far in, in the path to success. You know, the, the only other thing you could have done, and I don’t think you know, your, your listeners don’t know it, but you could have said, you know, perhaps sent me maybe an outline of topics that you wanted to talk about. So maybe I would be more prepared to cover certain things. Like, you know, this last question, I’m just kidding. So, but that’s very minor and um, and I really actually think, and this little case study that we just did, that intentionality is 80% of the battle in does or not so much. You can have great meetings without agendas. If the is highly intentional.
Do you sometimes, uh, come into these interviews and have the person not having read the book and kind of unprepared?
There is definitely variability. And um, host kind of preparation and quality. Um, yeah, it’s, you did a really good job. Um, it’s not always the case. There’s some I’m like, oh my gosh, what have I committed to? But I’m grateful for the experience. I’m grateful that so many people want to talk about the book and so I’m, I’m having a lot of fun but I definitely appreciate when the interview is well constructed like this. So thank you.
Well thank you Stephen. And what I would say is it’s, it’s to, to their laws, if they’re not reading this book and prepared for the interview because the book is an excellent book and it is not a hard read and it is filled like chuck fulfilled of really great, incredible practical advice for how to take, you know, this thing that is an indelible part of our lives and very effectively and kind of simply make it, you know, a much more useful, much more productive use of our time and everyone else’s time and show up as better leaders in our organizations because that’s when we’re on stage when we’re holding a meeting is when we’re on stage as a leader. So it’s like, it’s high leverage, it’s high productivity, it makes a huge difference. And your book, the surprising science of meetings, how you can lead your team to peak performance is incredibly tactical and practical in allowing us to do that. So thank you for writing it. Thank you for, uh, coming on to the Bregman leadership podcast and I’m looking forward to our paths crossing a lot more in the future.
Likewise. Thank you.
Hi Peter Bregman here. Again, I hope you enjoyed that episode. I want to remind you at the close that we are looking through applications now for the Bregman leadership intensive. I would love one of those applications to be you. Please go to the URL, Bregman partners.com forward slash leadership to learn more and apply for the intensive. It will really develop in an unimaginable way, your emotional courage and impact, your leadership and your life. Again, we cap it at 20 people, so don’t hesitate to apply. Now, hope you enjoyed this episode and I look to speaking to you again next week.