The Meeting Culture: Including and Involving

This is part four of a blog series focusing on the skills required for headship in today's changing world. Here are links to part one: The Competent Leader, part two: The Good Communicator, and part three: Being the Decider.

Beyond the daily realities of working with lots of kinds of people that have individual strengths, weaknesses, and agendas, a leader may find that the hardest thing in the daily work is getting meetings together and running them productively. In schools, where inclusion and involvement are deeply valued, this challenge can be particularly frustrating—and meetings are often the most relied upon solution.

I turned to a highly placed friend in business—a leader in a huge, well known global company—and asked his thoughts on inclusion and involvement. He said that inclusion has more to do with teams in his business. Business teams need lots of inclusive practices, but his job—leading global innovation—required overseeing the managers of teams, so he was not responsible about specific team member inclusion, only that the team leaders practiced inclusion. Schools, he thought, have a variety of stakeholders to be considered, but business stakeholders are usually aligned toward creating and preserving value, and unless directly tied to that goal, involvement and inclusion are not as critical.

Tips for Designing and Leading Great Meetings

Nevertheless, there are similarities between business and school management. As we explored the topic together, four elements to a successful meeting culture emerged:

  1. The right people in the room (or on the call, etc.)
  2. The right amount of time—barely enough is usually better than too long
  3. A balance between closed and open agenda meetings; the latter allows participants some autonomy and can flush out frustration and raise group creativity. Deciding the right balance is tied to time, participant comfort and leadership flexibility
  4. Strong, aware meeting leadership—balanced, inclusive, focused on pace and participation, able to re-phrase critical points, sets a healthy tone and works for a successful outcome

Of these four things, having the right people in the room and having the meeting run effectively are most important success criteria. The right people should offer insight and perspective, data and external knowledge, openness and candor. The good meeting leader will assure the following:

  • The discussion is fair, open, and properly refereed (my friend’s term)
  • Time is not wasted or disproportionately given to the loudest voices
  • That the conclusion is consistent with the agenda, that subsequent actions are clear, and that a communication plan is established

If he can have a day with a few meetings that satisfy the criteria above, my friend “would be the most successful manager in the world.” As it is, my friend said, and drawing conclusions from television commercials, cartoons, and HR focus groups on morale, we must allow that a primary workplace complaint concerns the number of meetings people have, the time involved taking people away from their other work, and essentially the uncertainty of overall value in the majority of meetings. Not a pretty picture for the corporate culture.

The Value of a Great Meeting

For most organizations, having meetings remains the most effective way both to include people in an organization’s daily mission and the work at hand. Bringing people together to discuss projects, problems, strategy, and relevant data affirms the operations of an organization. Further, a healthy meeting culture guards against the debilitating silo-building phenomena or a series of one-off conversations that preclude a variety of perspectives—both behaviors that undermine productive communication and involvement. As my executive friend concluded: when a meeting has the right people included and the right person running the show, no one feels time is wasted. In sum, creating a climate for effective meetings is a challenge, requiring ability, organization, and energy, but that climate is also what everyone desires.

The Pitfalls of Routine: In education, we have lots of “standing” meetings, ones that occur every day or every week or once a month and so on. Accordingly, standing or regular meetings usually have familiar structures and devices (i.e. administrative or department reports) that drive both the agenda and direction of the time: after the last report, the meeting might be over. Clearly, such a meeting climate can easily slip into complacency and allow for a decline in good preparation and focused management. If that happens, then we can rightly feel that meetings are simply taking us away from more important activity: the word ‘meeting’ equals ‘unproductive time.’

Ensuring “Great Meeting” Climate: The good head of school, already appreciated for open, consistent communication and for acting decisively, will know that managing the inclusive and collaborative nature of meetings is the essence of administrative and faculty cross pollination and effectiveness. [In independent schools, trustee meetings are important events that govern the overall health and leadership of an organization. In my January blog Creating Forward Looking Boards, I addressed the innovations some schools are pursuing to make trustee meetings more interactive, dynamic, and productive.]

Below are three things that help create a good meeting climate:

  1. A good meeting brings specific and relevant issues to the table for discussion
  2. A good meeting seeks the perspective of participants who venture outside the community to collect data and fresh information (sometimes the leader)
  3. A good meeting establishes a tone that downplays negative emotions and cynical displays, while respects a mix humor and concise, thoughtful participation

If an administrative team or group is high functioning, then it has a finger on the pulse of the entire school community as it constantly monitors what is at the heart of the community: each member’s sense of value.

People feel valuable if they are included, seen and heard, and thus feel part of something. From the most senior faculty member to the youngest student to the most outlying staff member, the head of school must see her/his mission to find ways to offer inclusion to all members of the school community. The guidelines below should strike us as simply common sense, but many times we need to be reminded to follow common sense.

Practical Tips

Let me close with the following reminders for school leaders:

  • Community meetings: Schools vary in this, with some community meetings coming daily, and some only a few times a year. Regardless, the HOS should see this meeting as opportunity to set tone, establish community values, single out individuals/groups who deserve recognition (thus underscoring values), and when possible and appropriate create an interactive environment in the meeting. A head’s personality should be revealed as open and confident, and allowing for interactivity is helpful in doing so.
  • Parent nights/weekends: Always schedule an all-parent meeting with the purpose of addressing the parent body, not simply for announcements but for the pro-active purpose of explaining to them some educational trend, childhood or adolescent issue, or strategic school news (a new academic program, construction project, administrative initiative, accomplishment by a student or faculty). Acknowledge their activity, involvement, and appreciation for their willingness to communicate with you. Give them interesting data as appropriate, and conclude with gratitude for entrusting their child to the school. Take questions if possible. Enhance your reputation as an active communicator and inclusive school leader.
  • Faculty Meetings: These meetings tend to be particular to each school and thus have distinct and customary qualities. I have attended other schools’ faculty meetings and seen a range of styles and tones. Most are characterized by straightforward delivery and acceptance of reports and announcements; others, however, have heads of school experiencing active questioning and emotional speeches about some issue or another, in this latter case more like an English prime minister’s questions than a faculty meeting. At my schools, both as a faculty member and as a head, the regular faculty meetings were without drama and with the advent of email messaging arguably much less necessary. Still both of my former schools had several meetings throughout the year when every student was individually raised for discussion, and the resultant working environment bonded the faculty remarkably well. Once I asked a fellow headmaster if his school ever discussed each student, and he dryly replied that the faculty would not stand for it.
  • Student Participation: Whenever and wherever possible and appropriate, try to include some students in a meeting with faculty/administrators. It focuses the participants marvelously and is invariably surprising in some aspects. Not the least: it is an educational experience. Including students when possible underscores the inclusion philosophy of the community, and just for students but the for adult constituents as well.

Earlier in this blog, I considered the challenges and opportunities in our world of a frequent if not relentless meeting environment. Let me conclude with one more responsibility for a head of school: mentor, tutor, instruct and in every way work with your school leadership, including and perhaps especially your board chair, on the best practices and measured, attentive capability necessary for good meeting management. A school culture of productive and inclusive meetings—which on occasion are allowed to be dynamic—is a high functioning community.