How to hold useful meetings that people thank you for at the end
Have you ever been in a meeting that you felt was boring and utterly pointless? Read on to find out how to hold meetings that are useful and that your attendees actually enjoy.
How many of us have sat though meetings where we’ve thought variations of the following?
- What’s the point of me being here?
- This is a complete waste of my time.
- My contribution isn’t valued.
- I could be getting on with useful work right now.
If you haven’t, then you’ve been lucky – but I know I have. We all moan about meetings, but then we become leaders and go on to hold rubbish meetings ourselves in a never-ending cycle of boredom and wasted time. I’ve done so myself in my decade or so of middle and senior management, because sometimes we just go through the motions and do what’s expected. However, when I’ve had autonomy I’ve generally cut out meetings that didn’t serve a purpose, and done my best to make sure that the ones I did hold were useful.
Recently I chaired two round tables for a research project I’m leading about teacher recruitment and retention. After each I received specific feedback from attendees commenting on how effective the meetings and discussions had been, and how much they’d enjoyed them. So I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt to help you make your meetings as useful as possible for all attending.
Ahead of the meeting
Know the point of the meeting and circulate it in advance
Round tables are often about exploring a particular research question, which should be circulated ahead of time, but in school leadership that means having a clear agenda. It’s useful to ask why are you having this meeting, and what do you want to achieve at the end? Nearly every single meeting I’ve attended without a clear agenda has been an utter waste of time.
Know your guests
This is a crucial one. It’s so annoying sitting at a meeting feeling that you didn’t really need to be there. For the round table I was hosting, guests included a number of senior professionals across a variety of fields as well as specialist researchers who I had never previously met. We did our research before inviting them to make sure they’d bring a good mix of expertise and experience to the discussion.
In a school setting, does everybody you’ve invited need to be there? If it’s a recurring meeting, do all of the regulars have to be at this particular meeting? When I held meetings for middle leaders, if it was a curriculum issue I didn’t invite pastoral people, and vice versa. The workload in teaching is already high and people have limited time, so don’t waste it – you can always copy them in on the minutes to keep them in the loop.
Plan questions in advance
This seems obvious, but it’s important and is linked to knowing the point of the meeting. As well as knowing what the meeting is for, have a few key questions that you wish to ask and find the answers to – or at least explore.
Round tables I’ve attended or chaired have included about 10 people who are all very senior and knowledgeable in their fields. Using 1- 1.5 hrs of their time is the equivalent of thousands of pounds of billable hours. Having a few key questions ahead of time shows you are prepared and respectful of people’s time.
In a school setting, respect people’s expertise. There isn’t always time to send the questions out ahead of time, but some notes in your notebook will help. People can always tell if you’ve planned or are winging it.
In the meeting
Get there on time
This can be difficult as a senior leader in a school, because at times events beyond your control that happen during the school day can make you reactive – a safeguarding issue, an unexpected fight, the call from Ofsted. But wherever possible, be on time for your own meeting. It sends the message that you respect people’s time and feel that it’s as important as yours. Especially if they’ve had to come to you. At the times when I was late for a meeting, I apologised and explained why. I also still made them finish on time – my lateness wasn’t a reason to make others have to amend their plans.
At the start of round tables I like to introduce myself and outline why we are here. Briefly stating your name, role and why this topic is important to them is enough. This is the time for the chair to make a quick seating plan in their notebook so they can refer to people by name throughout. If everybody knows everybody, there is no need – just skip to the aims of the meeting.
Use targeted questions
Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. This is where all your prep really shows. For meetings I chair with large numbers of people, I always use targeted questions and say I will be doing so during the introduction.
Meetings can fail because some people dominate the discussion while others barely get to open their mouths. A good chair avoids this, and guides the discussion so everybody is able to contribute. My training as a teacher really helped here. Throwing questions out to a whole class means some pupils will never contribute, only the most confident. When considering your questions or agenda items, decide who has an expertise in that area and ask them to contribute first.
“Anthea, with your expertise in rocket science, can you explain your views about the new fuel we are using?” This does a number of things:
Makes your attendees look good because you’re asking them about something they know.
- Shows that you’ve done your homework on each attendee.
- Stops the discussion being dominated by one person.
- Allows quieter and more introverted people to contribute without having to fight their way to the discussion.
If you’re using targeted questioning, you’ll notice that other people around the table will have a view or want to add to what is being said. This is where you show if you’re any good as a chair. Your job is to get as much info as possible to meet the aims of your meeting. Generally this means making sure all meaningful contributions are heard, and less meaningful ones are given a brief airing but not allowed to derail.
Look out for people who react to what’s being said or look like they want to say something. Make eye contact and show them you’ve seen them, I generally do a small head nod. Once the main speaker has finished, you can hand over to them. “Thanks Anthea, I noticed Ezra react to your comment about the cost of titanium, Ezra would you care to follow up?”
The point of chairing a meeting is not to show how knowledgeable you are. If you’ve chaired a meeting and you’ve spoken for the majority of the time, it was a failure – ,or at the very least, a missed opportunity to learn from your attendees.
Sometimes information needs to be shared and conveyed, but generally that can be done in a 15-minute briefing. You don’t need to invite 10 or so people to your office to hear your monologue. Record yourself talking, then email the video to them and save time and money – since their actual presence isn’t really needed.
The job of the chair is to meet the aim of the meeting or get closer to answering the research questions. You have invited people for their particular knowledge and skill, so shut up and hear it. You need to listen to who says what. Know when to follow up, and have enough knowledge about the attendees and topic to know who to draw in and when. You are the conductor, not the orchestra or solo violinist.
Keep to time
End when you say you will. Even if you arrive late. People may have other commitments afterwards, so don’t make it awkward for them. Also, people leaving at different times because a meeting has overrun makes the ending messy, and people could miss key points.
Get a separate minute taker
If you are chairing, chair. All the stuff I’ve said above takes a lot of concentration. Somebody else needs to take the minutes and capture what has been said. If that’s not possible, record the meeting. Get people’s permission ahead of time; during the introductions at the very latest.
Have something to give them
You know that boss who always has tasty biscuits or snacks at their meetings? Sadly that’s not me. Not because I’m stingy, but because I don’t usually think about it. Luckily, my colleague Anna did so at our round table, and our guests were happily stocked up.
However, what I did have were some free hard copies of our glossy reports that were relevant to each person’s area of interest. They were placed at the middle of the table for people to take if they wanted to. All disappeared.
Recently I’ve been reading about influence, and it was interesting to learn that giving people something, aside from being generous and polite, taps into the rule of reciprocity, and positively influences them to want to do something for you in the future. So now you know why some people bring cake.
After the meeting
After meetings it’s easy to go on to the next thing. Following up and thanking people for their contribution is something I’ve not always done, but when I do, it’s always been useful. If you’re in the same building as the people in the meeting, it’s easy. A thank you in the staff room, a quick visit to their classroom. Otherwise, an email does the trick.
For my recent round tables I wrote a specific personalised email to each attendee, thanking them for their attendance and a specific point they made that contributed to the discussion. Again, this shows you’re paying attention and people will feel valued. It also builds future relationships. One thing I’m learning is that leadership is all about relationships.
Do these tips work for normal meetings too?
Yes. I generally chair meetings in this way when I have the autonomy to do so. It is also highly useful when chairing meetings of people who are not in your own organisation, but technically more senior that you. I’ve chaired meetings like this in person and via conference call involving senior civil servants and business people, always with similar feedback.
Do people really say “thank you” for a meeting and mean it?
Yep. A number did this, unsolicited, either immediately or later. One attendee was kind enough to write this:
“The conversations were stimulating, inclusive and of real benefit to all present as a result – what was particularly noticeable was her warm, calm expertise and focus on ensuring those from alternate sectors understood the complexities of one another’s contributions (for example, translating educational acronyms!)
[The round tables] capitalised on the time of participants, and actions and contributions were summarised in a succinct and proactive way, which was impressive given the relative sensitivity of both topics and the diverse range of backgrounds of those present.”
If you’re in a leadership position, improve people’s daily working lives by improving the quality of your meetings. During my time in school senior leadership, I noted that it was easy to spend 6-8 hours a week in meetings – that’s a whole day. That was on top of my 14-16 hours of teaching.
Make that time useful. Try some of the steps above, or let me know your own. Value your own time and that of others. Share this with somebody else who may find it useful.
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