Getting the most out of meetings

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How many meetings do you attend? As an attendance officer you will be party to a range of formal meetings with other services, internal management and your own team. How are they managed and how could they be improved? Andrew Blench provides his suggestions.

Summary

  • Meetings should have a clear purpose and follow a structured agenda.
  • Be wary about allowing any other business (AoB) – this can hijack your meeting so you run out of time.
  • Think through your meeting carefully beforehand and ensure that a written record is kept afterwards.

I wonder if you have ever come out of a meeting and turned to your colleagues and said, ‘Well, that was waste of time, wasn’t it?’

Most school leaders and staff spend a significant proportion of their working time in meetings. These might be governors’ meetings, senior leadership team meetings, staff meetings, inset days, faculty meetings, meetings with the LA or external contractors.

It’s important in what is a busy and pressurised role that these meetings are as productive as possible. The truth is that meetings cost money! This can be expressed in terms of:

  • opportunity costs
  • salary costs.

The opportunity cost is the line of thought which goes, ‘If I wasn’t in this meeting, I could be doing xyz instead’. The salary costs of time spent in meetings bring home the importance of  not wasting this time. If you were to calculate the gross hourly rate of salary of all of the people present in the meeting, what would that come to? Not that you are going to be presented with an invoice, but it does focus the mind!

It is important, therefore, that meetings are seen as a tool and not an end in themselves, that we don’t mistake activity (lots of meetings) with progress.

A successful meeting in my book is one:

  • which has a clear focus and remit and sticks to it
  • where good decisions are made and followed through
  • where the pooling of all the human resources in one room at one time has a better outcome than if we had just left everyone to their own devices.

So how do we do this?

Purpose

Have a clear statement of purpose. In the world of school governance this is covered by a terms of reference document, which sets out roles and the remit of the regular meetings. You might not want something as elaborate as that. Perhaps just a short paragraph at the start of the agenda. So, for a contract service review you might say, ‘To review the performance of the contract over the last three months, agree any remedial actions and plan for the next three months.’

Have a meeting agenda

This applies even for one-off meetings. An agenda gives meetings structure and the potential to focus on the outcomes that are needed. When phrasing agenda items, be clear on the outcome desired. So, for example, an agenda item which says, ‘Attendance improvement plan’ doesn’t really tell anyone what the outcome of the discussions is meant to be. A better description might be, ‘To review progress towards achievement of objectives in the attendance improvement plan’, or ‘to approve the 2022–23 attendance improvement plan’.

Consider having a timed agenda. This is where an allocation of time is given to each agenda point. This helps the chair to keep the meeting moving along and not overrun. It also sends a clear signal as to the importance and depth of debate needed for each agenda point. Also, when adding up the time allocated to each agenda point this can indicate if your agenda is too ambitious. If you have set aside 1.5 hours for a meeting and the time needed to discuss the agenda points adds up to 2 hours, then something needs to give.

If there are supporting papers which you want attendees to read before the meeting for an agenda point, consider having hyperlinks in your agenda to the documents for speed of access.

AoB

AoB stands for ‘any other business’. In my experience this is the death of many a productive meeting. By allowing attendees to introduce additional topics to the agenda in the meeting you run the risk of running over time and of making poor decisions. It can also pose a challenge for the chair who might not feel equipped to say no to last-minute requests.

Prime people before the meeting

Your focus, quite rightly, will be on being prepared yourself, having a paper ready and all the facts and figures to hand for the meeting. Who is going to be your advocate at the meeting? Who could be your worst opponent at the meeting? In my experience it is worth putting in some extra work before the meeting with those who might be the hardest to convince. You might also want to prime your best advocate before the meeting. Let them know what you are going to be presenting and ask for their support or get them to read through your proposal before everyone else sees it.

Guest contributors

Sometimes we might invite an external person to attend a meeting to present or give a different perspective on an issue. When this is done well it can be very valuable. However, more often than not the external contributor has been given either no brief or very limited information on why they have been invited and what is needed. So, if involving an external party to attend and speak, tell them how long they have got. Tell them who will be at the meeting, so they can judge how to pitch what they are bringing. Tell them what you want to know.

Venue

Think about how comfortable you want your attendees to be in the environment for the meeting. If you are meeting in the school library and everyone knows that in two hours’ time class 2B have a lesson where you are sitting, it focuses the mind.

The best meetings I have attended have been standing meetings, in a room without chairs. People just want to get on with the business and get back to their desks and chairs!

Quoracy

For school governing body meetings there will be a rule about the minimum number of governors who need to be present for the meeting to have authority to make decisions and to meet. But even for meetings that don’t have a formal quoracy there needs to be thought given to who needs to be present, and how many people, for the discussions to be profitable.

Co-creation

There can be value in groups of people coming together to write policies or work on scripts, in certain circumstances. But some of the worst meetings I have been to have been when the chair has insisted that we draft wording together as a group while in the meeting. This can be tortuous. While one person speaks another types the words. Things are misheard or misunderstood and then have to be written again. OneDrive and GoogleDrive work well for this purpose. Have people add their input using tracked changes, outside of the meeting.

Make a record of the meeting

In certain contexts, full minutes are essential as decision-making and the thinking behind decisions has to be done in an open and transparent manner. Minutes may also be a statutory requirement.  But in many cases an action log will suffice.

But do have some written outputs from the meeting. Without these people’s memories can play tricks on them or they conveniently forget what they have agreed to do. See an example action log template in the Toolkit.

Hybrid meetings

During the periods of pandemic lockdown some people discovered online virtual meetings for the first time, while others honed their already existing skills. These have been a great tool in keeping us connected and maintaining business. Now that we move out of pandemic measures into a more regular way of working, be clear about what you can offer. When inviting people to meetings, consider if it has to be face-to-face or can be held online.

Will you consider a hybrid meeting? That is having some people in the room for the meeting and other attendees joining online. Sometimes the hybrid options are unavoidable, but my own experience of this has been pretty poor, with issues with people not being able to hear each other and connections dropping in and out. So do think about what will work for the type of meeting you’re holding, communicate this with attendees and then stick to what you have decided.

Reflect

I suggest you reflect on the best meeting you have been to. What were the aspects which made it work so well?

‘Meetings – either the most effective way of unleashing creative energy or the most frustrating, time-wasting experience ever inflicted upon someone.’

I know which I would rather experience.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Andrew Blench is an independent school business leader and coach, with over 30 years’ experience of operational management gained in the civil service, financial services, NHS and education. Formerly SBM of Dinnington High School, Rotherham, he has since created his own company, ‘School Business Partner’. He now supports different schools across Yorkshire and the East Midlands on an interim, project or consultancy basis. Find out more at www.schoolbusinesspartner.co.uk.

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About Author

Dr Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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