Practical Leadership: Turbocharging Meetings Through Advance Preparation

Executive Committee At-Large Representative

When one thinks about effective leadership, meeting preparation is probably one of the least likely characteristics to come to mind. This topic is not very exciting or flashy, and it is certainly not sexy, but it may be one of the most important tools at a faculty leader’s disposal. Most people would strongly agree that a major responsibility of a senate president, committee chair, or other faculty leader is to provide sufficient information to the group in order for the group to make sound and timely decisions.

Perhaps a useful metaphor for the role of the senate president or committee chair with respect to meeting preparation is that of a landing party scout. The larger group sends out a scout to explore unfamiliar terrain and report back before leaving the environs of the landing site. The information collected and conveyed by the scout is essential for the party to make the best decisions as it travels into new territory. In a similar way, senate presidents and committee chairs act like scouts exploring new terrain for the larger group, except that the terrain in this case consists of principles, policy issues, processes, and concerns rather than new physical territories. Colleagues depend on the president or chair to provide a framework for the discussion, to orient them about the salient points of issues, and to keep them focused on what needs to be decided. Without the president’s or chair’s initial preparation and guidance, meeting discussions can veer seriously off-track and become increasingly unproductive.

In order to be an effective scout and share needed resources for meetings, one common approach many senate presidents or committee chairs have used is to provide information about an agenda item that offers context for any associated resource documents. For example, suppose that a college had recently changed its class schedule to a compressed calendar and there was now an interest to develop and implement a survey to gather information regarding the impact of the changeover. The senate president might dutifully create an agenda item entitled “Compressed Calendar Survey,” and the only additional information provided for this agenda item might be an attached draft survey about the compressed calendar. Although the attachment of the draft survey is appropriate, without any background information, context, or direction, the attached survey will likely raise more questions than it answers, and senators may not know what they should expect to do with the draft survey, whether to edit it for content or grammar, identify missing topics or questions, or determine who will be the faculty members on the subcommittee. They may also not understand whether the senate will be approving the draft at this meeting or just discussing it, when the survey will be conducted and how the data will be analyzed, and whether feedback is needed before, during, or after the meeting.

For these reasons, a practice of relying exclusively on primary documents to provide the information a senate or committee needs in order to make a decision frequently leads to numerous email attachments that confuse more than enlighten and are frequently simply ignored. During the meeting, instead of beginning deliberation, the group must devote precious discussion time to explaining and clarifying the meaning behind the documents. If time is an issue and no opportunity is provided for clarification about the primary documents, senators or committee members may be forced to make important decisions without a complete understanding of the issues involved.

What senators and committee members really need in order to make good decisions is information that provides context for the topic. They need to understand why this agenda item is important, what is to be decided, who the key players are, what has happened so far, what the central issues or concerns are, and what different points of view are relevant. A senate president or committee chair can be a more effective scout for the group by providing necessary background information for an agenda item within the context of a larger story.

Some theorists in the humanities and social sciences have recognized the central importance of narrative for organizing and understanding human activity. Human beings tell one another stories in order to convey complex, richly nuanced information in a memorable way. For this reason, senate presidents and committee chairs may wish to take on the mantle of storyteller in preparation for meetings and ask themselves how can the agenda’s various stories be told.

Each leader’s style and talents are of course unique and effective in their own way, so suggestions about meeting preparation and agenda development may not work for everyone. For example, gifted orators may be able to tell an agenda item’s story verbally and in the moment. For those of us without that particular talent, providing a single, comprehensive supporting document to meeting participants can be a powerful tool for facilitating effective and efficient meetings. Such a document can include a brief narrative for each important agenda item with background about the topic and the expected outcome of the discussion. This document is basically an annotated agenda, with each important agenda item listed as a heading, followed next by a short narrative description or preamble and whatever necessary primary documents may shed light on the item.

For example, in the case of the hypothetical “Compressed Calendar Survey” agenda item, senators would still be given a copy of the draft survey document; however, in the supporting document, the survey would be prefaced by a short account of how and why the discussion had reached its current status and what the senate would need to do next:

Background: Two years ago, college faculty voted to adopt a compressed academic calendar, which meant that our previous 18-week semester was compressed to the current 16-week semester. The recommendation to compress the calendar and implement a block schedule was then approved by the Board of Trustees.

Upon instituting the compressed calendar, the academic senate, the union, and college president agreed that a follow-up assessment would be conducted after a couple of years to determine whether or not faculty, students, and staff had adjusted to the new calendar and to identify any concerns which may have arisen as a result of this move.

Jenny, Mark, and Nick volunteered to serve on a subcommittee to draft a survey based upon feedback received from senators at our last meeting. The survey questions below were developed to assess faculty satisfaction and to elicit feedback on faculty perceptions of teaching and learning effectiveness as well as student access and success as a result of the compressed calendar.

Action: The subcommittee is requesting that senators take the survey prior to our meeting and note any questions that need to be reworded or items that should be added or deleted.

This relatively short narrative would help orient senators regarding what has happened in the past and what the group is trying to accomplish. It also reduces the number of questions that will be asked if participants do not know or cannot remember the story behind the item, allowing the senate or committee to get to problem solving and decision making sooner. This strategy of providing agenda item descriptions benefits participants who do have time by affording them the opportunity to read and consider the supporting narratives and come to the meeting well prepared and with feedback to contribute. This strategy is also beneficial for those pressed for time and unable to read the agenda narratives in advance of the meeting. A quick read of the supporting information during or right before the meeting allows them to get up to speed with the discussion.

One simple procedure for creating narratives for agenda items can be taken from the classic Five W’s and One H (Who? What? Why? When? Where? and How?) of complete news reporting, a practice faculty who worked on your high school or college newspapers may already know. Whatever technique you use for relaying the story behind the agenda item, the important thing is to include enough information that senators or meeting participants can get to the heart of the matter and know what to expect regarding the discussion and any decisions that need to be made at the meeting.

Narrative descriptions are not necessary for all agenda items. Reports from committees and subcommittees, quick informational items, and approval of the agenda and the minutes are all examples of agenda items that do not require any kind of added storytelling in order to understand what is happening. In general, importing primary documents into one single supporting document is most helpful to senators or committee members, as they have single starting point for learning about the upcoming meeting; however, importing Excel spreadsheets, Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF), or Microsoft Word documents with track changes may be difficult or impractical. In those situations, the committee chair should make certain that the narrative description for the item points to the external document and highlights the salient parts of the document that will be discussed or the important issues or concerns raised by the content of the primary document.

An additional enhancement to meeting preparation strategy is to set time parameters for each agenda item and share those in advance. Allotting clear time limits for agenda items can help in determining how detailed the narrative descriptions should be and serve as a guide during the meeting to keep item discussions moving along expeditiously.

Writing narrative descriptions for agenda items can certainly be time consuming. However, not preparing thoroughly in advance can lead to meetings that run over their allotted time and may lead to prolonged and directionless discussions, which likewise consumes time but in a less productive manner. Preparation, even though initially time- and energy-consuming for the senate president or committee chair, pays handsome dividends in the long run in terms of running productive meetings.

In practice, the writing of narrative descriptions becomes both quicker and easier the more it is employed. If agenda items carry over from one meeting to the next, all the senate president or committee chair needs to do is add a line or two to the description in order to keep meeting participants up-to-date with the latest developments. Regular use of narratives for agenda items is also useful for keeping minutes. Committee secretaries and note-takers can compare their meeting notes with the narratives to generate richer and more accurate minutes.

The value of thoughtful preparation has long been understood and appreciated by leaders worldwide. No matter what methods they may employ, senate presidents and committee chairs who prepare thoroughly and carefully for meetings are much more likely to be successful in helping their colleagues get important work done.