Eight Quick Tips to Increase Meeting Effectiveness

You sometimes feel as if you spend your life in meetings.  Some you may consider to be “good,” but maybe—just maybe—some do not feel as if you spent your time well – right?

So…how can you improve the quality of your meetings and the precious time spent at board meetings?  How can the content of your meetings be focused on the reason you exist, student learning?  Without layers of contrived rules and protocols, how can a governing board make a difference every time it meets?

Let’s consider these eight tips.  We will expand on them based on a little experience and (hopefully) a bit of wisdom, and also identify those boards that elevated these from tips to everyday practice.

1.  As a board, identify behavioral expectations for members and hold each member accountable

We address this step toward good governance in our Board Culture policies.  Board members together identify those behaviors that reasonable people believe should contribute to the efficacy, effectiveness and efficiency of the board.  Every single one of our Coherent Governance® clients starts their journey by defining – in policy – how members will conduct themselves individually to contribute to good governance.  And then, they hold one another accountable through meeting debriefing and through an annual self-assessment.

Common values included in the CG policies:  preparing for the meeting through reading agenda materials and contacting staff in advance with any questions; avoiding repetition; using appropriate body language; treating others with courtesy; maintaining confidentiality appropriate to sensitive issues and information … make sense??

In Calgary, Canada, there was a period of time when members believed that at least one board member violated these rules consistently, including violating board confidentiality.  The board retreated, and addressed the behaviors honestly and directly.

In Harrison, Colorado, one member undermined the board and its work to the extent a full public relations campaign was developed to address the impact of the member’s negative behavior.  The board and its strong board president consistently took the behavior head-on and provided additional coaching both for the member and the full board on how to deal with the behavior. The misbehaving member eventually became a very effective president!

2.  Debrief every meeting for process improvement by asking what worked?  What do we need to improve?  Evaluate what happened; apply what has been learned

In the military, such debriefing is called an “after action review.”  After every strategic undertaking or initiative, those who led and participated dissect to what degree they were successful, identify what didn’t work, and focus on how to improve.

Isn’t a meeting of the board the same?  A strategic undertaking to assure that the board contributed to student success?

Palm Springs USD balked at debriefings for years – “we’re tired, we’re done.”  With the encouragement of a new member, the members recommitted to debriefings and now are faithfully doing them after each meeting in order to improve.

Harrison SD2 committed immediately and are relentless in debriefing every meeting, including strategic planning sessions, linkages, and retreats.  Members believe in honestly addressing their individual and the team’s work to assure continuous improvement.

3.  Use Parliamentary Procedure to stay focused and give clear direction

Did the board make a decision?  On what?  Was there an amendment?  Does the staff have clear direction about what we decided?

You may think Parliamentary Procedure is too formal.  But knowing the basics can assure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that the board is focused on the issue at hand.  Additionally, it saves time and provides clarity for staff that has to follow the board’s direction.

Approximately every other year at the annual professional development retreat we host for our clients, Wisdom Sharing, we bring in an expert parliamentarian for refreshment and training.  Board and staff unfailingly find it helpful.

4.  In agenda planning, reference each agenda item to a governing policy.  Otherwise, consider whether the item really belongs on the agenda and whether the board should be spending time on it  

Have you ever found yourself wondering how or why something is on the board’s meeting agenda?  Items appear that seem clearly to be administrative and not needing board deliberation?  Are they operational matters you’ve delegated but are now popping up for approval? Typically in our experience, if something appears on the agenda, board members will discuss it, appropriately or not.

Consider having the superintendent, board president and one other board member review each proposed agenda and determine whether each item is board work.  If you are in the practice of Coherent Governance®, think about referencing each agenda item to a governing policy. If you can’t find the relevant policy, maybe it is not board work.

Palm Springs Unified has done this for years, carefully deliberating how the board’s meeting meets the needs of the board. Additionally, this practice helps build leadership capacity for board members who later may become president.

5.  Aim to spend at least 50 percent of the board meeting focused on students – their performance, their needs

Ever feel like the last thing you talk about is student achievement?  Many boards over the years tell us that this the last thing on the agenda, if it appears at all.  Often we hear that student achievement issues start at 10 p.m. or later, when no one is left to think clearly or hear the discussion.

Imagine what would your meeting might look like if you started with student achievement issues, involved staff in reporting on how schools are achieving against your achievement goals, and having any school presentations talking about their performance?

Again, check out Harrison SD2.  Marvelous.

6.  Treat staff and any attending public with courtesy and respect – listen well

Remember a meeting when staff presented and a board member opened with a response like, “You mean to tell me…?”  The staff looks downtrodden, the hush falls over everyone, communication has just broken down.

Or how about the parent who comes with a sincere concern about a child, and the only response is steely board member faces and, “thank you.”  Consider this: the courtesy of restating the concern to make sure the board heard correctly, acknowledging the concern, and then turning it over to the superintendent with the request that you as a board be informed of how it is handled?

The issue here is, do you want to emulate a legislative model of disdain, mockery, or intolerance?  Or, as a governing body, would you prefer to be a board that values hearing from those who elected members – and that honors and respects the work of its staff?  The goal is to increase communication and interaction rather than develop a culture of fear, disrespect or loathing and that eventually begs for the board to be treated the same way.  Consider professional development on listening that builds constructive and respectful deliberations.

7.  Limit presentations and tie each one to a student achievement goal/Result

You value hearing from parent groups and students.  You want to hear the “good stuff.”  But time can slip away and suddenly the important agenda items that will require another two hours are going to start late with weary members.

Consider this:  each presentation tied to the impact on student achievement.  Focused.  Clear.  Purpose stated upfront.  And then, limit the time allotted for any and all presentations.  The board must get to all of its important work in a timely manner if it is to be effective.

Any of the boards cited previously can attest to the wisdom of time limits.  As well, in Nashville TN and Clark County NV, the school boards choose to move some of the presentations and awards to a separate and stand- alone meeting to enable deliberative board work to be achieved at the business meeting.

8.  Configure the meeting table and room so members can make good eye contact, read body language and communicate effectively with each other

Odd how we place a line of chairs, facing the audience, and yet try to engage in meaningful discussion among fellow members. It looks and feels contrived. It is commonly believed that good eye contact with the person with whom you are talking is necessary, but yet we build structure that prevents it.

To enable good discussion, camaraderie, focus, the ability to see, hear and read your colleagues, a table and room set-up should be thoughtfully configured.

Boards that undertook a boardroom “transformation” include Nashville, TN; Calgary CN; Racine WI and several others.

A lot of information here – and contacts for those you might wish to talk with.  Good people, who debriefed and found ways to improve their governance performance as evidenced at their board meetings.

Could your board and superintendent benefit from consultative help to increase the effectiveness of your meetings? If so, we welcome the opportunity to help in this critical work!