For directors, chairs, deans, provosts, and even presidents, much of their visible leadership occurs through meetings. Whether face to face, virtual, or hybrid, meetings are where information is shared, decisions made, and direction created and reinforced. Effective meeting management is a tangible indicator of successful leadership. Conversely, leaders who do not give careful attention of managing meetings risk losing support and impact. The following six strategies have proved effective in managing and focusing the import of meetings. Our experience suggests that their use will reinforce a culture of collaborative participation, transparency, and focused attention so necessary for the successful conduct of the unit’s performance and achievement of its goals—a key responsibility of the leader.
Management of time and timing. The date, time, and location or delivery mode need to be clearly announced and, absent a true emergency, kept consistent over a semester. Additionally, the length of each session should be a matter of record. The leader should start at the announced time and plan adjournment in a similar fashion. Waiting for tardy members or adjourning in open-ended fashion does not contribute to effectiveness or meeting import.
Management of the agenda. The meeting agenda presents both the reason for the gathering and expected outcomes. Successful academic leaders manage both its development and its conduct.
Agenda development should be a joint effort. Meeting members should be invited to submit items for consideration, generally to a staff member. All items submitted should be included in the final agenda. The leader should, of course, add matters of import. Additionally, with staff assistance, the items submitted can be organized to project the flow of the meeting. Placing leader-contributed items later in the agenda communicates that participant items are of importance. The final document should be sent in advance to all participants with enough time for each member to come to the session prepared.
The leader’s primary role in the conduct of the meeting is to guide the conversation, keep the group on task, and build consensus (ideally) or clarity of different opinions and rationale for final decision. Articulating the desired outcome—for example, decision, discussion, or information only—for each agenda item helps the group focus on the matter at hand. Sometimes, organizing the agenda around these desired outcomes is a helpful strategy.
Management of participation. One of the biggest challenges facing the meeting leader is managing member participation. Avoid allowing one or more participants to dominate meeting conversation while several others remain silent. Although there is an important place for presentations, they need to be identified as such and allotted a predetermined amount of time.
An effective strategy is to start each meeting with a brief “around the table” exercise. Each participant is, in turn, invited to offer any comment desired. It can be an announcement, what they are working on, a matter of concern, a request for assistance, and so on. The desire is to have every member contribute at the outset, reinforcing the norm that all are expected to be participants, not an audience.
Moving through the agenda, with the leader’s issues last, highlights their import and moves the agenda in a timely fashion while ensuring that all participate in the deliberations.
Management of meeting attendance. Academic leaders often espouse openness and transparency yet limit attendance at meetings. It is difficult to champion openness when it is perceived that all critical decisions are made behind closed doors. A strategy to consider is to declare all meetings open for observation, except when personnel actions or legal matters are under consideration. Such a strategy invites the skeptic to observe as well as encourages meeting participants to focus on the matters at hand. This strategy requires a meeting location to permit participants at the table and observers in an audience arrangement.
Management of meeting time (keeping everyone on agenda). While your desire may be for all voices and viewpoints to be heard, sometimes participants will get off topic, and it may not be the right audience or time for the new topic to be discussed. An effective strategy to assist on such “wayward” topics is to politely cut the participant short, providing another time to discuss. If not everyone who is in attendance needs to be part of the new topic, legitimize the topic and say, “Perhaps this topic can be taken ‘offline’ with a different audience or just you and me.” This strategy legitimates the topic while being conscious of time and time management.
Management of leader activities and the meeting agenda. Effective meetings are a key element in moving a unit forward. If meeting business is not clearly visible to all as reflecting the leader’s strategy, meetings become viewed as “events” and do little to build a team effort.
A strategy to clearly link the meeting’s deliberations with the overall agenda is for the last item prior to adjournment to be a quick review of the leader’s plans till the next meeting. This can be an actual presentation of the leader’s calendar for review and comment. Who should the leader be meeting with? What information can participants provide to assist the leader?
Meetings are one of the most powerful tools for the academic leader to garner support for unit action. Their design, management, and conduct require constant and careful attention. Meeting management should be a high priority for leadership.
Charles P. Ruch, PhD, is retired, having served over 40 years in academic leadership positions, including president of Boise State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Cathleen B. Ruch, EdD, is currently the director of student success at Lake Region State College in North Dakota.