Ask eAIR

  • Ask eAIR
  • 10.15.19

Running Effective Meetings, Avoiding Pitfalls

  • by Mary Ann Coughlin, Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Springfield College
Mary Ann Coughlin

Dear Mary Ann: I have been asked to run weekly meetings with other units on how we’re using data and analytics to improve student programs. How can I run effective meetings with various stakeholders in the room, such as the president, provost, faculty, and student affairs? What are some pitfalls to avoid?

Some folks think running meetings is easy, but it is not! To run an effective meeting, you need to be prepared.

So, how do you do that? First, planning an effective meeting starts by deciding who should be in the room. You need to be sure that you have people at your meeting who have authority to make decisions as well as those who can implement plans. When you talk about running a meeting on how to use data and analytics to improve student programs, I can immediately see why you would have such a wide array of individuals involved. Remember, as Jim Collins said in his book, Good to Great, first you have to get the right people on the bus! So, if you are setting up meetings, think about who really should be at the table and not just about seniority and titles (although both matter).

Once you have the people that you need at the table, it's important to get them engaged. That, too, starts with planning. Be sure to plan your agenda and provide materials to participants prior to the meeting so they can review and prepare. Nothing is more annoying at a meeting than seeing people on their phones or computers - clearly not engaged. Well, quite frankly, I know that I tune out of meetings when I have nothing to contribute. Making sure that people know what the meeting is about so they can bring their expertise to the table is one way to ensure they are engaged. Remember, not everyone is quick to process information, so providing materials prior to a meeting is key to allowing them to prepare their thoughts.

Okay, so I send out my agenda, everyone comes with great ideas and energy to my meeting, but then it all falls apart. Why? Because one person is commandeering the meeting or several people are talking over one another. “How do I manage that?” you ask. Good question! Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. It’s about managing relationships between people. I can, however, give you a few tips. First, if a topic is controversial, don’t ignore the obvious or act surprised when things fall apart. Acknowledge the controversy up front and set some ground rules going into the meeting. Open the meeting by stating that you know there are differences of opinion on agenda items/topics and ask the group to agree on some ground rules. Have people come to a consensus that they will hear each other out even if they don’t agree. After all, just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable!

Also, to manage a difficult conversation, you, as the convener, must be a good listener and not a good talker. You need to truly listen to what people are saying and try to paraphrase it to the group to see whether they agree with what the individual is proposing. So, in our hypothetical meeting on using data to improve programs, two deans are being critical of your office saying that they can’t use data to inform decisions because they don’t have it, or the data arrives weeks after the decision needs to be made! You start to become defensive, but you need to stop and listen to what they are saying. You jot down what you think are the two important points—we need more data and it needs to be timely. Instead of being defensive and trying to explain why you can’t do more with the staff you have, you paraphrase to the group: “So, what I hear us suggesting is that to use data to inform decisions, we need to have easy access to the data and it needs to be presented to us in a timely manner.” Of course, the group confirms this. You then go on and pose the question to the group: “How do we, as an institution, build our data infrastructure to provide that data to decision makers in a timely manner?”

On another topic, have you ever been to a meeting that is nothing more than some announcements and one person talking – the convener? Well, that is where my next tip comes in handy. Be firm in your conviction to have all meeting members contribute to the conversation. To do that you need to value all the voices in the room, not just the voices of those with influential positions. Let’s go back to our hypothetical meeting. It opens up with you setting the charge and then calling for discussion. Next, the provost speaks about how important these initiatives are and there is silence. Instead of speaking, you could call on your analyst or another colleague to provide some examples of data that they have used for decision making. Of course, you would have given this person a heads up prior to the meeting so they would be prepared to present the material. This shows that all involved can – and should – contribute. Again, that goes back to planning for a meeting, thinking about your agenda, and envisioning how the conversation might go.

My final tip about running a good meeting goes back to the idea that this is hard work. Whether the meeting you hold is formal or informal, you should have outcomes from the meeting. So, meeting notes, minutes, or summaries are key. There is nothing more frustrating to me than being in a meeting one month making what I thought were decisions and action steps, and then next month coming back and rehashing the same topic. You, as the meeting convener, control that! That means jotting down key points and next steps so you can check your notes against the person taking minutes. Also, develop a to-do list. At the end of the meeting summarize to the group – “So here is what I heard we agreed upon as our next steps” and list them 1., 2., 3. Then ask, “Did I get everything right?” Others may add something you missed. Most importantly, keep your list and follow up with meeting attendees by sending them an email with the meeting notes or summary and thank them for their participation. Send individual follow-up emails to remind colleagues of what they agreed to do in the meeting and ask them to prepare for the next one. Then, the cycle is complete. Good luck and keep up the hard work. This is how we make our institutions better for our students!

Back to Ask eAIR