Running successful meetings is an often overlooked skill but one that will almost certainly be required of you as a middle leader. The times you have together with your team can be critical to your success and so it is vitally important that they go well.
So how can you ensure that meetings are effective, efficient and positive experiences for everyone involved?
1. Ensure meetings are kept to a minimum and are as short as possible:
Let’s face it, no-one ever wished for more or longer meetings! We are all incredibly busy and there is no shortage of work to do in school. I’m sure, like me, you have sat in many meetings thinking that the time could be better spent getting on with the mountain of marking or planning sat in your classroom. With this in mind, look at the meetings you have planned – are these all absolutely necessary? Can you combine two meetings into one to make them more efficient? Never have a meeting for the sake of it just because it’s in the diary. If there is nothing that needs discussing, cancel it – people will be hugely grateful for the extra time.
Once you are clear that a meeting is needed, it is good practice to set a time limit and to stick to it. That way people know what to expect and it’s amazing how having such a limit helps to focus minds! If you can work quickly and efficiently there is always the added bonus of pleasantly surprising people by finishing early.
2. Always have an agenda
If there are only two or three of you, having an agenda can seem overly formal. However, I would strongly recommend that you still do. An agenda will help you stay on task and helps enormously if people start heading off on a tangent or try to de-rail things. The phrase, “if I can just bring us back to the agenda” works a treat in this situation.
The agenda should be shared in advance with those attending rather than presented at the meeting itself. This gives people the opportunity to add ‘any other business’ and to come well prepared. If there is specific preparation required, make sure this is clear.
It is a good idea to include timings for each agenda item. This will help you to gauge in advance how realistic it is that you can cover everything in the time allocated and, again, help you to keep the meeting moving along at a good pace so you can finish on time. A quick tip here: I have always found that giving specific times e.g. 4:20 – 4:35 is better than just stating the number of minutes you expect an item to last as it is much easier to keep an eye on the time this way.
3. Take Minutes
Again, this can feel overly formal in small meetings but if you don’t, you run the risk of getting into debates about what was agreed at previous meetings or, worse still, forgetting what was discussed altogether! At the very least, it is absolutely vital that you keep a note of any specific actions that have been agreed in the meeting, who is responsible for them and any deadlines. I have always found it helps either at the end of the meeting or shortly afterwards to state the agreed actions (a quick email to those involved is a good idea). This is everybody’s opportunity to state if the actions or deadlines are unrealistic or if they are confused about what has been agreed.
A word of caution - chairing and taking minutes at the same time is a real challenge. Instead, get the team to take it in turns to write the minutes.
4. Dealing with difficult situations or conflict
Debate and discussions during meetings are healthy. In fact there is a real danger in ‘group-think’ where everyone just politely nods and agrees with each other. As a school leader, I found that at times I had to actively invite people to disagree or to find fault with ideas.
However, if healthy debate turns into unhealthy conflict, it is useful to have a few strategies up your sleeve to deal with this. If the conflict is being caused by one person and you have got into a bit of a stand-off, it is often wise to suggest a follow-up discussion outside of the meeting. When things get heated, we don’t like to lose face and so a separate 1:1 conversation allows both cool-off time and for all sides to maintain their dignity without the need for a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’ in front of the team.
If the conflict is at a group level, a good tactic is to acknowledge the differing views and say that you need time to consider it fully before arriving at a decision. Again, this shows you value a range of opinions and that ultimately as leader you are prepared to make a considered decision. Don’t be rushed into making a decision on the spot to appease anyone.
5. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
This is an old adage but it is certainly true when it comes to meetings where ‘winging it’ rarely leads to positive outcomes. As with the agenda, make sure people know about the date and times of meetings well in advance and receive any papers or resources that will be needed in good time. If memory is not your strong point, set a calendar reminder to do the meeting preparation.
As part of your preparation, it might be wise to anticipate any controversial items or difficulties that you anticipate arising. It may sound rather political but if there are potentially very controversial items, it may not be a bad idea to speak to a few key people in advance to get their views and support. If you go into the meeting knowing you have a few allies already, this can help tremendously.
These are just a few of the ways you can ensure that the meetings you run are a positive experience for all involved. You will develop your own style and techniques to help ensure meetings run smoothly and, as with any other aspect of leadership, you will constantly be refining and developing your approach.
James studied history and politics at the University of Warwick, graduating with a first-class degree in 2002. After beginning his career in the finance sector, James took the decision in 2005 to become a teacher. He was quickly recognised as an outstanding classroom practitioner and fast-tracked into a number of leadership positions, including subject leader, SENCo, assistant head teacher and deputy head teacher. Most recently, James was the head teacher of a large, successful school in Hampshire before becoming the director at NAHT Edge in 2016. He has significant experience of developing middle leaders within schools and is passionate about the role they play in school improvement.