Ready to Meet? How to Prepare as an Attendee or Chairperson

by Philip Horst

Meetings draw on the strengths of each person to accomplish a shared agenda. But a poorly planned meeting can easily waste more time and energy than it redeems. In this video, Philip Horst outlines some practices for making the school board meeting a genuinely collaboratively effort–one in which all members come prepared and ready to work.

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If you’re on a school board, and there’s a meeting coming up, you should read the past minutes. You should really get familiar with the past minutes, especially the previous meeting, possibly one or two more. Get familiar with the past minutes.

If you’ve been assigned some work, some research work, perhaps, be sure it’s done. You have an obligation. You were assigned that work. You you agreed to it.

You need to get your homework done. Read and ponder the agenda, if there is an agenda—and a school board meeting should have an agenda. Not all meetings will have agendas. I’m not going to unpack that too far. In the business world, we sometimes have meetings that don’t have agendas by design. School board meetings should have agendas, so if there is an agenda, get familiar with it.

Now, if you’re the chairperson, prepare for it. And there’s a couple extra things for you that matter. You know, as a chairperson— and I’ll just share some personal things on this point. As a chairperson, what I will do in my life is very kind of driven by calendar and by schedule, so I will literally carve out of my schedule. I’ll carve out thirty minutes or forty five minutes to prepare for a meeting. What I call that is a meeting with myself to prepare for a meeting. This is when I read the past minutes. This is when I become familiar with the agenda. This is when I think about the setting. This is when I would email all the attendees to say, “Just a reminder, we’re going to we’re going to meet at seven thirty, you know, at the school or whatever.” This is when I kind of do that prep work. In that reminder message, I would suggest that you should send out a copy of the agenda, either in the body of the email or in attachment—attachments are nice for this— as well as previous meeting minutes.

Highlight names for people that that have specific action items. Call them out in your agenda or in the body of your email. List the agenda items, the leftover ones from a previous meeting. So be sure to review the past. What’s left over, what didn’t we conclude? Be sure to list those.

In the school setting, think about agenda items that are more seasonal in nature, programs, for instance, that happen annually that need to be discussed: school picnics, school trips. Some of these things are seasonal. Get them. Think about that. Get them on there so that they’re not kind of an afterthought at the meeting: “Oh, yeah, we need to do this as well.” Try and think about the seasonal things that that, yes, are repetitive, but that the need to get on to the agenda.

You’re the chairman. You’re driving the meeting. You own the agenda. Agenda items are interesting. If there’s agenda items that require a decision, note that on the agenda. What is the outcome of this agenda item, this particular item? If you know that we need a decision at the end of this meeting, note it so that the discussion can kind of launch from that premise. We need a decision, or alternatively, if you know that this is discussion only, decision later, maybe note that on the agenda so that the attendees’ expectation is set.

Here’s the caution. Be careful as a chairman. Be careful not to impose your agenda on the agenda. This can happen in a very subtle way. You need to be deliberate about not doing this. Solicit agenda items from others. This could come from staff, probably will come from staff. You own the agenda, but seek agenda items from other staff. Seek agenda items from other board members. You can do this in your kind of reminder messages, or you can do it at the beginning of the meeting.

As a chairman, you’re responsible to to choose the setting. So pick the time of day, the location, all of those things that match the meeting and the style of meeting that you want. All right. I’m going to move into more of a little bit more on format and setting. Format and setting is important—how you maximize your efficiency of meeting, how you maximize the potential outcome of the meeting. These things are important.

Meetings should be organized and prompt. It’s the chairman’s responsibility to ensure meetings start on time. This is basic stuff. It’s his responsibility to make sure everyone’s comfortable. Do we have enough chairs? Are they comfortable? Are they too comfortable? It’s his responsibility to make sure the setting is correct.

Interesting thing on dress code, and I’ve observed this over the years. Be formal about your formal meetings. There’s actually value in this. As you allow your dress code to kind of go from formal to informal and almost to the point of no formality left, the meetings will tend to follow that trend. The discussion will tend to follow that trend. There’s a time to be formal and there’s a time to be informal. Meetings should, in my opinion, have a formal component, including dress code. It changes the dynamic of your meeting, and there’s something really healthy about that.

How you sit is important. Everyone should be able to see each other. If you’re using a room, try the best to match the the room size to the group size or the group size to the room size. Don’t have five men meeting in a gym. Right. You can do that, but it changes the dynamics. Also don’t have 15 people in a 10 by 10 room. Right. I mean, try and match the group to the room sized. Tables are the best. I’ll even go as far as, say, that oval tables are better than square tables. There’s actually a reason for this. People can see each other better. I’ve observed this in the business world. The shape of the table makes makes a difference.

Everyone needs to stay alert, but the chairman, like probably no one else, needs to maintain alertness and composure throughout the meeting. He needs to position himself in such a way that he can see everyone around the table very well. Maybe it’s a circle. Maybe you don’t have a table. And then there is, I understand, a range of schools and school settings. And what I described is kind of the optimum. But you can dial it back and change it up if you have to.

Board meetings, I believe, should start with some inspirational thoughts or even a devotional. We don’t need a lengthy devotional, but something that’s really punchy and inspirational at the beginning. Start with a prayer. That’s very, very fitting.

As a chairman, you should preface every meeting with a short vision statement. If your organization has a vision statement or even a short term goal, something you want to achieve in 2019, you should preface your meeting with that statement. In the school setting, you might have a vision statement. You might have a sentence or two that simply encapsulates why we do what we do. Start the meeting with this. This is powerful. I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this in the business world where, as a leader you, you start with that. You preface every meeting with “this is why we’re here.” It’s going to feel like you’re over communicating. You’re going to hear yourself say this over and over and over. And by the time 2020 rolls around, you’ve going to have said this hundreds of times. It’s actually powerful. As you move through the meeting, you will come back to that. That vision statement becomes a filter for every decision we make. Does it meet the criteria? Does it meet the test? Does it actually do what we said we’re going to do? Will this decision enhance our vision?

I would highly suggest we adopt that in our board meetings. I believe that all meetings should have an anticipated end time. That doesn’t mean that every in time is carved in stone. As you move through a meeting, whether it’s in the school setting or in a business setting. There are times when we when we go over time, there are times when we close it off early. But set the expectation. As the chairman, I believe it’s healthy for you to actually take a minute and say, “All right, group. We have these agenda items. What can we agree to for an end time? We’re starting at seven o’clock. Can we end by ten o’clock? Is that reasonable? Let’s agree to it.” I like doing that as a chairman because it helps me to stage my discussions.

As a chairman, you are managing the meeting. It’s not your agenda. You’re driving it, but it’s not you and only you. When you look at the agenda, I don’t necessarily advocate taking them line by line by line. If you have ten items on your agenda, and that’s likely too many, but if you do, they’re not necessarily listed in order of importance. So if we get to ten o’clock and it’s time to quit, which of those ten can wait till the next meeting? Decide that before you get to ten o’clock, take 30 seconds at the beginning of the meeting, and agree is a group which of these items are the most important and which could wait if we run out of time? So the way this works is, is you have the agenda. I just take a pen and I write in. I seek the group kind of input. Which ones are first, which ones do we want to tackle first? And we itemize them, and we go through them in that in that order. Sometimes we juggle based on conversation, but I like to take thirty seconds at the beginning of the meeting. It gives structure, and it gives clarity as we move through the meeting.

I’ve said this before, but be crisp and clear as you enter into an agenda item. What is the anticipated outcome? “Gentlemen, we need a decision.” Or, if that’s not the expectation, “Bretheren, when we’re done, we are not going to reach a decision. We are going to plan to not reach a decision, but this is long term. “We need to think about this. Let’s talk about this for the next 15 minutes. I want you all to share, and we’re just going to engage.” If that’s the expectation set the expectation before you enter into the discussion. Is the outcome of this discussion a decision or is it simply a conversation to set the stage for a future decision?

I’ve been to meetings where the secretary does minutes on a laptop in real time, puts it up on the screen. Some of that is good. I’ve wondered already if that’s more of a distraction for us than it is a help for us. At board meetings, I would be I would probably hesitate to put those minutes up on the screen. That’s just my experience. I don’t feel strongly on that.

Freely share your own ideas, but don’t be afraid to openly challenge your own thoughts. If you’re a person that’s quick to talk, be conscious about this. Be deliberate about nudging others to speak up. You can say things like, “Hey, Joel, I haven’t heard you say something for the last ten minutes. Before we make a decision on this, I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts on this. I don’t want to put you in the spot, but I’d love to hear what you got to say.” This helps kind of kind of generate healthy discussion and sets the premise for challenges, because that’s what we need to do.

I believe the chairman should be slower to speak. He should not be the first one to share his opinion. He should be slower to speak. At the same time, he shouldn’t hold back when the time is right. He should be more conscious of giving opportunity to everyone else than he should be about sharing his own, his own opinion, but not hold back when the time is right. You don’t want to stifle conversation and input from others just because of who you are and because of your trump card. You need to be very aware of this.

Just imagine you’re at a meeting, you’re in an intense discussion, conversation, conflict, if you will, and there’s an impasse. We have five men. Three of them feel one way. Two of them feel the other way. These things can happen where there’s strong opinions, and they’re polar opposites, if you will. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but how does how does the chairman handle that? One suggestion I would have is when you, especially in the school setting, where we are brethren. We sit there. We understand that in the multitude of counselors there is safety. We all want the best outcome. Stop, have a little prayer meeting, go around the group, everyone prays from their heart, and then start up again.

The other one—and I’ve never I’ve never seen this happen at a board meeting. I have set the stage for this to happen in a business setting. I’ve also never done this in a business setting, but I believe it would work. So I need to be just up front with that. We had a meeting where there was multiple there was a few different departments sitting around the table. The discussion involved a topic where there was a lot of protection of turf going on. And because of that, it was passionate and got kind of personal. There is really no right or wrong, but we had we had to come to a united kind of agreement. There was good, healthy conflict going on, but it wasn’t moving forward.

Finally—I was chairing the meeting—I said, “Look, what we’re going to do is I’m going to give it another five minutes or so. If we don’t if we can’t kind of get to get to an agreement, what we’re going to do is everyone is going to get up, and you’re going to rotate by one chair, and you’re going to pick up the position of the person who’s chair you are filling.” Now, these people weren’t throwing things at each other. It was it was healthy. It was good, but it just wasn’t moving. We had to shake things up and move it. There’s other ways. Sometimes you need to stop, stretch. Sometimes you need to postpone.

Ask yourself, do we need to make a decision on this, or would more information be helpful? Many times, it’s not. Many times, we should make a decision. A successful meeting always ends with results where actions are taken.

To the chairman personally, leave some time. If you need to be done by 10 o’clock, wrap it up at quarter to ten and then start summarizing. And if you need to, reach out to the secretary, and say, “Mr. Secretary, read us the official minutes as you recorded this decision.” Ultimately, it’s going to go on record officially how the secretary wrote it. Be sure everyone understands the decisions in the same way.

If you don’t have clarity leaving the meeting, you’re soon going to be in defense mode. The summary period is critical to clarity. There’s so much that we can learn from kind of doing things right at the end of the meeting. There’s been good meetings that I’ve attended that have ended badly because there was no kind of summary and wrap up and action. And that’s sad because there’s a lot of energy that went into making decisions. But then the ball was kind of dropped.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Philip Horst

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