The heading of this blog might seem obvious and possibly even superfluous. However, it is something that I have to remind myself about and very importantly carve out time and headspace for. An example was last night, I had a meeting with a parent that I wasn’t sure about, I hoped I could persuade them to have a different perspective on a situation and change their mind but I needed to have a series of arguments to hand, needed to be clear on how I would start the meeting and what I could follow up with if things weren’t heading in the direction I hoped. It is hard in a busy day or week to find the time to think this through, the immediate needs crowd this out, people knock at the door or email notifications pop up which I find distracting. Conversations happen in the Staff Room which can result in action needing to be taken and suddenly I find myself five minutes before a meeting which I haven’t prepared for.
This can be equally as true for meetings that I have chaired or with other senior leaders, I can be tempted to fall into the trap of assuming I’ll be able to think on the spot in a meeting, come up with ideas or suggestions, sometimes even be able to defend my own points of view but I have found, to my cost, that this isn’t always the case: I need to prepare beforehand. Of course, points will still be made that I don’t expect and I’ll need to be able to consider alternative views that haven’t occurred to me, you can’t think of everything, but having spent some time going over what is essential to have agreed at the end of the meeting or what my key arguments will be, gives me the clarity of how to begin a conversation and what key points need to be stressed.
So, how to do this. It is so easy to type what I haven’t done but more helpful to suggest how to make meetings as effective as possible through preparation.
When planning for a one on one conversation with either a parent or a member of staff, I will run through how I will start, my opening gambit which sets the tone of that meeting. The key is then to stick to this, if it is likely to be a tricky conversation ensure you think through what your opening line will be and don’t get distracted or railroaded by someone else. If it helps, role play the conversation to consider possible counter-arguments. Find time and the best place to do this – for me it is via walking or at least pacing in my office. I think best when I am moving so I make sure I have time for this. If I have a meeting the next day or during the week and there won’t be much (or any) time beforehand I create space earlier in the week, by planning the week(s) ahead and booking time for thinking in my calendar I start to prioritise it rather than allowing daily events to take over that make me feel rushed and ill-prepared. It is the classic conundrum: what is important and what is urgent.
If you are going into a meeting in which you want to carry a point across with a group, speak with members first so you have allies who will back you up. If there are likely to be those who dislike your proposal, speak with them individually beforehand to hear their concerns and explain where you are coming from. You may need to present an idea in different ways to different people depending on their context.
Circulate an agenda, asking for input from others by a certain deadline. Always indicate when agenda items have been offered by members of the team and ensure there is time for their points to be discussed so they know that they’re input is valued. If an agenda item isn’t relevant for that particular meeting, make time to see that person to discuss their suggestion outside of the meeting, before it if possible. Take minutes and highlight action points which indicate the outcomes and what will be followed up in the subsequent meeting. If it is a conversation with an individual member of staff or a parent, record the conversation and email a summary so both parties are clear on what has been discussed and/or agreed.
In case you want to read further, a couple of really good places to go are Jill Berry’s blog: https://jillberry102.blog/2019/07/27/making-the-most-of-meetings/ and an article (that she mentions in the comments at the end) by Tim Harford: https://amp.ft.com/content/1a70ea0c-ae1c-11e9-8030-530adfa879c2?__twitter_impression=true