Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance
Meetings with Merit
When I was a fledgling executive director, I didn’t exactly know what “management” meant, so while I tried to figure it out, I used what I knew: social work. At the time, I recall my colleagues from other organizations poking fun at me because they couldn’t figure out what on earth the staff and I were spending so much time talking about in meetings. In truth, lots of those early meetings were a little too “social worky” – they lasted too long, they lacked focus, and they sometimes overemphasized feelings. But they served one essential purpose: they got us all together to communicate with and learn from each other, and that laid the foundation for a meeting style that proved invaluable to advancing the work of our organization. To save you from reinventing the wheel, here’s what we learned about designing and implementing “meetings with merit”.
Quite unlike the kinds of meetings that make us all sigh, roll our eyes, and buy coffee mugs with comics about torturous, endless hours in go-nowhere meetings, meetings with merit are enjoyable and engaging, and address five essential elements of effective organizations. These elements are structure, culture, information sharing, learning, and mission/vision alignment. As a manager, if you can design and plan meetings that incorporate each of these elements, you and your staff will enjoy a more positive work environment while achieving greater productivity and success toward your goals.
Animal shelters can feel like epicenters of crisis and chaos, but you can begin to help your staff disengage from crisis by establishing a routine. Select a time for regular staff meetings that is most convenient for all of your staff to attend (recognizing that no time is going to meet all of everyone’s needs). Designate this time as staff meeting (whether it’s weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) and stick to it – regardless of day to day chaos. Make sure everyone is informed and understands that they are expected to attend, to be on time, and to stay for the duration. No exceptions. Start the meeting on time, and end the meeting on time.
Last, but not least, prepare an agenda ahead of time. Especially early-on in the meeting proficiency of your group, it’s best if you set the agenda. When you have confidence that your team is beginning to learn how meetings can effectively facilitate group communication and accomplish group goals, you can begin to engage staff in developing the agenda. Do this in stages.
Stage one: you prepare the agenda and give it to all participants; stage two: at the end of your meetings, ask people what they’d like to see for future agenda items (note, this gives you an opportunity to screen their ideas and gather more data before you determine if items are appropriate for a group meeting); stage three: you prepare the agenda based on your ideas and those generated at the last meeting, and then ask for their input and additions; and stage four: you and the group prepare an agenda together.
Stick to the agenda during the meeting. If you’re running out of time, determine those items that can most easily move to the next meeting’s agenda, and end on time.
How you structure meetings communicates volumes to your staff about your management style as well as your attitude about them, your job, and the organization. If staff meetings are consistent and adhere to an agenda, your staff will understand that you are serious about moving the organization forward, that you intend to be thoughtful and construct plans for how to work together, and that you appreciate and respect staff members and the important roles they fulfill in the organization.
The culture of your organization is best described as how it feels to be part of the organization. Culture is about relationships: between staff members, with the work that staff are performing, and with the organization. It is evident in how we talk to each other, how we talk about one another, how we behave with and towards each other, and how we behave with and towards the animals and people we serve.
Every staff meeting should include some elements that reinforce the culture you want to promote in your organization. This requires you first to envision the perfect culture for your organization. Create your picture in behavioral terms, for example “staff are polite to one another, have fun at work and enjoy coming to work, do not talk behind each other’s backs, and talk about how to do their jobs or the general work of the organization better”.
Once you (and, ideally, your staff; see: Exercise 3) have created a vision for the culture you want, take some time before every staff meeting to think about ways to reinforce progress towards achieving or maintaining that culture. Some of your tools here include modeling, using positive reinforcement when you observe someone exhibiting healthy cultural behaviors, and introducing elements of fun and humor into the meeting: pass around a comic (screen them first, please, for appropriateness), make time for stories (funny stories and happy ending stories), have some food at the meeting, create a game or contest that’s relevant to one of the items on your agenda, laugh.
Information is an essential ingredient to job performance, yet far too many organizations deliberately or inadvertently withhold information that can improve employees’ understanding of their work, organizational function, and the problems and issues that confront their organization. Without this understanding, people are ill equipped to do more than meet the bare minimum expectations of their positions.
Note that the concept is information sharing. The idea here is not to run a meeting with a talking head at the end of the table. Everyone in your organization has information that is useful to others, your job is to figure out when and how to draw that information out. You’re looking to share information about things that will impact your staff. These include:
Finance. Familiarize your staff with the budget for your department or organization. This includes helping them to understand the process for arriving at budget figures, how the budget compares to previous budgets, and where the department or organization stands in comparison with the budget at this point in time. It can only help you to have your staff understand how much it costs to operate your facility and run your programs.
Calendar. Give your staff a picture of the year, month, and week ahead of them – this includes what they’ll be doing directly, and what others throughout the organization will be working on. Calendar is a great agenda item because you can have staff report on each of their areas – what they’re working on now and what’s next. This spreads the focus around the room, gives people an opportunity to participate actively in the meeting, and helps people to see how their jobs relate to each other and to the overall work of the organization.
Statistics. Somebody once said, “if you don’t know where you are, it’s hard to get where you’re going.” It’s important for staff to know how many animals they’re working with, what the disposition is, and how the numbers compare to the same time frame in previous years. Good news is positive reinforcement in and of itself, and also makes room for celebration (think: culture!). As the leader, when presenting bad news, be factual. Acknowledge discouragement and be supportive, while promoting problem solving. Block attempts at blaming.
Programs, Services, & Initiatives. Does everybody on your staff know all of the services your organization provides? And do they know the “who, what, when, where, and how” of those services? If they don’t, you’re missing a huge opportunity for the organization. Informed staff members make positive contributions to program development and make better ambassadors in the community. Here’s another chance for staff members to feel good about their contributions to the organization, as you can ask those involved in different programs and services to prepare a presentation for the meeting. (Help shy individuals to take advantage of this opportunity by asking them “who, what, when, where, why” questions. It’s often easier for people to answer questions than to perform a monologue. Give them advance notice that you’ll be asking the questions at an upcoming meeting so they can prepare.)
Infrastructure. Technology and processes change constantly. Give people a heads up when infrastructure changes are headed their way. In fact, ideally, your staff are helping you to identify the infrastructure changes that will have the greatest impact on performance and progress toward your goals.
Human Resources. This includes everything from information about personnel policies and benefits, to who’s coming and going on staff, and who’s coming and going amongst your volunteers. Acknowledge arrivals and departures with some fanfare–both to have some fun and to inspirit how important people are.
Big picture. Ironically, some of the toughest jobs in animal shelters are simultaneously the closest to the day to day realities and the farthest removed from the overall reality. Help your staff to see their work in the context of the larger animal protection/animal welfare movement. Bring new research and current debates into your staff meetings. You can accomplish this by asking a couple of staff to research a topic, by distributing shelter magazine and journal articles in advance of meetings, by inviting guest speakers, etc.
If you’re feeling uneasy about sharing information with your staff, consider the alternative. In the absence of real information, people make up their own information based on assumptions and inferences. It is far easier to facilitate and manage reactions to real information than reactions to rumor that’s mired in emotion and preconceived convictions. If, even considering this, you are still anxious about sharing information with your staff, it may be that your gut is picking up on cultural issues that make your work place a dangerous environment. If you honestly believe it’s not safe to share factual information, it’s time to seek help for your team from a professional.
A learning organization is one that is strategically designed to take in new information at all levels of the organization, interpret the information, and use it to enhance performance and anticipate future opportunities and potential pitfalls. Incorporating a learning approach into staff meetings involves promoting a style of inquiry that encourages people to seek more information and to ask open-ended questions. This leads to the development of greater understanding of our work and the world we operate in.
Like information sharing, learning is a two-way street. If you go into every staff meeting with a goal of learning something, you’ve accomplished at least 50% of creating a learning environment for your team simply through modeling. For new groups, be directive and approach topics with specific language that guides their learning. For example, “This month we adopted 10 fewer animals than for the same month last year. Let’s think about what we can learn from this. Does anybody remember what the economy was like last year? How about if we were fully staffed or had more volunteers last year? What else do you think might account for the difference?” As long as you stay away from inquiry that leads to finger pointing, you can almost never go wrong by asking lots of open ended questions. Because of the crisis pace of our business, we unfortunately don’t take enough time to gather information and make decisions slowly and thoughtfully. While quick decisions may be appropriate when people are at their work stations, balancing this approach with more thoughtful inquiry during staff meetings will help develop more sophisticated and successful problem solving skills.
Lots of organizations decide to add a learning component to their staff meetings by dedicating a portion of every staff meeting to training, such as showing training videos, arranging lectures by veterinarians and behaviorists, or having experienced staff people conduct a training. While these are worthy activities, there’s a big difference between training and learning. In training, the trainer is active, but the trainee may or may not be (I can watch a training video and still learn nothing). As the manager, if you concentrate on shaping the act of learning in your staff, you will advance the effectiveness of any training you provide for them and, more importantly, advance the cultural attitude of learning. In other words, learning will become a group activity that people enjoy and, therefore, pursue.
A good mission statement clarifies who you primarily serve, what services you primarily provide, and towards what ultimate purpose. In large part, mission defines who you are and why you exist. A vision is a detailed picture of where you’ll be in five or ten years. In essence, staying in touch with your vision and mission helps you to continually affirm who you are and who you’re striving to become. Clearly, this is an important aspect of reinforcing the culture of your organization. Additionally, by creating a picture of what’s possible, vision instills hope and inspires staff to orient themselves toward achievement.
The single most effective way for managers to attend to mission/vision alignment in staff meetings is to listen for opportunities to give individuals and groups feedback which specifically connects staff activity and performance to progress toward the mission or vision. For example, “This month you all got 37 lost dogs back to their owners. Not only is that good for those dogs, but now there are 37 families out there who know to come to us if their dog is lost. Since part of our vision is to be the place for people to turn for help about their animals, that’s a big step in the right direction.”
Attending to structure, culture, information sharing, learning, and mission/vision alignment in every staff meeting takes concerted planning at first. Initially, it wouldn’t be overkill to spend an hour of planning for every hour of staff meeting time. Before long, however, you’ll discover three things: 1) you can accomplish several objectives with the same action (note how the positive reinforcement statement in the last paragraph integrates culture, information sharing, learning, and mission/vision alignment), 2) attending to the five elements becomes second nature with a little practice, and 3) best of all – your staff will begin to follow your lead. When you and your staff are incorporating the five elements into your meetings, your meetings will be fun, interesting, productive, and will facilitate steady progress toward your strategic objectives. That is, your meetings will become meetings with merit!
Meetings with Merit Exercises
Exercise 1: Meetings with Merit Template
To help you plan for your meetings, set up a template that prompts you to incorporate the five elements of meetings with merit into each staff meeting.
Hint #1: if you use a calendar or day planner, design your template so that it can be a page in your calendar. In this way, as you go through your week and see opportunities for information to share or have ideas about opportunities for positive reinforcement, etc. you can jot them down quickly.
Hint #2: for each agenda item, think about how much time it should take (or, put another way, how much time you feel the organization should invest in the issue), and put the time allowance in the left hand column of your agenda. This will help you (and your staff) to become more effective at keeping a meeting on track.
Hint #3: once you’ve set your agenda, go over each item to see where there are opportunities to emphasize culture, information sharing, mission/vision alignment. Think about how you will do this, and make a note in the right hand column to remind yourself.
Time Agenda Item Element / Notes
9:00 greetings, agenda S
9:05 welcome Sandy, new vet tech C
9:10 review monthly statistics I; M/V; L – what’s interesting about these stats?
9:25 new procedure for paperwork I – ask Terry to demonstrate
9:35 walk for animals I; L – how could we promote adoptions at the walk?
9:45 miscellaneous news I – go around the table
9:55 happy ending story C; M/V
Key: Structure (S), Culture (C), Information Sharing (I), Learning (L), Mission/Vision alignment (M/V)
Exercise 2: Using Hindsight
Keeping track of structure, culture, information sharing, learning, and mission/vision alignment takes some practice. Recognize that early on, some of your best opportunities to learn this technique will be in debriefing after staff meetings. Do this while the meeting is still fresh in your mind:
1) Revisit your agenda and think about the conversations that took place throughout the meeting, paying attention to when the staff seemed the most engaged and animated, when the meeting felt easy, when the meeting felt stuck.
2) Now think about the five elements and how you might have used what was happening in the room to underline your culture, to inspire people to want to learn more about something, to reinforce their progress toward achieving the mission or vision.
3) While this is fresh in your mind, get out your template for your next meeting, and jot down some notes and ideas for next time.
4) Finally, do something to give yourself some positive reinforcement for working to improve your staff meetings!
Exercise 3: Envisioning a Healthy Culture
The first step to achieving a healthy culture in your workplace, is to create a picture of what that culture would look like and how it would feel.
Materials needed: flip chart and markers
a room big enough to accommodate all staff
Time needed: approximately 45 – 60 minutes
Set the stage: choose a time when all of your staff can be present and give them plenty of notice about the meeting. Let staff know you’ll be brainstorming about the culture of the organization, and ask them to be thinking about what kind of work environment they want to create.
At the meeting:
1) Reiterate the purpose: “OK, we’re going to brainstorm about the kind of culture we want to create here. By culture I mean how it feels to work here, how we treat each other, how we want to be treated, etc.”
2) Share the structure. “A brainstorm is an uncensored collection of ideas and everyone’s ideas are important – even if they seem silly – because they may lead to other ideas. This brainstorm will be conducted in two parts. Each part will last 10 minutes (if you have a very large group, or your group is new and slow to get started, you can set your time limit more generously). For each part, the idea is for you to say everything you think of related to the topic – but remember to talk one at a time so everyone has the benefit of your ideas. I’ll be the time keeper. Who wants to be the recorder? When the brainstorms are over, we’ll take a few minutes to look over all the notes and share our reactions to this process. After the meeting, I’ll transcribe the notes onto regular paper, and organize the ideas into general themes so that at future meetings we can talk about how to achieve the culture we want to create.”
3) Share the ground rules for brainstorming. “Remember, the purpose of a brainstorm is to push ourselves to be as creative as possible. Therefore: there are no dumb ideas; there is no attacking or criticizing of ideas; anything is possible at this stage – it’s dreaming; make room for everybody to have a turn; have fun.” Write the rules on a flip chart page and hang it up in the room.
4) First brainstorm: “Think of a job you’ve had, a class you’ve taken, a group you belonged to, or a place you’ve been that you just dreaded going to. What made you dread it so much? What kinds of things did people say? What kinds of things did people do? What did it feel like there?” (The idea here is for people to be able to vent what makes them feel bad without getting stuck on what’s wrong in their current situation.)
5) Second brainstorm: “OK – so obviously we want the opposite kind of environment for our culture here. What would make us love coming to work every day? What kinds of things would people say? What kinds of things would people do? What would it feel like?”
6) Debrief: Reiterate plans for transcription and that you’ll revisit their ideas to talk about which ones could be implemented and how. Set a time for this to happen. Ask the group to take another 5 or 10 minutes to talk about the brainstorm process, how they think it went, and any ideas they might have for doing brainstorming even better in the future.
Notes to the Facilitator:
- Be prepared with a couple of ideas for each brainstorm so that you can give an example to start them off and to get them back on course if they begin to digress or hit a block.
- As the facilitator, it’s your job to see that the rules are upheld. Don’t allow people to criticize ideas or say that something isn’t possible. Remind them it’s brainstorming and anything goes.
- Likewise, look around the room for people who haven’t offered anything and ask them to share one of their ideas. Allow people to “pass”, the important thing is for you to make the room for them to participate if they want to.
- Help the group stick to the time limits you set by giving them a one minute warning before time is up. End on time.
- Finally, set a light tone and have some fun.
© 2001 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at firstname.lastname@example.org