SUPERINTENDENTS ARE WISE TO MAKE CABINET MEETINGS MATTER
Superintendents who use Cabinet meetings to bond with their team build trusting relationships. Those who don't, don't.
People hate meetings. Well, maybe not all people. But lots of them do. Just recently, a colleague at the Cabinet-level in a different district than I was bemoaning the fact that his district's Cabinet meetings are often poorly timed and badly run. We discussed the symptoms of his ill conducted Cabinet meetings. Among them, all items are not addressed, minds are wandering, and members feel devalued and leave frustrated. In response, I have dusted off an article I wrote in August, 2019, titled, Superintendents: Will This Be The Year You Reinvent Cabinet Meetings To Make Them More Useful?
I am arguing that haters are made, not born. The accumulation of wasted time has left the average meeting-goer unreceptive and focused on what they could be doing (if they weren't stuck in a meeting they find unproductive) instead of what they should be doing: collaborating. Ineffective meeting leadership is responsible for the unreceptive meeting goer.
Then, there is a whole other level of haters: those people who have to cope with hyperactivity and manage a short attention span. They really hate meetings. I would know. I’m simply not built for meetings. The primary reason most people report to hate meetings is the time/results ratio. Most meetings are simply not productive.
My disdain for meetings can be traced back to my infancy as an educator sifting through the maze of opaque organizational rituals that included the weekly staff meeting, attending dutifully, all the while trying to make sense of its purpose. As a superintendent I have found myself wondering the same thing…year after year, as it relates to meeting with my senior-level executive team.
I’ve experimented with a variety of formats and strategies for conducting Cabinet meetings. I’ve assembled a playbook of best practices from my superintendent colleagues. I’ve brought in Hall of Fame superintendents to observe, consult and work with me and my team. I’ve followed Peter Principles such as “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better,” “An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done,” and “Know Thy Time” (Peter Drucker from What Makes an Effective Executive). I’ve joined the Hamster Revolution to learn how to mitigate meeting-killers such as agendas adrift and action distraction. I've tapped into my inner Patrick Lencioni, explored the work of Cameron Herold, who wrote the popular, Meetings Suck, and have even taken an historical perspective, courtesy of Wes Marfield’s Work Meetings Throughout History, an artistic provocation I indulged myself in for no reason other than to challenge my mindset.
Guess what? The purposeful and highly effective meeting remains elusive. My intent is to build a meeting model that can serve as a conceptual framework throughout the organization to help it fulfill its purpose: educating its students. You're probably not surprised the meeting remains the subject of volumes of research and how-to books and field guides. You’re not alone. Estimates by researchers studying efficiency and effectiveness have discovered weekly executive meetings consume 300,000 hours of time annually given the chain reaction down the dissemination pipeline. In education the number may be larger given our penchant for large teams. Many of my colleagues report a similar frustration: Can’t live with ‘em...can’t live without ‘em. Well, that was then, and now is, well, now: 2019-20.
I’m going back to the well and reinventing my Cabinet meetings, once again. This time with the intention of refining the work-in-progress I’ve started the last couple of years. Here's a step-by-step account of how I plan to proceed.
Step 1: Set Norms Together as a Team. Building a set of guidelines or rules that will serve to govern how a team interacts is a critical first step in building capacity towards productive meetings as well as engage the team in a meaningful process that will experience regularly. Norms influence how the Cabinet treats each other and how Cabinet members treat those they influence. Here are the norms I currently use.
Step 2: Clear is Kind. Defining the role each participant is expected to play brings clarity and reduces ambiguity. Furthermore, planning Cabinet meetings as a team advances the ability of the team to establish a clear focus and a strategic framework for meetings that revolve around core beliefs, effective practices, and goals for improving student achievement. This process begins with a Force Field Analysis activity to address the following problem statement:
Team members often don’t agree or understand what Cabinet is supposed to be doing. Getting agreement and setting direction is the leader’s job. If the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are against that team succeeding. Members of a team learn how best to operate as a team through shared experiences.
The team participates in the process of identifying the forces pushing and pulling it, create a mission statement to focus the work, and ultimately develop a series of next steps. The same process is utilized for other leadership teams, including all management, principals, and even the school board. The likely outcome of this process with Cabinet is the establishment of a central office team that flips the pyramid. The highest-functioning teams develop school principals’ and staffs’ capacity to successfully implement their school’s strategic improvement plan, assist principals to remove ineffective staff members, and provide technical expertise to schools. They don’t micro-manage. Instead, they establish a collaborative presence in schools.
Step 3: Respect. Meetings are commonly disrespectful, inasmuch as the superintendent (leading in most Cabinet meetings) is walking through his/her agenda, basically holding court and consequently holding the audience hostage. It’s bad form. Time is our most precious resource. Value it, first and foremost. Start on time. End on time or early. Focus the in-between to ensure an early ending. It sends the most powerful message possible: get it done and be done. To that end, I will utilize a Goggle Document to create the agenda and the ThoughtExchange platform to prioritize and focus our limited time.
Step 4: Purpose. High-functioning teams meet with a purpose. Agenda items are not enough. An Agenda Planning Power Tool (download the fillable form template here) is drafted every week to keep the meetings focused and to record the meeting minutes. In turn, Cabinet members distribute the minutes to key staff members in the pipeline to further reduce redundancy and save time. A clear focus and a strategic framework of core beliefs, effective practices and goals for improving student achievement must drive agenda items. High-functioning teams not only connect every agenda item to a strategic priority and/or LCAP goal, they also identify the person reporting it, estimate how long the discussion is expected to take, report on the action taken, and finally identify the person the task is assigned to and when it’s expected to be completed. For example, if the agenda item is proposing a grant, the division leader responsible for the grant’s completion would be the person reporting and the department leader or principal(s) completing the task would be the responsible person(s), with a deadline to report back to Cabinet on her or his progress. There may not always be action beyond reporting, but when there is it is documented.
Step 5: Execution. This last step has to do with follow-up. Meeting minutes are reviewed prior to the next Cabinet meeting and a brief discussion on the minutes and any action taken are discussed to begin the next meeting. Cabinet teams get very busy and as a result may fail to follow through. This instance tests the resolve and strength of teams and exposes dysfunction in its highest form. Not executing violates two Lencione commandments: Thou Shall Be Committed and Thou Shall Hold Each Other Accountable. Not following through also suggests an inattention to results.
Cabinet-level work builds on the foundation of work the school board and superintendent have done to set the direction for the district. A high-functioning Cabinet works to support the district’s focus and strategic framework of core beliefs, effective practices, and goals for improving student achievement. We kicked off this school year with a 2-day management retreat to set expectations for adult behaviors throughout the organization. We would be amateurs and professionally naïve to think we can set expectations for student achievements and organizational outcomes without setting a high standard for the adults doing the work. Yet we often do without really thinking much about it.
Setting clear expectations for adult behavior is kind. It’s the first step in a process of establishing a system of leadership development through accountability, documented in a performance management system (read my recent series on performance management) designed to promote growth for the entire organization. Savvy superintendents start by setting a high standard for adults at the highest levels. Particularly how it relates to them managing their time.
When the folks inhabiting the top of the organizational pyramid strictly adhere to best executive practices, its impact trickles down to students, the beneficiaries of any district committed to doing things the right way.