Increasing Community and Success in Advising Units by Conducting Effective Meetings
Higher education in general and academic advising in particular are interesting fields. One of the things that makes them interesting is that very few people receive much formal training to do the work they perform on a daily basis. Professors are rarely taught how to teach, administrators have rarely received much formal training in administration or leadership, and many advisers have received little to no training in advising. As a result, much of the organizational learning that advisers and advising administrators experience comes via trial and error. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as on-the-job training is an important way to learn, much of the potential efficiency and overall effectiveness of our day–to-day efforts can be lost trying to learn through experience what might be better learned via effective training. This statement is particularly true as it relates to conducting organizational meetings in advising units.
Academic advising is a profession that involves a significant amount of one-on-one interaction and engagement with students (Nutt, 2000). Much of what advisers do on a daily basis is individualistic in nature. Furthermore, advising can be stressful, particularly given the tendency for many offices to experience high volumes of traffic, accompanied by highly redundant interaction. These frantic times often cycle into less busy times, which in some offices can leave advisers doing things that are less enjoyable than the interactive work they enjoy. Thus the nature of advising can create contexts in which people work independently but in close proximity to others within the workplace. In a context such as this, it becomes critical that people come together in a collective space to build community, to strategize about ways to improve the work they do, and to learn from one another. This can only happen when advising administrators develop the capacity to facilitate such interaction through meetings.
Unfortunately, however, anyone who has spent significant time in advising or advising administration has likely spent a lot of time in meetings that were likely less effective than they could have been. As Bradford (1976) explained, “Many meetings waste a lot of time. Even the best meetings are not as productive as they could be” (p. 15). This may leave some wondering why we even hold meetings.
The primary purpose of departmental meetings is to provide a forum for advisers to come together to accomplish work. While the specific work addressed may vary, the key to whether or not advisers efficiently and effectively accomplish their work depends largely upon how well they engage in the process of planning and conducting a meeting. Success depends on the clear delineation and ongoing pursuit of specific purposes for meeting by creating and using effective agendas and meeting plans. To promote such outcomes, the following suggestions are offered: First, be clear about the agenda items; second, be clear about what must be accomplished; and third, use effective techniques to get things done.
Be Clear About the Agenda Items
The most common means of developing a meeting plan and conducting departmental meetings is to simply develop a list of the items to address in an outline format. More in-depth agendas may include time allocations for addressing these items. Topic selection is essential and represents a good first step, as administrators must identify what needs to be discussed or accomplished in the meeting (unless it is a meeting intentionally designed for surfacing concerns and insights in an agenda-free manner, which can also be very valuable when done intentionally). Planning based on this approach results in agendas that look a lot like the following:
|10:00||Welcome and Intro|
|10:20||Discuss Item 1|
|11:00||Discuss Item 2|
While useful, such an agenda represents a one-dimensional approach to planning and leading meetings and often results in little more than organized chaos. Consequently, a second dimension to understanding meeting planning and agenda setting is worth exploring—one that clarifies what exactly needs to be achieved in relation to the items discussed.
Be Clear About What Must Be Accomplished
As mentioned previously, meetings occur for multiple purposes. In addressing any particular agenda item, the goal might be to accomplish any one or a multiple of the following:
- Report on assignments
- Share information
- Training and development
- Brainstorm ideas
- Discuss/analyze options
- Develop plans
- Make decisions
- Work together on projects
- Evaluate effectiveness
- Make assignments
- Foster community/build culture
To the extent that advising administrators are clear about desired outcomes relative to each item, they become more effective at structuring the meeting to achieve outcomes and to progress toward the action-oriented work they are trying to achieve. An agenda that takes this into consideration might be organized by either agenda topic, with clarity about what is to be achieved in relation to each topic, or by categorizing the agenda according to what is to be achieved and placing the topics within these categories. Consider the following examples (please note these are very generic agendas that lack the specific details necessary in actual agendas):
|10:00||Welcome and Intro|
Discuss Item 1
Discuss Item 2
|10:00||Welcome and Intro|
Reporting on Assignments
In the first example, administrators address topics in chronological order with the details about what is to be accomplished in relation to each. Topics are prioritized on the agenda with the most urgent items addressed first. This allows for focused topic-oriented discussion but can leave important decisions in relation to a topic incomplete if the topic falls later in the agenda and is not covered due to time constraints. In the second example, items are arranged according to the priority of desired outcomes, with the specific topics appearing as bullet points. Decision items come first and should include those that must be finalized in the meeting. Advising administrators provide clarity regarding what needs to be accomplished to achieve that outcome.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the approach, however, the additional clarity provided by detailing what is to be accomplished makes achieving objectives easier and less chaotic.
Use Effective Techniques
Once advising administrators determine the topics and the relevant desired outcomes, they then need to determine the techniques necessary to accomplish results. This requires some understanding of basic group dynamics and facilitation techniques relative to each desired outcome. While an extensive discussion of specific principles and techniques is beyond the scope of this paper, the following process-specific insights will hopefully prove valuable.
Reporting on Assignments
Reporting on assignments is an important aspect of all meetings that should not be overlooked. Nonetheless, administrators should recognize this can take a significant amounts of time—especially if teams are larger than five to seven people—and can become burdensome if reporting is not relevant or is not viewed as relevant by all involved. In response, leaders may consider requesting that teams send progress reports to a group secretary for compilation and distribution to the large group prior to or at the outset of the meeting. Reporting items can then be discussed when they are most relevant to the parties involved. Some may be introduced right up front (or at least the floor might be opened up for questions about specific items), others may be resolved in small group/team conversations and project work during the meeting. In many cases, the leader and the individuals involved should simply address the reporting items one-on-one.
Sharing information, including calendaring, should be handled carefully. Meetings are a good place to share information that is truly essential for the entire group or when consistency and awareness by all or confidentiality are absolutely essential. Nonetheless, information sharing alone is not a good reason to hold a meeting. There are so many less time-consuming and less intrusive ways to share information, especially when the information it is not truly significant or broadly relevant to all in attendance. Consequently, other means of conveying information should be used when possible instead of calling a meeting with the sole purpose of sharing information.
Some suggestions for moving quickly through information items include: typing information items on the agenda and briefly responding to questions regarding any of the items at the outset of the meeting or sending information items to participants in advance of the meeting. Regardless, unless the situation is truly an exception, few meetings should spend more than perhaps 5-10 percent of the meeting time sharing information beyond what is involved in engaging in the other processes discussed.
Training and Development
A key benefit of meeting is to promote professional development to improve advising processes and outcomes. Unfortunately, in many meetings this aspect is addressed briefly and superficially with the assumption that telling equals training. If training needs to occur, it is essential that administrators dedicate adequate time and effort to training, designing, and delivery to ensure improved performance and behavior change (Stolovitch & Keeps, 2002). Follow-up on training through performance management meetings and observation of staff in action is essential to achieving these desired results (American Society for Training and Development, 2006; Boss, 2000).
Adequate training cannot normally be conducted in fewer than 20 to 30 minutes. Even this, however, is rarely sufficient to engage in active learning-oriented training or to address complex needs. Attempts to train with inadequate time usually results in information sharing as opposed to training and little to no performance improvement. Nonetheless, while training requires an up-front time commitment, when it is done well, it usually results in more efficient ongoing time use and improved performance.
Brainstorming is one of the most common practices in which groups engage. Unfortunately, it is rarely done well. Some key insights about the process of brainstorming can help to improve the practice.
First, traditional brainstorming can be done in large groups but may not be as productive as that done by small groups. As groups increase in size the time required to brainstorm increases, as does the likelihood of distracting side conversations and the potential for thought stifling criticism (Gallupe et al., 1992; Osterhout, 1992). Large groups may benefit from breaking into smaller groups that report back to the large group. In most cases, individual brainstorming—whether conducted before or after group brainstorming—increases idea generation and creativity (Bouchard & Hare, 1970; Thornberg, 1991).
Second, brainstorming is a creative endeavor. Like all such endeavors, it shrivels amid criticism and analysis (Gallupe et al., 1992). Consequently, brainstorming and analysis of the options proposed in brainstorming should be treated as separate processes (Bradford, 1976; Schein, 1998; Yukl, 1998). Furthermore, effective brainstorming requires broad involvement and a willingness to postpone consensus.
The following ground rules for conducting brainstorming sessions may prove valuable. First, ideas only may be given. Participants should simply state ideas without advocacy or analysis (Senge, 1990). Second, participants should be encouraged to offer ideas and to not parrot, support, or criticize the ideas of others (Napier & Gershenfeld, 1999; Osterhout, 1992). Third, a process should be established to ensure all members participate. Fourth, insights and ideas should be gleaned from outside the group when possible to ensure broad involvement and diversity of ideas and interests. Fifth, ideas should be recorded so that analysis and discussion can address every idea developed. Finally, wild ideas should be encouraged as they sometimes lead to the most creative solutions (Osterhout, 1992).
Once groups brainstorm sufficient options, analysis may begin. When a large number of options exist, some sorting might need to occur to focus on items the group most wishes to pursue. Once this occurs, boundaries that limit the possible implementation of ideas should be outlined, so participants know what constraints they must operate within. Then participants should explore the benefits and positive aspects of each idea. Afterward, negative aspects are discussed. Separating these discussions ensures both advocacy and criticism receive equal attention and draw upon the creative powers of positive emotions (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Seligman, 2002). This is essential because analysis often becomes overly focused on the easier process of criticism as opposed to the more challenging work of advocacy. Further, once the groups explores positive and negative aspects, members can attempt to combine ideas to maximize strengths and diminish weaknesses.
Once again, analysis becomes more challenging as group size increases. Groups larger than five to six members often become unwieldy, particularly if discussion is controversial. Often large groups should be broken into smaller groups that then report back on the results of their conversations.
Once group members discuss and analyze options, they should then create comprehensive, detailed plans for moving forward. Details should be laid out so everyone knows what will be done, when, how, and by whom (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002). This is often best accomplished in very small groups or by individuals. It is frequently a good idea to make general decisions and outlines of plans as a group and then delegate the detailed creation of a plan to a smaller group or individual. This detailed work can then be brought back to the larger group for additional analysis, discussion, and decision making.
Decision making is an important reason for bringing people together. Nonetheless, in order for decision making to be effective, all of the prior work of brainstorming, analysis, planning, etc., must have already occurred. Trying to engage in decision making before a group is prepared to do so is an exercise in futility. On the other hand, when decision making is based on a solid foundation of these previous processes, it is much easier. Whether decisions are made by consensus, voting, or other means depends on the issues at hand and the needs of the group (Patterson et al., 2002).
Working Together on Projects
Many hands make light work, so it is not unusual for individuals to combine efforts to get things done. Once again, however, work groups are most effective when small, often no larger than three to five people. Otherwise, work groups tend to suffer from social loafing, the tendency for some to contribute less to the work of the group (Lussier & Achua, 2007). When work is to be accomplished by large groups, it is best to divide responsibilities for specific tasks with instructions to return and report.
Though similar to discussing and analyzing options, this process focuses less on evaluating options and more on the effectiveness of the group in order to promote group learning. As groups complete assignments, finalize work projects, conclude activities, etc., they should dedicate time to analyze and discuss what went well, what could have been improved, and what they learned from the process. Once again, keeping positive and negative discussions separate is important to ensure adequate time and attention is available for both. These conversations should be carefully documented so insights and significant learning can inform future group efforts.
As meetings progress, participants receive assignments that require work beyond the meeting. The specifics of these assignments (who is involved, what is to be done, when it should be completed, etc.) should be documented as they are discussed. At the conclusion of the meeting, a general review of these action items verifies that all participants are aware of what is expected of them prior to the next meeting. Once again, assignments should be documented to facilitate the reporting process for the next meeting.
Foster Community/Build Culture
As discussed previously, the individual nature of much of the work that characterizes advising can impact the work environment for advisers. In particular, it can limit the growth of community and the rich cultural contexts that typify great workplaces (Bolman & Deal, 2003; Freiberg & Freiberg, 1996; Palmer, 2004; Peck, 1987; Schein, 1992). Such environments are pregnant with meaning characterized by engagement, and they foster positive relationships, allow people to draw on their strengths, and encourage celebration and success (Cameron, 2008; Cameron, Dutton, Quinn, 2003; Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Freiberg & Freiberg, 1996; Glashagel, 2009; Seligman, 2011; Ulrich & Ulrich, 2010). Consequently, great leaders realize that every act of leadership has both practical and symbolic value (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). Thus a leader’s actions both accomplish results and build culture, and sometimes the symbolic building of culture is more important than the practical significance of a specific act. What this implies is that at times meetings might be held solely for the purpose of fostering the kind of interaction that is needed to build community. Such interaction is characterized by open communication, freeform dialogue, discussion of meaning, and positive emotional engagement and celebration (Cameron et al., 2003; Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Palmer, 2004; Peck, 1987).
With these insights in mind about the actual work processes of departmental meetings, advising administrators are better prepared to facilitate effective meetings and avoid the chaos that occurs when these separate and distinct processes become intertwined and, thereby, result in diminished performance. While agendas need not include details regarding all processes a leader will use, his or her notes may need to contain information about ground rules for processes and descriptions of the techniques the leader will use.
Advising administrators should also keep in mind that the nature of the meeting and its purposes and processes should reflect the broader needs of the office and its staff, individually and collectively. When administrators regularly engage their employees in collaborative, group efforts such as developing plans, making decisions, or working on projects, it is easier to develop a sense of community within the group. Unfortunately, because much of advisers’ work involves one-on-one interaction with students, opportunities for community building within the office can be difficult to achieve, unless administrators intentionally design meetings to include such collaboration.
Once advising administrators have achieved clarity regarding items to address in a meeting, what they need to accomplish relative to these items, and how they will facilitate these processes, some additional details are worth considering.
First, who should be invited to the meeting? Most meetings have specific purposes and are attended by specifically designated individuals based on roles and responsibilities. However, once an agenda and meeting plan is established, leaders should discuss whether to invite additional participants to improve the quality of the meeting or to improve the discussion and work of the group. Sometimes individuals may need to be invited to attend only specific portions of a meeting. Nonetheless, considering whom to involve is a significant step.
A second consideration is the amount of time to schedule for the meeting. Adequate time should help to accomplish specific purposes. For example, brainstorming typically takes less time than analysis, and training adds considerable time to any meeting. Furthermore, as groups increase in size, so does the time necessary to adequately engage in all work processes. This is especially true when large groups try to carry out the work of small groups. At the same time, additional time is required when smaller groups are created with return-and-report responsibility within the confines of the meeting.
Third, leaders should consider what work should be done behind the scenes for the meeting to be effective. Is there is a need to hold conversations, work out details, discuss constraints, and consider items of potential concern prior to the meeting? Are there topics that might emerge and should be handled in specific ways? Leaders should carefully review their plans to make sure they are prepared for any foreseeable contingencies.
Lastly, when items emerge during a meeting that could sidetrack the conversation, suggesting the need for an additional agenda item with related accomplishments to pursue, the leader should work with the group to assign a place in the agenda or a future meeting to discuss it.
While the primary emphasis of this article is on conducting meetings from the perspective of advising administrators, the principles apply across the breadth of advising meeting settings. From the day-to-day sessions advisers conduct with students to group advising and the more formal meetings of task forces, departments, and divisions, the need to clearly articulate agenda items, objectives, and desired outcomes, plus the selection and use of effective techniques remain constant. Consider the example of an adviser preparing to conduct a group advising session.
To begin with, he or she should identify the key topics and agenda items to address in the session. These might include general education requirements, institutional support resources, policies and procedures, use of the registration system, etc. Having clearly identified these areas of focus, the adviser should then determine what needs to be accomplished in relation to each. Thus, communicating policies and procedures might be largely informational, whereas addressing institutional resources might focus on helping students make decisions about seeking assistance and support to meet their needs. As a result, advisers could use appropriate techniques to ensure they achieve desired goals. Advisers thus might select some frequently asked questions regarding policies and procedures and allow students to identify those that pertain to them most and ask questions about them. Students could then hear a brief overview of resources and provide feedback about those they regard as most helpful based on either generic cases or their own situations. Advisers would encourage them to visit the most relevant offices associated with their needs during the first week of classes. Thus information would be dispensed in ways that facilitate informational. This same procedure could help advisers plan an individual student appointment, lead or participate in a task force meeting, and conduct departmental meetings, as emphasized above.
In conclusion, meetings can be an effective and efficient part of academic advising and advising administration. Importantly, advisers and advising administrators must engage in careful planning to carry out the work of the meeting so as to minimize disorder and maintain efficiency and effectiveness. It is not; however, through the mere review of an article such as this that advisers acquire these skills. The ability to conduct meetings that foster the kind of community necessary to create strong advising cultures is a procedural rather than a cognitive skill. Consequently, advisers and advising administrators develop these skills by putting the principles above into practice over time.
Fortunately, an abundance of opportunities exist to do so, as advising largely involves the use of meetings, and the principles described above are broadly applicable—to individual advising meetings with students, group advising sessions, task force meetings in which one becomes involved, and/or departmental meetings. With focused learning and practice, advising administrators and advisers can eliminate meetings that waste time and instead use meetings to build community, effectively lead others, and accomplish results.
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About the Author(s)
Jeffrey L. McClellan is an assistant professor of management at Frostburg State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.