January 7, 2020

Effective Executive Team Meetings: Peer Perspectives

Building a good meeting agenda can ensure that executive team time is well spent. Three nonprofit CEOs describe the agenda templates they’ve used to keep their teams on track and productive during meetings.

If your executive team suffers from unproductive meetings, it could be that you don’t have a good agendasetting process. Many executive teams have used the agenda template tool presented in this toolkit to help them achieve more effective meetings and communication processes.(See the "Effective Executive Team" section of the Executive Team Effectiveness Toolkit for more on this topic.) Here, the chief of staff of a healthcare organization and CEOs Dorri McWhorter of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, Eric Robbins of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and Kirstin Chernawsky of Erie Neighborhood House share their approaches to making their meetings and communications more effective.

How does the executive team prepare for its meetings?

“Before, we had a standard agenda that just listed topics, without information about the time required for discussion or who would lead the conversation. Team members would submit topics to the CEO and myself, and we would build the agenda,” said the chief of staff of a healthcare organization. “Now, we rotate who facilitates each meeting. The facilitator asks the team for agenda items a week before the meeting and puts the agenda together based on the template we have created. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to cover all of the submitted topics, so it’s the facilitator’s job to decide what the team will discuss and what should be shared as a written update. The facilitator goes back to the list of executive team priorities that we’ve created and says, is this something that falls in the executive team quadrant? (See “Work of the Executive Team”.) If it isn’t, then it’s probably an item that either doesn’t go on the agenda at all or becomes a written update. All written updates go into a shared pre-read folder for the meeting, and everyone is required to review this.

“The agenda template also clearly identifies the role of the team. ‘Is this a decision? A discussion? Are we reviewing a document? Is this a brainstorm?’, he added. “Each team member is going in our own directions during the day, but this helps clearly set the tone for the meeting and each topic.”

CEO McWhorter and her team create their meeting agendas via a shared Google document. “Team members add their suggested topics with their names by them, and I go in and decide whether or not to make it part of our official agenda,” McWhorter said. “There’s also a notes column, and if I don’t select a topic for our agenda, I can say in the notes section whether we should cover this in another meeting, like our program leadership caucus.”

“Using this Google spreadsheet has created a much more transparent agendasetting process, because team members can see each other’s input on the agenda. Before, there was no transparency around other proposed topics: things went to me in a vacuum,” she added. “Now, if I don’t select someone’s topic, they can at least see the selected items that have greater urgency or importance.”

How do you approach meeting facilitation and keeping meetings on track?

“We identify someone to play the role of timekeeper at our meetings,” the chief of staff of a healthcare organization said. “At first, the timekeepers asked, ‘How can we keep the group on time and be polite? We don’t want to cut people off.’ But we realized that respect goes two ways—if we ask for a 90-minute meeting, it should be a 90-minute meeting. So now, we set a timer for an agenda topic’s assigned time. Once it’s up, we move to the next topic.”

As noted above, the healthcare organization’s executive team members take turns facilitating meetings. “This process ensures that none of this is a burden on one person,” reflected the chief of staff. “This has created an opportunity for shared management of this team, as opposed to a topdown approach. It has also helped us naturally adopt similar facilitation norms, because we are watching each other lead these sessions. There has been a lot of value in this.”

Erie Neighborhood House also rotates meeting facilitators. Reflecting on the benefits of this approach, Executive Director Chernawsky said, “Rotating meeting facilitators can create professional development opportunities for team members. The variety helps address different learning styles on the team, and rotation also creates buy-in for our meetings and increased understanding of behind-the-scenes work that goes into our sessions together.”

What have been the benefits of using this agenda-setting process and new agenda template?

“It’s so simple, but it is a huge value add,” noted the healthcare organization’s chief of staff. “Building an agenda like this requires intentional thought about what should actually make it onto the agenda, and what information people should know before going into the meeting to enable a productive conversation. We live in a culture where we often assume that everything will happen in the meeting—but things have to happen before you walk in the room. We’re trying to roll this out agency-wide, for both internal and external meetings, simply because we have seen how much value it has added for our executive team meetings. Now that we set time limits for items, we actually get through them faster. We learned about the value of shared time, and are utilizing this more effectively.”

Being this thoughtful, however, does take time. “Our agenda creation process is now more time consuming, but at the end of the day it’s well worth the additional time,” McWhorter said. “This process ensures that things aren’t falling through the cracks and that we’re spending time on the right things. Big picture, we are all working so much better together. We are more effective and enjoy the work more. Now, we don’t do updates for the sake of updates, and we don’t waste our time on having unnecessary conversations. We are much more focused and highly disciplined in our discussions, because we realize that we need to be—our time together is so valuable.”

How do you wrap up your meetings and ensure accountability for identified next steps?

“Our last agenda item is wrap-up and next steps,” the chief of staff said. “The team confirms the plan, then the meeting’s facilitator sends a followup email after the meeting to confirm what was discussed and individuals’ roles. The facilitator is also responsible for getting updates from team members on the items they are responsible for.

“The beginning of the next meeting always focuses on those follow-up items—‘Hey, these were the 3-5 things that came out of the last meeting that we wanted to make sure were complete by now. How did that go?’ This is a way to ensure accountability, but it’s also an easy, quick way to celebrate success and acknowledge the things we have accomplished.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta has developed a template for tracking follow-up items. (See the organization’s Follow-up Item Template.) “Our chief of staff also tracks and records follow-up items during meetings and sends reminders to ensure that everyone who said they would do something at a previous meeting actually completes their tasks. We then start our next meeting by asking about where we are with those items,” CEO Robbins said.

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