Recently, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Cort Jones from the National Recreation and Park Association about leading effective staff meetings.
Here are a few key insights we discussed:
- Staff meetings are, “where our relationships with each other are brought into fruition and where we can either see those relationships sour or we can hopefully make them stronger.”
- The three most important things to great meetings, “One is making sure that every meeting that you have actually has a clear purpose, and second is trying to get the right people in the room for the meeting, so that you’re not wasting time because some key person with key information isn’t there. And then third, being thoughtful about how you design the meeting around whatever that purpose is.”
- “[If] you’re not utilizing the collective intelligence of your team, if you’re just allowing the loudest or strongest people to speak up, but it creates those imbalances, and it’s almost an injustice of not designing a meeting in such a way that everyone has a different way to contribute.”
- “[I] never force anyone to move their seat. I just always create interesting opportunities for people to try something different, but I always try to respect the fact that you also need to give people a chance to be comfortable.”
If you are interested in hearing the interview you can take a listen here: https://www.nrpa.org/blog/turning-ugh-another-meeting-into-yay-another-meeting-episode-037/
Or, you can read below for the full transcript.
00:02 Speaker 1: This is Open Space Radio, the official Podcast of the National Recreation and Park Association. Because everyone deserves a great park.
00:12 Cort Jones: Hi everyone, welcome to another episode of Open Space Radio, I’m Cort Jones. I know you know this feeling – you’re sitting at your desk or out in the field and you’re really in the zone. You’re on a deadline for something and it’s coming up, but the juices are flowing, your productivity is on high. And then it happens, that dreaded reminder pops up and tells you that in 15 minutes you’ve got to halt your momentum and go to another meeting. But instead of looking at meetings as a nuisance to our productive day, what if we could look at them as a time when the next great ideas are born? What if we look at them as a time to bring our collective goals and dreams to fruition? Today, we’re joined by Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, who has worked in local government for several years and is now a professional speaker and organizational development consultant who works with leaders who wanna improve employee relationships, and have more productive meetings. Hi Sharon, thanks for joining me today.
01:07 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Hi, it’s great to be here.
01:08 CJ: So Sharon, first, what is it that spark your passion for staff meetings? It’s not really a passion that I hear from people every day. So I’m curious to find out what got you started with this?
01:19 ST: Yeah, I’m a pretty bit direct that I actually like staff meetings. But two sides of it, so one, I’m drawn to the human aspect of it. I think it’s where our relationships with each other are brought into fruition and where we can either see those relationships sour or we can hopefully make them stronger. And then I also think there’s sort of an analytical side of it, of this challenge of how do you derive collective intelligence from a group of people, and make sure that when you leave the room you are all collectively smarter than when you entered the room.
01:54 CJ: Right. So it’s more about those personal relationships than the actual meeting itself, right?
02:00 ST: Yeah. And I think that I’m interested in, how you structure meetings and how do you do meeting design in a way that makes meetings more human. Or at least brings out the better parts of our humanity instead of lessening our great qualities.
02:17 CJ: Yeah, no, that makes sense. So staff meetings are not usually extremely high on our list of things we wanna do. It’s never the case for me because I love everyone I work with, and all of our meetings are amazing. But they are necessary and can be really beneficial. But why do people despise them so much?
02:36 ST: Well, there’s a lot of terrible meetings out there. So I’m so glad that you are having good meetings but many people I talk to are dreading the meetings. And for good reason, because meetings are a place where often people’s time is wasted and you get hit in the face by how you feel disrespected because you feel like your time is wasted. So if there are any issues that you’re dealing with a team or you’re just having trouble figuring things out as a group, meetings are often a time when that gets highlighted and so they can often be something that people dread.
03:15 CJ: I like how you said that. A lot of people can see them as a waste of valuable time, but what would your argument against that be? How are meetings not really that big of a waste of time?
03:26 ST: I think that they currently are often a waste of time, but they don’t have to be. And to make sure that they’re not a waste of time, I focus on three particular things. One is making sure that every meeting that you have actually has a clear purpose, and second is trying to get the right people in the room for the meeting, so that you’re not wasting time because some key person with key information isn’t there. And then third, being thoughtful about how you design the meeting around whatever that purpose is. And just to clarify, when I say purpose, I don’t mean you are formed for a committee to plan Earth Day. That’s your mission as a committee. But what I mean by purpose is the purpose of that specific meeting, is this early in the planning process so the purpose is to generate ideas and brainstorm? Or are you far enough along in the planning that at this point, you really need to set priorities, and make a decision? And so, the purpose of that particular meeting is to actually make a decision.
04:27 CJ: How do you come to find out what that purpose is?
04:31 ST: Well, I think that whoever is calling the meeting needs to set aside a little bit of time, it really doesn’t take long. You could take three minutes. Set a timer on a clock for three minutes, and even if you just do a free writing exercise, just journal in your notebook. What will I hope comes out of this meeting? Sometimes it’s harder to think in terms of purpose, but if you think at the end of this meeting, what am I hoping to know more about or be clear on? Or what do I hope this group is gonna be able to do that they weren’t able to do before the meeting? Those can be good ways to identify what your purpose is.
05:06 CJ: Yeah, definitely. And a lot of times in meetings there’s so many different ideas being thrown around and so many personalities. What would you say is the best way to kind of stay focused on that purpose of the specific meeting?
05:21 ST: And this is a real challenge and it can get more complex depending on how strong these personalities are. How many people you have in the meeting? That’s why I said early on about deriving collective intelligence, that’s a real puzzle for me, I enjoy that a lot. I was actually coaching a young woman who was leading a big event and she had to arrange several meetings through the course of several months. And her large stakeholder team had 30 people in it. So I was trying to help her decide, “How do I actually make every single person feel like they can be heard and you get their input, without meeting for eight hours straight?”
06:01 CJ: Right.
06:02 ST: And then how do you get all of that information and also make sense of it and try to prioritize it? So there’s a lot of facilitation tools out there that can help this. I love giving people a chance to write. I often use large sticky notes or I use what they call the sticky wall, just to try to break things up in a way that everyone has different ways of contributing information. A lot of times we don’t take the extra time to look at those facilitation options, and so people will just have a meeting in which they say, “Okay, next on the agenda is we’re gonna share ideas about this upcoming event.”
06:40 ST: And they just throw it out to the group. And then it’s only the people who are sometimes the stronger personalities or the more extroverted people in the room, that feel comfortable or can get a word in edgewise to actually share their ideas. And I think that that’s a real management issue. Because on the positive side, you’re not utilizing the collective intelligence of your team if you’re just allowing the loudest, or strongest people to speak up, but it creates those imbalances. And it’s almost an injustice of not designing a meeting in such a way that everyone has a different way to contribute.
07:15 CJ: Yeah, I really like that. And some of the best meetings that I’ve been a part of have been those creative ways of having everyone’s voice be heard. And yeah, I totally agree, that’s not always the case when it’s just your typical standard meeting where ideas are being thrown around. And sometimes the quietest person in the room might have the best idea, but they don’t feel comfortable to announce that, and I think finding creative ways is great.
07:41 ST: And that’s where I feel like the first part of what I said, that chance for those relationships to be built or strengthened, comes into play. Because sometimes you’re not intentionally saying, “At this meeting, I’m going to make people feel more respected.” But by designing a good design for your meeting, you’ll make sure everyone gets to have their voice heard. The positive outcome of that is that each person, including the youngest people on the team or the quietest people on the team, might leave that meeting feeling like, “You know, I feel valued working here, I wanna keep working with this team because they care about what I have to say.”
08:18 CJ: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s where it starts. And if those people feel valued, they’re gonna take so much more pride in the work that they are doing, and it’s gonna create a better environment all together. I know we talked about this a little bit earlier, but for Park and Recreation Agencies, what are some simple things that they could do to implement better staff meetings and making them more engaging, and ultimately more productive?
08:42 ST: Yeah, and I hope it’s alright I mention this. I do have a free tool kit that I put on my website, and I can mention the link to that later, but it’s all about some easy steps that you can take. Because I definitely don’t want people to feel like they need to invest a lot more time. We’re already taking so much time to have these staff meetings, I don’t want it to take a lot of time to put extra effort into planning them. In fact, the goal is, with a little bit of extra time on the front end, hopefully we can cut down some of the time that’s being spent in the meetings themselves. So that tool kit really just goes over some practical steps of how to identify the purpose of the meeting, how to come up with a few simple design ideas. And there are actually templates in there for ideas for how to use a brainstorming meeting, and ideas of how to use decision-making frameworks. So depending on what your purpose is, how to design an easy interactive exercise at your meeting that will help you accomplish that purpose. And then the importance of starting on time, and ending on time. I actually say this in my toolkit. You turn the page after I told you to start on time and it says, “No seriously, you need to start on time.”
09:55 CJ: I like that, I like that.
09:56 ST: Also that piece about inviting the right people. I know that a lot of agencies, like the ones that are in your association, have these recurring staff meetings. And that can be particularly difficult because bad habits and behaviors have been almost institutionalized. You always don’t start on time, or you always have the same people who just sort of check out. So being able to start over, slow, steady progress to break some of those habits and move in a more productive fashion, really takes doing things a little differently at the start.
10:33 ST: So, one example I give is, if you usually just invite people using Outlook for a meeting, if you have a particular meeting where you really wanna shake things up and you need more engagement, maybe that’s the time to invite people in a different way. You can still put it on their calendar, but taking the time to maybe write a simple handwritten note to the six members of your team who are invited to this meeting. It’s just a normal staff meeting, but the extra three minutes it takes to handwrite a note saying, “I’m really looking forward to you being at this meeting,” will just raise that level of attentiveness. And make people more likely to not only show up, but show up a little intrigued as to, “What is gonna happen at this meeting? Why did I get this handwritten note?”
11:19 CJ: Yeah, I would feel very special and intrigued if I had a handwritten meeting invite on my desk. I’m gonna try this.
11:27 ST: Yeah. And you can mix it up. Sometimes you might wanna call people to just give them a heads up that we’re gonna do something different at the meeting, make sure you dress comfortably, or adding a little bit of that FOMO of, “Something’s going to happen at this meeting and it’s not just going to be the same old, same old agenda that we’ve been doing for 20 years, every week.”
11:51 CJ: Yeah, that’s very cool. It’s all about the mystery. I’m gonna start doing this, Sharon, and my teammates are gonna wonder what’s going on.
11:57 ST: Yeah, and it really doesn’t need to take a lot of time. It’s not about the time, it’s more about the intentionality.
12:02 CJ: Very cool. So, I have to ask, what’s the best staff meeting that you’ve been a part of, and why was it so great?
12:09 ST: I’m glad you asked. Yes. When I was in charge of a team, I had an amazing staff meeting, and we were brainstorming. That was the purpose of the meeting, was we were starting a new program year, and we needed to come up with new ideas, or decide, was there anything new we want to try this year? So we did an activity and brainstorm. But then, the discussion that came after that was really energized. And I remember at one point, the youngest member of our team came up with an idea for a new tradition that we should start with our program participants. And it had something to do with the colors of T-shirts. I mean, it was pretty simple, but we were talking about red and black t-shirts, and suddenly we all broke into song and broke into just an instantaneous parity of Les Misérables song ‘Red and Black.’
13:02 CJ: Nice.
13:03 ST: Like everyone got involved, we were just singing and it was completely silly and ridiculous and so much fun. But it actually was also productive, because we ended up adopting that new idea and it became this really thoughtful tradition in our program. That these colors of the t-shirts had symbolic meaning, and it became something people looked forward to. So it was both fun and silly and ridiculous, but also a great idea and something we actually implemented.
13:34 CJ: Yeah, that’s very cool. And it sounds like it was an exciting meeting. And I love that when those things happen, singing and when people are almost a little bit forced to feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. I feel like it connects that team so much more and then it just opens up a door.
13:52 ST: Yeah. And I will warn that as an organizational development and trainer and facilitator, people get worried that I’m gonna make them do something weird. [chuckle] So I will say that the actual activity we did was not weird at all, we were just, we were looking at words and using word association, to develop ideas. In fact, that’s one of the ones I put in the tool kit. But it just led to this level of comfort with one another, and we could be ourselves and we were generally silly people.
14:19 CJ: Right.
14:20 ST: It allowed us to just not take ourselves as seriously and that really came organically out of that. Just a sense of fun, relaxed team environment that we had with one another.
14:31 CJ: When you get that feeling, it’s so much easier to be productive and come up with great ideas, when that fear is there, it’s tough.
14:40 ST: One thing I learned, I would say is I try not to force people into uncomfortable situations. Even as simple as, I know there was a lot of thinking for a while that you should have assigned seating or you should force people to mix up where they sit at a meeting, so that they will think differently. But I had a colleague who came up to me and luckily we had a good trusting relationship, so she was able to pull me aside and say, “You know, I actually have PTSD, and I choose my seat in a room, very strategically. I think about where I can see the exit. I make myself feel comfortable by picking a very specific seat. So if you started meeting by making me sit somewhere else, I’m not gonna listen to anything else you say because I am just gonna be so uncomfortable and mad at you and everything.” So I was so glad she shared that with me, ’cause that wasn’t my experience. I didn’t realize how painful that could be for someone. And now, ever since then, I’ve never forced anyone to move their seat. I just always create interesting opportunities for people to try something different, but I always try to respect the fact that you also need to give people a chance to be comfortable.
15:52 CJ: Yeah, and you truly never know what someone’s reasoning for sitting where they’re sitting and why they’re sitting there and that’s a very good example. And something that a lot of people may not take into consideration before hearing something like that.
16:08 ST: Yeah, I’ve also worked with a lot of the disability community, and hearing from them about people with hearing disabilities or vision disabilities. They don’t want to have to disclose all the time, “Oh, I’m hard of hearing… ” But they may take care of their own needs, by sitting close to the speaker. And so those are just things that you don’t always know what the people in your room, need to feel comfortable. So being a little bit aware of mixing things up designing something engaging, but also having the flexibility and the ability to listen, to make sure that everything that you are adding to this meeting will help people feel more heard and more engaged rather than isolated.
16:51 CJ: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Sharon, thank you so much for your time. I know that staff meetings are going on a lot in this field and anything to help make them more engaging and more productive is amazing. So if you wouldn’t mind letting listeners know where they can find your tool kit and anything else you’d like to end the podcast with?
17:12 ST: Thanks, yeah. My website is sharonspeaks.com and you can download the tool kit for free there. And then I also have some blog posts there that give some further breakdowns and ideas for other things that you can do at meetings, both the blog link and the tool kit would be great resources and that’s probably the main thing. I do have a podcast where I’ve highlighted some parks and recreation professionals, because it’s all about people in public service, and people who are trying to help. And that podcast is called Do Good, Be Good.
17:46 CJ: Nice. Yeah, I’m gonna check your podcast out as well. It’s nice to have another podcaster on our show.
17:52 ST: Yes, we’re sticking through this fun, exciting new medium.
18:00 CJ: To learn more visit openspaceradio.org. If you have any ideas for future episodes we’d love to hear from you. Send me an email at email@example.com or Roxanne at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can subscribe to Open Space Radio on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and other podcasters. Please be sure to rate and review the show. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
18:25 S1: Open Space Radio is a production of The National Recreation and Park Association, a leading non-profit dedicated to the advancement of public parks and recreation. You can learn more about NRPA by visiting nrpa.org, and you can find Open Space Radio at openspaceradio.org.