Common frustrations with cabinet meetings—and what to do about them

Summer is a time for presidential cabinet members to evaluate their progress towards institutional goals, writes Peter Eckel, a senior fellow and director of leadership programs in the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent article for Inside Higher Ed.

Unfortunately, Eckel writes that he sees many cabinets wasting time and falling short of what they could achieve. He shares that he recently attended a gathering of vice presidents who revealed a range of frustrations with their cabinet meetings, such as:

  • A meeting that dragged on for hours while two members worked on a problem that was irrelevant to the other cabinet members;
  • A cabinet that hasn't met in almost half a year; and
  • Meetings where everyone gets so involved in the first agenda item, they end up spending the entire meeting talking about it.

Most of these frustrations came down to inefficiency—VPs felt that their cabinets wasted time, or wasted one person's time, or spent time on the wrong thing.

If you want to run your cabinet meetings more efficiently, Eckel argues the first step is to get every member—including your president—to agree there's a problem. This will enable you to work together to build better processes, he writes.

Once the cabinet team is ready, Eckel shares several recommendations for running your meetings more smoothly.

The unexamined meeting is not worth attending

Eckel suggests making time to evaluate your cabinet meetings, either through self-reflection or with the help of an outsider. Summer is a convenient time for this, he adds. He suggests asking questions such as:

  • "What types of decisions does the team handle well? What issues does it struggle with?"
  • "What are the dynamics of the group? Who initiates discussion and who cuts it off?" and
  • "How strong is engagement, and what is the level of energy in the room?"

The 5 P's of productive meetings

Consider alternative membership structures

You've probably considered the size of your cabinet—they can range from two people to dozens, and the right size will vary by institution, Eckel writes.

But you may not have considered that not every cabinet member needs to attend every meeting. Eckel shares one example of a "large, complex research university" that ultimately decided on a three-tiered approach. The smallest group met weekly to make the most critical decisions. A slightly larger second group made some decisions, but also included time for members to discuss issues and seek advice from each other. The largest group met a few times per semester and focused on communicating updates from around the institution.

Eckel argues that having different attendee lists for different types of meetings can help ensure that meeting agendas are relevant to all attendees.

The optimal number of people to invite to your meeting

Create a culture of respect

The most productive cabinets enforce clear expectations for behavior that everyone had agreed to, according to Eckel. He lists a few examples, such as:

  • Cabinet members bring all important decisions to the meeting;
  • No cell phones or email allowed;
  • Issues that affect the entire institution must be brought to the meeting; and
  • Cabinet members will put the institution's interests ahead of those of their division.

Be transparent about the agenda

Eckel writes that multiple VPs have shared with him that they aren't sure how the agendas for their cabinet meetings are formed: Why are certain items added and others not added? How is time divided up between each item?

Eckel recommends bringing more visibility to the process for deciding on each meeting's agenda, though he writes that schools use a variety of strategies to do this. For example, a small sub-group could meet regularly to set agendas for upcoming meetings. Or, as another example, the president's chief of staff creates agendas based on rules of thumb that the entire cabinet agreed on, such as urgency and importance of suggested agenda items.

Changing your cabinet's processes might not be easy, Eckel acknowledges. He recommends setting aside time after initiating a new process to reflect on how it's going and whether the team is slipping into old habits (Eckel, Inside Higher Ed, 6/7).

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