Leadership: How to run effective meetings

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Meetings matter, but too often in schools they can turn into long-winded affairs wasting precious staff time. Robbie Burns takes a look at how we can make our meetings more efficient and better

Meetings are not ends in themselves. Good meetings produce good actions from leaders and teachers, leading to better outcomes for students; better still, good structures for meetings produce strong leaders who lead meetings at every level which engages all staff in supporting great outcomes for students.

Good meetings are not an end in themselves; they are catalysts for change, for improvement, for growth and, ultimately, for ensuring our students achieve the best possible outcomes. Meetings really, really matter.

What’s the point of meetings?

It is often said that without a purpose, no meeting should take place. But I think having a purpose for a meeting doesn’t go far enough.

Purposes need the correct structures so that they can be acted upon efficiently, and leaders can think deeply for sustained periods of time about key issues without distraction or hurry. Before we look at this, let’s briefly look at four key purposes for meetings.

Strategise: The meeting of minds with different responsibilities in a complex organisation should facilitate strategic thinking and direction-setting. Meetings that have strategies at their heart shift hard thinking from blue sky “visioneering” to timetabling small moments and back again. Without meetings that have strategy at their heart, any later work will not be guided by clear principles, vision and values laid out and agreed upon by those who lead each aspect of it.

Prioritise: There are a hundred things that busy leaders could be doing each day. Leadership is about choosing the tasks that will have the most impact on staff and student outcomes and ensuring we have the time for them. But even when we have done this, we need to be precise about what we prioritise and how we prioritise it. Prioritising must be set within the wider strategies that are developed as a team and this is the lens through which we should see the competing claims on our time. Spending time prioritising as a team is crucial to ensure that there is alignment within a senior team and beyond.

Operationalise: Plans are useless if they are not clear about who will do what and when. Meetings should be the place where we delegate responsibility, set deadlines, agree actions and timescales, and consider what success looks like for individuals or teams. It is also where we hold each other accountable for what we said we would do. This doesn’t have to be done in a heavy-handed way either. School is busy. As leaders we can get sidetracked or waylaid by urgent issues we need to attend to. In meetings together with other leaders, rooted in strategy and priorities, we can keep drawing ourselves back with a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Analyse: I am wary of anyone who wants to analyse the quality of curriculum, teaching, or any other area of school life without being able to discuss it openly with other leaders. This is for two reasons.

  • First, what we do in schools, despite our desire to “lock it down in a spreadsheet” is incredibly nuanced. The truths you hold to as a leader about curriculum and teaching are not necessarily the same as the leader of SEND, or the leader of EYFS. If, after some monitoring or quality-assurance work, there is no wider discussion within a team, an opportunity has been missed to truly see reality from all areas of the school.
  • Second, meetings are important for evaluation because they allow the competing priorities and wider strategy that a leadership team holds, to be looked at closely. Analysis within a team meeting enables everyone to draw reality out from their particular vantage point.

Meeting problems

Despite being clear about our purposes for meetings, they can still go wrong. Let’s take a quick segue into a few problems that can occur in meetings before we then look at meeting structures.

Lack of conflict: All involved in meetings should be up for bringing their truth and knowledge about school life to the table so that the team can find common meaning, understanding and what is real for all.

Of course, the leader needs to make the decision – democratic decision-making rarely works in schools or in any team. But headteachers need all the facts. They need to hear how this or that decision affects SEN, EYFS, curriculum leadership, or a phase team. They need to understand the benefits and the problems this decision will cause (since no action is perfect). If the leader doesn’t get all this information, good decisions can’t be made.

Don’t be confused here. I am not claiming that meetings need to be filled with table slamming, screaming and shouting; the conflict needs to be aimed at deeply understanding the ideas and the actions that will be taken, with the ultimate aim of meetings to be improving outcomes for staff and student. Any conflict that deflects from this is not worth having.

A lack of conflict often stems from a lack of clarity and a lack of commitment. Having clear purposes and structures around meetings helps to ensure that there are no crossed wires in any conflict – it should be aimed at the purpose.

Lack of clarity: Alongside clear purposes, meetings should end with colleagues knowing what they discussed, what the actions were, and what is going to happen next as a result. It helps when agendas are shared afterwards that include minutes to refer back to later. It helps if these are kept together in a folder rather than on an email thread to refer back to time and again in the same place. This is why agendas and minutes are so important: there is something about writing an action down and all seeing it on an agenda that makes the item particularly concrete.

Lack of commitment: There needs to be accountability for the actions agreed. This is important because, as I said in opening this article, meetings are not ends in themselves – they exist to make things clear, discuss thorny issues, align the work of teams, and make things happen.

If there are colleagues in the room who lack commitment to a decision in the meeting, you can bet it won’t be executed effectively with teams. More than this, if it was agreed in the meeting and there was no follow through, this needs to be challenged.

Meetings exist to help students achieve the best possible outcomes. If an action was decided to help this aim and it wasn’t done, then something needs to be said and challenge needs to be taken.

Structures and systems to get things done

So, with purposes and problems in mind, what structures can we put in place to maximise the effectiveness of meetings? Patrick Lencioni, in his book Death by Meeting (2004) recommends the following four meeting types. After describing each, I provide a tried and tested variation.

1, The Daily Check-In
Purpose: Operationalise

A meeting that takes place every day to check in with staff, iron out any issues and clarify priorities if needed. This helps because it ensures that any strategy that has been put in place can be correctly operationalised on the ground through daily, short messages and communication. Any problems occurring can be discussed briefly in this time or can be followed up after the meeting.

The benefit of this is that it means that problems don’t end up escalating or being made bigger than they really are by staff. Things can be “nipped in the bud” quickly. The weakness of this is whether you can get everyone in the room at the same time. Busy school life can mean that key people don’t get to this quick meeting and miss key information.

Variation: Weekly phase briefings: At our school, we do weekly phase briefings that last no longer than 15 minutes. There are key for providing information about upcoming events and ironing out small issues and problems, as well as communicating with one another. The same purpose applies: the aim is to operationalise and align everyone to the same purpose each week. We encourage conflict during this time as we seek to create a culture where we get everything out on the table. If it is clear that things won’t be solved in the 15 minutes, we move the item to the weekly tactical, which is the next meeting type.

2, The Weekly Tactical
Purpose: Operationalise, prioritise, analyse

Weekly tacticals are attended generally by senior leaders and possibly other middle leaders who are responsible for key items. A weekly tactical is also the place to consider any pressing issues that have emerged from the week that need to be addressed. These meeting types also ensure that our strategies don’t drift away from realities and we are able to analyse our progress towards our goals.

Variation: Weekly tactical slot or bi-weekly tactical: Sometimes it is difficult for senior teams to only discuss tactical issues in their meetings, as other things need to be discussed that are strategic or aimed at something else. It might be that leaders decide that every other week they will have a tactical meeting or every week have a tactical slot where a portion of the meeting is handed over to thinking through pressing issues.

3, The Monthly Strategic
Purpose: Strategise and prioritise

These meetings affect the school in pivotal ways. They are the place in which school development plans should be considered carefully and where improvement will be aimed in the coming months or year. These meetings frame the leadership work of a larger block of time than weekly tacticals. They help to make decisions about what leaders collectively and individually spend their time doing. They provide a framework, a rubric to understand success across a term or even an academic year. They are pivotal to the direction of travel of the school because they redirect any tactical work that might not quite be going to plan or having the impact that is needed.

Monthly strategic meetings should focus on one or two issues within the larger development needs of a school so that the thinking is deep enough. Openness and honesty are key; conflict is likely to occur and as Lencioni discusses leaders ought to mine for it to make sure that any ideas shared are interrogated deeply so there are no problems later.

Variation: Termly strategic: In the busy-ness of the term, a monthly strategic is maybe not the best approach. Our time in schools is generally broken up into six week blocks and it possibly makes sense for leaders to organise a termly strategic, at the beginning of each half-term when things might not be totally busy yet, to discuss these things. It also provides an opportunity to survey the term ahead at a system level and consider pinch points for workload and where key meetings or reviews may be taking place.

4, Quarterly off-site review
Purpose: Strategise, prioritise, operationalise

A quarterly off-site review, as suggested by Lencioni, should take the opportunity to think hard about the biggest decisions there are to be made for the school alongside deep thought from the team about the school’s development on a much longer term basis. They are also a chance for leaders to get to know each other better as individuals as well as practitioners and leaders.

Variation: Easter and summer review: If monthly strategics are run well, a quarterly review meeting might be quite complex for leaders to adhere to. However, it might make sense for a full day in the summer and Easter holidays for leaders to sit down together to discuss the big picture for an extended period of time. It is a chance for leaders to discuss their teams, their needs as leaders and how all of this fits within the wider needs of the school. It might also be a chance to bring in an external facilitator or consultant to work with you as a team to develop your knowledge as teachers or as leaders in a key area.


Meetings need clear purpose but they also need structures. I offer here four types and several variations. Whatever structure leaders adopt for their meetings, it is important to understand that we all need time to think through our work on multiple layers, through the lens of multiple purposes and from multiple perspectives.

Setting the right parameters, whatever they may be, around our meetings can facilitate this and bring out the best thinking in everyone. The result? Better thinking, better decision-making and, hopefully, better outcomes for the young people we serve.

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition will also be available soon via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

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