As I mentioned in an earlier post, your meeting agenda is a powerful and very poorly understood tool. An agenda is not just a piece of paper, it’s, well, it’s your agenda. It is your short-term action plan for getting things done. Learn how to use it and you’ll find your productivity, effectiveness as a leader, and control of your staff and board increase.

Who writes it
You do. You want control of the agenda. It’s your agency. I am appalled by the number of Executive Directors I have encountered who have their interns write their agendas, as though it’s a bothersome task that anyone can do. But hey, if you want your intern controlling your agenda, go crazy.

Not just a list of topics
Meetings are not for reporting, and the agenda is not a table of contents for pontificators. Every committee chair or department head gets 3 sentences of report. Anything more involved goes in a written narrative, posted on your organization’s project planning app.

What’s on it: staff meeting
For general staff meetings, every department gets a line item, that’s for courtesy, but they don’t get equal time. More critical activities get more minutes. As a starting point think in terms of 3s–each department has maximum 3 topics, an IMMEDIATE activity, a SHORT TERM activity and a MISSION-RELATED activity. Talk to the department head and ask them what those three things are, emphasizing that nothing else will be allowed on the general agenda, otherwise it becomes a departmental meeting (which you shouldn’t be having anyway, unless you’re IBM. Keep the meetings to a minimum. They’re time-sucks. Sorry! OT.). Nothing should be on the agenda that does not have extra-departmental interest (I don’t want to hear about what your intern is doing), and that does not have an action item at the end of it.

What’s on it: board meeting
Instead of departmental reports, this needs to be committee reports, and the board has statutory items that may be on any given agenda, such as approving minutes (not READING the minutes–this, again, should be on your project management software, to be read beforehand). You may have board elections, budget approval, executive staff review, etc. Frontload these, put a narrow time limit on them and get them out of the way. Otherwise, 3 topics rule applies, and with the board you might get this down to two, because the board really shouldn’t be dealing at the IMMEDIATE activity level. Again, have an action item at the end of every agenda item.

How is it presented
It’s not a scribbled list on the back of an envelope. If it’s a board meeting, it has to be approved by the President and possibly the Secretary prior to the meeting. Write it out, make it clear what the topics and time limits are. One of the reasons people hate meetings is they don’t know what to expect, or how long they’ll be. You don’t want anyone at your meeting checking their watch, or announcing that they have someplace to be and have to cut it short. People talk about “formal” agendas, but frankly all agendas should be “formal”; an informal agenda is a straight road to Meeting Hell.

Who manages it
For staff meetings, the highest ranking person in the room gets to guide the agenda. For board meetings, you’ll need to negotiate with the board president. Some board presidents like to guide the agenda, sometimes the Executive Director will do it. If your Board Secretary is not also the Recording Secretary (and frankly, shouldn’t be– have an intern take notes, please), then he or she might do it.

Action items
No one should walk away from any meeting, ever, without Something To Do. It can be major “put together corporate sponsor prospect list for Gala” or minor “invite your mother to the golf outing,” but no one should leave a meeting without something to do. Otherwise the meeting will feel like a waste of time (otherwise the meeting will BE a waste of time). Have your note-taker document who is doing what, and then follow up the next day, just past the deadline for the item, and just before the next meeting, to track it. People will feel much better about meetings if the meetings create activity. On the agenda, this is the last thing on every topic, and it can just read “Action to be taken:_______”

Time limits
One hour. Okay, two hours. That’s it. Any meeting that goes past two hours is not a meeting it’s a suicide pact. Divide the number of topics by the amount of time you have, and that’s how much discussion you get on each topic. (So, statutory items-finance-development-program 1-program 2-marketing-business-major issue=7 topics, 1 hour, max 7-8 minutes per topic. I’m not kidding) If you need more time on any given topic you either need a dedicated meeting, more interaction with critical stakeholders during the course of the day, or something has to come off the agenda.

Write down the time limit on the agenda. Stick to it. If something needs further discussion, it does to the department or committee and becomes your action item for that topic.

This is a way to guarantee a time limit. Invite a guest to come for the last 15 minutes of the meeting, to make a presentation of some sort. This can be some board or staff training, an interesting related power-point type presentation, a short talk on a pertinent topic, etc. Have a little cocktail hour afterwards. If you’ve got a guest cooling their heels, you’ll stay on time.

In other words, understanding how to write and use an agenda is really understanding how to have effective meetings that people look forward to and use to be more effective members of your organization.