When Meetings Take Over

Lanet Hane
November 2014

Before returning to the camp profession, I spent a couple of years working in higher education as part of the ministry staff at a small liberal arts Christian college. Our department's job was to encourage faith development in students. Mine, in particular, was to encourage service and volunteerism. We planned events, themes, discussions, and a variety of other involvement opportunities for our 1,200 college students. To coordinate everything we were doing, from chapel to mission trips, service days to spiritual retreats, we had seemingly endless meetings.

Meetings exist to help coordinate people and, as leaders, we tend to have many people to coordinate. The more people we coordinate, the more meetings we usually have. Meetings are useful tools to productivity and certainly have their place, but people in leadership positions have a particularly hard time avoiding their encroachment. My department was no exception. We met together to plan student trainings, coordinate group schedules, choose themes, and make sure we were on the same page. Then we met individually with our own group leaders to plan service events, discussion groups, documentary viewings, clothing drives, and make sure everyone was well equipped. On top of all those meetings, we also met with staff outside our department, professors, community nonprofit leaders, pastors, principals, local government . . . the list continues. And then there were all the "coffee dates," which were really just more meetings in an informal setting.

I get tired just thinking of all the meetings we had.

And I was one of the lucky ones. That's right, I had the fewest meetings of anyone in my department. As a newer staff member, I wasn't asked to be on committees or required to attend meetings for department heads, and had fewer student leaders under my supervision. Averaging only two or three a day, I was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, who could literally spend their entire working day bouncing from one meeting to the next.

Moving back into the realm of camp, I was desperately excited to spend less time in meetings and to have more time available to get into the nitty-gritty details of running a healthy camp program. (I can almost hear you chuckling as you read this.) You can guess exactly what happened.

I was disappointed. Very disappointed.

Collectively, my colleagues and I have almost as many meetings to scramble to as at my previous employer.

Why?

As camp staff, each day is filled to capacity with activities, people, and problems that need our attention. We have paperwork to finish, marketing to accomplish, and other staff members to lead and support. And at least one minor catastrophe is sure to pop up, whether it be the toilets overflowing, severe weather rolling in, or a medical emergency in camp.

So each day we are required to make difficult decisions regarding which responsibilities can wait to be done at a later time. We need to be able to sift through everything and prioritize well. And if we are unwilling to leave some work undone we quickly burn out.

But even as we are struggling to do our jobs well, it seems outside forces are acting against us. Right after we manage to carve out time in our day to update the website (which sorely needs it), an e-mail notice tells us our best intentions have just been thwarted. Another meeting has been scheduled. And what for? It could be one of dozens of reasons — because we really do have meetings for everything:

  • To start our day on the same page
  • For new staff or volunteers
  • For unexpected decisions that need to be made
  • To discuss the budget
  • To talk about the new marketing or fundraising campaign
  • To address guest groups, volunteers, donors, board members, organization strategies, site improvements, recruitment, programs, speakers, housekeeping, catering, and coffee times

We even have meetings to talk about meetings. The sad truth is our days are made up primarily of meetings, and we have to cram our work into whatever time is left over.

Our main work has to fit into the remaining bits and pieces of time that we manage to scrape together.

Yes, we become so pressed to keep up with everything that we have no space for interruptions. We don't have time to stop in for coffee with our volunteers. We don't have space to really notice people. We don't have space to plan the types of meetings that will breathe energy into our lives. There's no time to think too far into the future, to evaluate the past as well as we should, or to even be fully present.

This is not okay — not at all.

And we know this is backwards. As leaders, we recognize the ridiculous nature of our reality and make sarcastic comments like, "Meetings are my life," or, "Yay! Another meeting!" We know something is wrong with this way of leading, but the practice is so engrained in the camp culture we assume no other options exist.

This is a sad falsehood. Our lives and our camps do not need to be run around the constant demand for meetings. And while meetings are certainly not the only culprit in our overbooked, over-stressed lives, they are a good place to start in the process of prioritizing and simplifying.

We can approach our jobs differently. Perhaps days filled with meetings can and should become the rare exception. We can take control of our workdays and use them well. But in order for this to be reality, we need to be united in that decision. We've got to come together with our fellow staff members and make careful decisions about the role and place of meetings in our organizations.

Collectively, we must decide:

  • The number of meetings has become ridiculous.
  • The length of meetings has become unnecessary.
  • We are going to think and work differently.
  • We are going to be okay making some decisions on our own.
  • We are okay not being involved in every decision. 

We must learn to trust our coworkers more completely, believing them to be capable of making decisions on their own. Without us. Not always, but often enough that we will be uncomfortable. Often enough that we will worry we've been too drastic in the changes, that we might even wonder if we should add just one more meeting back into our work schedules.

Above all, we need to remember that our work, our coworkers, and our campers are too valuable to be left with meager scraps of time. Meetings should be planned only when they are actually needed.

This will be a challenge.

We may be tempted to re-involve ourselves in every small decision, to re-introduce meetings to make sure we know exactly what decisions are being made. We will worry that we are shirking our responsibilities by delegating them to other people.

But if everyone is on the same page, we can handle the challenge, and we will gradually find we have fewer unnecessary meetings in our lives. Individuals will think twice before scheduling an extraneous meeting or allowing meetings to run longer than needed.

While every camp is unique, a few simple tips should help you and your staff create guidelines for considering ways to trim the excess:

  1. Prioritize
    Which meetings do you currently have that are really important, and for which pieces of your job do you absolutely have to make time? Put these into your schedule first, and be aggressive about keeping them priorities.
  2. Think about the meetings you dislike most.
    Ask yourself why you dislike them. Chances are the reason is they are time-wasters.
  3. Get away from the "weekly meeting" scenario. Most camp staff interact with each other frequently, so weekly meetings can be redundant. Consider going to bimonthly or monthly meetings instead.
  4. Use group e-mail.
  5. Create a meeting plan.
    Meetings can be much more effective, and as a result much shorter, if the facilitator comes in with a clear plan of attack. Know what needs to be accomplished, and make a plan to get it done.
  6. Assign pre-meeting homework.
    Planning staff training? Send out last year's schedule along with a request for people to think through what worked well and what should be changed. People will come into the planning session with some ideas ready to go. Even if everyone doesn't do the homework, they will at least know where you plan to go with the meeting and their minds will be focused.
  7. Ask if you can sit this one out.
    You don't need to go to every meeting, especially ones where you probably won't have anything useful to contribute.
  8. Create meeting days.
    As a staff, agree that you will only plan meetings on Mondays or Wednesdays. Or just Fridays. This won't cut out all your meetings outside the organization, but it will limit the number of meetings that can be scheduled in-house.

Meetings can be helpful tools, provided they are used when needed, to build up the staff and equip them that they may better serve their campers.

Lanet manages Networking and Connecting, a networking membership site that helps individuals develop confidence and capabilities in networking for business growth. Additionally, Lanet provides intergenerational communication workshops. She can be reached at lanethane@gmail.com.

Originally published in the 2014 November/December Camping Magazine.