My Quest for More Efficient Meetings: Tips from a Department Chair


As department chair, I found this voter gradient tool useful in preventing discussions from going long.

As department chair, I found this voting gradient tool useful in bringing discussions to a close in a timely manner.

Note from Pam: In his posts earlier this month, John Sabo described strategies for bringing together diverse faculty to draft a mission and vision for a new research center in limited time. Here, Leopold Leadership Fellow Karen Holl (2008) shares tips and a recent article about running regular meetings with faculty and lab groups effectively over the long term.

One of my pet peeves, and I’m guessing probably yours too, is needless and inefficient meetings. During my term as department chair, I made a strong effort to decide what topics really needed to discussed by the whole faculty. Many topics could be decided by smaller committees or made by executive decision, as long as I kept everyone informed and double-checked that there wasn’t major opposition (which there rarely was; I’m fortunate to be in a collegial department). When we did discuss topics as a group, I determined in advance what answer I needed out of the discussion and tried to design the most efficient plan to get to that endpoint.

I found a lot of tips in Sam Kaner’s 2011 book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Wiley & Sons) to be very helpful. I am a big fan of quickly brainstorming lists of ideas and then giving people a few votes of their top choices. That way, you spend time discussing the most promising ideas rather than one person’s pet project. I found that using a voting gradient tool like the one above was helpful when I thought it was time to cut off discussion. People rarely voted for #7, but they would have continued talking if it hadn’t been put to a vote.

Since I’m always looking for new ideas for limiting the number of meetings and putting participants’ time to best use, I read Jeff Grossman’s recent article on “Regrouping the Group Meeting” in the Chronicle of Higher Education with great interest. He focuses primarily on lab group meetings but a lot of the suggestions could apply to many other situations. Here are a few of his tips:

1. Agree on a meeting format. It’s important to have this discussion with regular participants so that the format meets their needs and they buy into the process.

2. Keep presentation time to a minimum and allow more time for discussion. I can’t tell you how many times I have been involved with working groups with many very busy people that start with long individual presentations. They often run over time limits, and the discussion time at the end is cut short. I wonder, “Why did we all travel here when we could have read X’s papers on this topic?” Group meeting time should be primarily used for discussion that engages the wealth of knowledge present, rather than “squandering the opportunity,” as Grossman says.

3. Have clear ground rules for staying on time and topic, and enforce them. I like Grossman’s suggestion of a gavel and a sheriff’s badge. I have found that a sand timer, which doubles as a talking stick, works well as an unobtrusive announcement that one’s time is up. Grossman suggests taking turns with the police person role.

4. Require presenters to have an “ask” of the group. I make a similar recommendation to my students to think about what specific feedback they want from our group and then tailor their presentation to the background information for that ask.

5. Allow time at the end for one-on-one meetings. This is a need I saw in my faculty meetings. Since it was the one time people knew they would see other faculty, folks were scrambling in the two minutes before and after the meeting to have important one-on-one discussions. In the future, I can see that scheduling time for that purpose could be quite useful and save time in the long run.

I encourage you to read Grossman’s article and John Sabo’s two recent posts on brainstorming meetings to develop mission and vision statements. What are your best tips for effective meetings? Leave a comment.

Karen Holl, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz whose expertise is in restoration ecology (

Breaking Ice and Controlling the Mike: How I Got a Faculty Brainstorm to Work


In addition to meeting design, good food was essential to the success of our meeting.

One of the most daunting leadership roles I have recently confronted is directing large groups of faculty to brainstorm. Here is the situation in a nutshell. Arizona State University has deep talent across a broad range of disciplines in food systems research. My task was to organize this talent, build a team and design a campus center that better reflected how the whole of this talent was much more compelling than the sum of its talented parts.

To do this I invited a group of 12-18 faculty to sit down for two separate two-hour sessions and brainstorm to build this center from scratch. I was skeptical that the large group would produce results, especially in only two hours. I have been to too many bad organizational meetings where introductions take half or more of the precious meeting time. I knew I had to borrow some newly learned skills from the Barefoot part of our Leopold Leadership training last June. But which ones? And more importantly, would my adaptations go down in flames and hinder rather than propell the brainstorming process?

Here is what I rolled out from the Barefoot toolkit to pull this off:

Staffing and design

To help design and run the meeting, I created a coaching staff consisting of a postdoc with PhD-level experience in food systems; a proposal writer and business development specialist; and a contracts specialist with experience running large grants for multidisciplinary teams in the sustainable agriculture research space. This team was pivotal. We met three times and co-designed the content of the brainstorming meetings. My coaching staff designed a 5-minute survey to quickly synthesize faculty perceptions of: a) their own research in food systems; and b) the areas of food systems they thought ASU was strong in. We used the differences (contrasts) between the two sets of responses as a springboard for discussion.

Meeting 1: Introducing the idea of the center and building the team

The first meeting was attended by nearly 18 faculty, a few postdocs and a few graduate students. The participants represented ASU’s four valleywide campuses, so some of them commuted to make the meeting. The group was very diverse — from Justice Studies to Engineering, from Law to Biosciences, and everything in between. I knew I had to honor the value of faculty time — I had two hours of their day to work with and I had to make the best of it.

To do this, I used Think-Pair-Share as an ice breaker. The logic for using this brainstorming tool out of sequence, so to speak, was that I needed to build new relationships — between faculty from different units and campuses — and I needed to take the mike away from the “long talker” during introductions. You know who I am talking about. The goal of the Think-Pair-Share was this: 1) Think about a 1-2 sentence reaction to the survey results, 2) tell your partner your name, unit, research interest and “survey reaction,” and 3) your partner shares that info with the group as a whole which doubles as an introduction.

I have to admit I was nervous. Would this strategy work? When I rolled it out, I could see the disbelief in some of the participants eyes. “Really? You mean I can’t just sit here and peck on my phone while you drone on?” The initial reaction reminded me of suggesting a board game at a boring New Year’s Eve party.

There was hesitation and disbelief, initially. But the best part of this meeting was that almost everyone who was skeptical eventually thoroughly enjoyed the process of meeting a new faculty member and delivered thoughtful, succinct introductions of their partner and the information from the survey. The meeting kicked off with an effervescent start that didn’t quit bubbling through til the end. I had research deans come up to my coaching staff afterwards and tell us that our meeting was one of the best they had attended.

I think the key to success was: a) breaking up the monotony of introductions; b) taking away the mike from the “long talkers;” c) getting a big group to tackle the tasks at hand in pairs; and d) creating collective responsibility for achieving the meeting goals.

This experience taught me a lot about how to manage large faculty meetings effectively. The most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Grassroots is essential: Participants in a successful organizational meeting must feel that they have power to influence the outcomes of the meeting.
  • Break the ice and control the mike: Introductions are a waste of precious time, but breaking the ice is essential. Participants will in most cases follow the meeting rules and behave better when charged with telling the group about someone other than themselves and this will also serve as an ice breaker, saving precious time.
  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Don’t forget the food: This was a lunch meeting about food systems, after all. Sharing food is a natural way to build community and trust which will lead to better collaborations.

In my next post, I’ll describe how we built on the trust and momentum built in this first meeting to create a compelling vision and set of goals for our center. What are your best tips for leading faculty meetings? Leave a comment.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

“Feeling the Jazz”: Lessons in Mentoring from an Old Friend


Bob Denno (photo M. Peterson)

Exactly 6 years ago to this week, I got one of those phone calls that you hope you never get. The caller ID said it was my old friend and post-doc advisor, Bob Denno, calling me at home. Typical for him. But on the other end of the line was his wife, Barb, calling to say that Bob had just suffered a massive heart attack and died while doing research in the field. He was 62.

I often think about my old friend and mentor. It’s hard to overstate the effect Bob had on my academic life. Many of us who knew and loved him consider ourselves fortunate to have worked with him. He was a major figure in the field of insect ecology. I was influenced by his way of asking questions and doing science even if we didn’t see eye to eye on everything. He had a brilliant way of explaining things and distilling complex ideas to their essence.

But it isn’t the science per se that has had a long-term effect on me. It’s all the unspoken things that he did as a mentor that still affect me daily.

Bob once said to me, with his southern California surfer drawl, “Dude, the science is easy, it’s the people that are hard.” It took me years to really appreciate what he was talking about. Sure, doing science is hard, but it is harder still to successfully train really good scientists. Here are a few important lessons he taught me about mentoring:

1. Mentor = coach

Bob taught me that being a successful mentor is like being a coach. We bring talented young men and women into our research groups, people with great potential who have demonstrated some sort of flair and enthusiasm for the areas in which we work. Yet, no matter how brilliant and capable they were in their previous lives, they don’t know how to navigate the new and foreign world of graduate school. Here, they learn how to be independent, how to push beyond what we know, and to always question dogma and authority. They need to become comfortable in the land of no concrete answers.

How do you help them do this? Bob found little things in each of us — blocks, deficiencies, weaknesses, call them what you want — and subtly pointed them out. If we were willing to hear what he had to say, we could start the hard work of improving ourselves.

2. Encouragement is key

Bob had a way of pushing and encouraging you in just the right amounts. I recall one sweltering summer in the punkie-infested salt marshes of New Jersey, when we had run up against a wall in a set of studies we’d been doing for a two years. Nothing was working, and I think Bob sensed that I was losing faith after a long stretch of failures. But as we collected the final samples, some obvious patterns emerged. Now it looked like the experiments were panning out, and we both started to get excited. Bob turned to me and said, “Do you feel the jazz?” At that moment, I certainly did.

Bob and me in NJ salt marsh (photo C. Gratton)

In academic work, there are (usually) more setbacks than successes. For a student or a post-doc, those failures can be crushing and make you question why you are doing this in the first place. (For faculty, it’s very different: we can buffer failures in one project with successes in another.) Maybe Bob sensed that I needed that broader perspective, or maybe he was just as excited as I was about what we were finding. It didn’t matter. His enthusiasm was infectious – when we do feel the jazz, it’s all worth it. I needed to be reminded of that; what we do can be immensely rewarding and downright fun, if we’re present enough to appreciate it.

3. Have fun

When Bob died, our extended family of “Denno-ites” came together to share stories of how he touched our lives. It’s interesting how few focused on the science. Merrill Peterson, another former post-doc of Bob’s (now a professor at Western Washington University), distilled our reflections into a list of “Lessons from Bob,” a copy of which I have hanging in my office:

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Never forget that just about anything, when viewed from the right angle, can be funny
  • You’re never too old to have a 12-year-old’s sense of humor
  • Work on something you are passionate about
  • When you get knocked down (by reviewers, failed experiments, life’s curveballs), get right back up swinging
  • Surround yourself with people you care about and work doggedly to support them

The last three are what motivate me every day to be a better scientist and mentor: love what you do, and work hard to help develop your people around you.

Although mentoring doesn’t come easily, and we are rarely coached on how to do it, it is among the most important things we do. Who was an important mentor in your academic life, or even your non-academic life (not like it’s easy to separate the two!)? What were their “life lessons” or words of wisdom to you? Were there key moments in your mentoring relationship that changed the way that you mentor your own students? Leave a comment.

Claudio Gratton, a 2013  Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of Landscape and Insect Ecology in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Read more about his group and follow him on Twitter.

Developing Relationships Is Important Work: It Supports All the Other Work

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

We were nearly an hour into the first meeting of the Boreas Student Advisory Team, and you might think we hadn’t done much. No data presented. No brainstorming lists created. No reports given. No decisions made. But I was very pleased with what was happening.

I run the Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota. Boreas works with graduate and professional students on developing leadership skills, networks and practices to change the world. Each year we form a student advisory team to help improve our programming.

Sharing stories

Back to the first meeting of the Student Advisory Team. We were taking the time for each person to tell her story, and we all listened. There were no surreptitious glances at smart phone screens around the table. Several months later I can remember most of the stories. We heard stories from a policy student back in school to figure out next steps after years spent working with HIV-affected teens in Kenya and a PhD ecology student who lobbied on federal climate legislation before starting graduate school to pursue her love of research. A horticulture student I’ve known for a couple years confirmed his dreams of running a sustainable farm, but surprised me with something I’d not heard before: the story of his overseas military service. Each person took 5 or 6 minutes to share his life story and his hopes for future career and impact. It took about an hour.

I’d set up this part of the meeting with a simple idea. Relationship before task. I explained that in work situations, including academia, we often want to jump right into the task at hand, trying to make progress quickly. We forget that great work, transformational work, takes more than jumping into action. To do the work that needs to be done, especially hard work like moving toward a more sustainable society, will take great leadership. Great leadership is hard, but it’s made easier when leaders have the kinds of relationships that offer both support and well-meaning accountability. After explaining my reasoning for starting our work together by having us share our stories, I modeled that process by sharing my own life story. And I was pleased as others followed my example.

Building relationships in a climate network

I got the idea of “relationship before task” from my time with a group of people called the Young Climate Leaders Network. This group is an informal network of climate leaders who help make progress toward climate solutions, from starting an innovative solar business, to getting elected or running far-reaching issues campaigns. We were brought together for three retreats over the course of year in order to facilitate relationships and the development of game-changing strategies.

At the first meeting, our professional facilitator reiterated the idea of “relationship before task” again and again, posting it in our meeting space and structuring nearly the entire agenda for the first three-day retreat around building relationships. When you have a bunch of people who want to get things done, it can be hard to remember that relationships of deep support and compassionate accountability will ultimately facilitate better leadership in all of us. However, we all reflected on the idea that this focus on relationships mattered in our work as a network and as individuals. I expect experiences in the Leopold Leadership Program are similar.

Seeing results with graduate students

The story of how we began our work in the Boreas Student Advisory Team this year may not sound like much, but I’ve found it to be amazingly helpful for creating strong team dynamics that allow us to work effectively together. The team socializes with each other and holds each other accountable for showing up for different parts of the programming. We’ve already made progress on a community-building idea called the Boreas Booyah!, and I’m excited to see how it develops.

“Relationship before task” is a simple three-word mantra I use to slow down and be intentional about understanding where each student is coming from and where she is hoping to go. I’ve used it as a focus in creating conditions in the Boreas program in which students can develop their own supportive culture, a culture I believe will promote individual and collective leadership development. I expect it could be used in developing lab cultures as well as productive relationships within wider professional networks.

As we transition into a new year and a new semester, there will be many tasks at hand. We’ve also just come through a season in which we focus on relationships with family and friends. Perhaps this year it will be useful to bring some of that relationship focus alongside our focus on tasks and see what kind of transformations we can create.

What’s working for you in building relationships with others who are working on change initiatives? Leave a comment.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.

A Vision for Research: Revisited

Hellmann_mission_blogpost2_imageA bit more than a year ago, my lab and I spent a day trying to figure out who we were and what we were about. We wanted to express this identity to ourselves—to help keep us on track and to give us purpose—and we wanted to express it to the outside world. I blogged about the process that we used in our self-exploration, and it’s been great to see other labs, like Chris Buddle’s, give it a try and share their wisdom.

From that process—the process of articulating a mission and vision for our research group—my students and I learned a number of things about ourselves. We learned that we all have different research questions (though the PI shares most of them!); we have different research methods and different stages of career. But we share a common objective. We work to see ecology and climate science inform decisions that protect people and nature. We also all strive for excellence in the work we do. Writing this shared vision down helped—a least for a little while—bring the lab together.

A vision statement should be something you want your organization to hope to achieve, something that reflects your goals and ambitions. A good vision statement should be something like Teach for America’s: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” This vision doesn’t say a thing about the tasks that teachers do.

In making a statement for our lab, we brainstormed about how we want the world to be and how we want it to be changed or improved through our scientific work. In the day-to-day life of science, teaching, and research, we tend to emphasize productivity, mastery, and progress, the number of papers and grants. But a vision is the reason you do all of those things. Vision also is something that grad students, postdocs, undergrads, and even PIs don’t get to talk about and write down everyday.

Today, I find that we don’t reference our vision, or our mission, statement as much as we probably could or should. We mention it from time to time in lab discussion. We introduce it to new members of the lab. But I now think that group visioning should be a repeated exercise. The statement should be re-crafted from time to time. I also think that the activity of making the vision statement may be more important than having the statement itself, at least from the point of the view of group dynamics.

Our current vision statement does help me as a PI, however. As our group grows and the scope of our work steadily expands, there are more and more opportunities, different directions we could head, different projects we could initiate, and different students we could take on. I think frequently about whether a new project or a new collaboration will advance our vision, as much as I think about whether it will lead to good papers or new streams of funding.

So I think that visioning with a research group is a good idea, maybe not just once but periodically. It doesn’t have to be a formal process, and folks like Chris Buddle and Elena Bennett have a number of good ideas to share. Working with one’s research group to craft a collective mission and vision is just another way of stopping and taking stock. Taking stock provides clarity of purpose, and doing it as a group can elevate your collective endeavors to a new level.

Jessica Hellmann, a 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Read more about her work on her blog, Adapting Nature to Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.