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Pump up the Volume

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Here The Elbow tackles noise pollution. Well no, not really – she wants to talk to you about talking and offers some suggestions on how to get more people talking in meetings. Not at once obviously but sometimes hearing a new voice would be nice.

Next time you are in a meeting either virtual or face to face (socially distanced please) have a think about;

  1. Who asks the questions? Who offers the challenge?

  2. Is this the same person(s) all the time?

  3. Does anyone never make their presence felt?

  4. Is Group Think a Thing on your board? (Be honest. It happens more than you realise).

Remember though that you will not find the answers in the minutes because most of the time the questions are anonymised. Before you ask The Elbow is not a fan of naming names in minutes as governance is a corporate activity and responsibility. Have a look at your minutes and ask yourselves ‘are these a true and accurate reflection and record of the meeting?’ No verbatim minutes please. A chair asked The Elbow for verbatim minutes once – 30 pages later he was crying. Mind you so was she.

How can we make people talk in meetings The Elbow hears you cry? Well, she is no expert but how about trying one of the following;

  • Think about (when it is safe to do so) the layout of your meeting room. The Elbow has blogged on this before. Too close together and people look over your shoulder; too far away and you can nod off and no one will notice. If you are around a board table – where does the Chair sit? At the head of the table with their papers spread out before them like a barrier of well papers? In the middle? What The Elbow is trying to say somewhat inelegantly as usual is this – does the Chair lead and direct from the top like a general conducting the troops or do they guide gently from the side lines; leaning back to get others to talk? Are people too coupley? You know what The Elbow means – always sitting next to the same person in meetings like they are the equivalent of a governance comfort blanket? Be brave! Sweeping generalisation of course but you get the picture. And before you ask The Elbow is certainly no expert at chairing though she does a lot of it. Her key message is never, ever, ever take the meeting room for granted. You need to be prepared for the unexpected.

  • Think about where the clerk sits. Next to the Head? Next to the Chair? In between them? Do your meetings feel like the governors are in the dock with the Chair laying down the law? Does the clerk sit on the other side of the table so they can nod, wink or raise an eyebrow in clear sight of the Chair? Mind you there is no way to pass notes in class if that is the case – you know things like ‘get on with it’ or ‘you forget item 7’ or worse actually telling you what questions to ask. Clerks should never be seen and not heard (they are no chairing or governing but clerking after all) but they must go through and not over or around the Chair. Not likely a ghostly apparition obviously but in a way that makes appropriate impact. Whooooooo.

If you have quiet governors you might want to think about quietly encouraging them by either;

  • Offering opportunity to ask questions for the meeting in advance (don’t forget to cc the clerk).

  • Preparing an agenda which has clear Key Lines of Inquiry or suggested questions – this is not spoon feeding but confidence building. We are not here to test each other or swipe the legs out from under the Head in meetings by asking awkward questions. Yes to challenge; no to power games. Yes to holding to account; no to aggression.

In terms of pumping up that volume The Elbow wants you to stop and think about whether your agendas really focus on who matters? Get that bit right and the what matters (such as compliance) will fall more easily into place. Let’s hear more about the impact of our decisions and actions on pupils and staff at audit committee meetings as well as standards meetings and pump the volume on the difference we make. One hopes that this is a positive difference; if it isn’t tone it down a bit and refocus.

And finally as The Elbow always says when in doubt – ask.

Thank you for reading.


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