Leading schools remotely: the principles of successful virtual meetings

Dr Terry McAdams explains how you can create high-quality virtual meetings in order to innovate quickly, adapt to rapid changes, and solve problems more effectively.

Written by Dr Terry McAdams, Branksome Hall Asia

Schools that have successfully adapted to online learning demonstrated one underlying theme - collaboration. Teachers reinvented their pedagogical practices and shared them to ensure that students were learning effectively from home. There has been a great deal written on this topic but few articles have considered the need for school leaders to strategize remotely.

This year, I have attended some virtual meetings that were highly productive, and others that were not. This has led me to reflect on what makes a productive virtual meeting. The negatives are easy to identify. People turn up late, don’t know how to use the technology correctly, complete other work instead of being focused on the meeting, try to talk over each other, fail to speak at all, and a number of other problems. The lack of visual cues and the increased fatigue from online meetings compounds the situation.

There are, however, several things that we can do to improve the quality of meetings, whether they are virtual or otherwise. The leader’s personality, the amount of preparation for the meeting, the appropriateness of the agenda, and the meeting schedule are all critical. However, the single most important factor is having an established team. A team that is connected and has a proven track record of collaboration. The best meetings are reliant on honesty and mutual respect, so discourse does not become disagreement. It is our emotional intelligence and intra-team relationships that allow us to voice our opinions and ensure our egos remain in check.

Few would argue with Aristotle’s sentiment that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Whether it is in sport or business, the most effective team does not necessarily contain the strongest individuals. A range of characteristics is much more desirable because it is collaboration, trust, honesty, and teamwork that makes a great team. If a team doesn’t already have trust and honesty, then the leaders should try to build it.

Some coaches of high-performing teams recommend strategies such as asking each team member to recognize an individual’s contribution. This is to ensure the team mindset is positively focused and it provides some accountability. A person whose name has not been mentioned for several weeks will be prompted to step up. While this strategy may be effective in some cultures, my experiences are negative. I find it transparently obvious, manipulative, and it can generate derision.

A much subtler technique is to open the meeting early and encourage those who are attending to arrive and chat with each other. This will allow people to bond and create a relaxed atmosphere before the meeting starts. If this fails, lead the conversation yourself but do not make it directly about work. Try to choose a positive topic or find an amusing story such as the Texan lawyer, Ron Ponton. who attended a virtual meeting with a cat filter replacing his face. Do not hesitate to change the topic if the conversation becomes a political rant or particularly negative.

As Ron Ponton found out, you should not attend a virtual meeting without learning to use the meeting platform effectively. You may not need to know all of the features but a number of them will prove useful. Prior to the meeting, practice using breakout rooms, public and private chat, screen sharing, interactive whiteboards, multiple logins with different devices, timers for agenda items, and waiting rooms. Be aware that the tools are there to enhance the meeting, not to demonstrate your IT skills.

Breakout rooms will make the meeting more interactive so that team members are not focused on other activities. You can randomly assign attendees to smaller groups or you can choose who is assigned to each sub-meeting. Think about this before the meeting starts because certain combinations may prove more effective when discussing particular topics. Also, consider the attendees’ time-zone and their preference for evenings or mornings. I will happily attend a meeting at 5 am but will be unproductive at 8 pm.

You might consider discussing the protocols for the virtual meetings or conduct a review on the effectiveness of a particular meeting. I realize that this is a meeting about meetings so you should only do it once. You do not want a situation where your team feels that they are being led around like cattle, pushed from one meeting to another with no say on the agenda or activities. The chat facility is a great way to privately inform a member that you intend to ask them to lead the next topic. It gives them notice in advance and allows them to reply if they do not feel comfortable with the request.

Make sure that attendees have access to the agenda and documents in advance of the meeting. While screen sharing is a great way to display documents, not everyone is necessarily connected to a computer. They may not be at their desk and are connected via their smartphone. This way, they will have had time to familiarise themselves with the documents. They may even have printed them off and made notes in advance. The more preparation time provided, the shorter the meeting and the more productive it will be.

Leadership teams that learned to create high-quality virtual meetings were in charge of the schools that created the highest quality online learning programmes. They were able to innovate quickly, adapt to rapid changes, and solve problems more effectively. The next big challenge for school leaders will be to build a new team, virtually. Collaboration and trust are integral to successful teams and creating these components virtually will take careful planning.

About the author: Terry is the Director of Technology, Research, and Innovation at Branksome Hall Asia, an International Baccalaureate (IB) school in South Korea that won the 2020 ISC International Award for developing future thinking innovators. As part of the senior team at Branksome Hall Asia, Terry was assigned overall responsibility for online learning. He has subsequently written two research papers on this topic and both will be published in forthcoming editions of the International Schools Journal. Terry was also interviewed by a Korean national newspaper (Maeil Business Newspaper), Study International, IB Community Blog, and this strategic initiative has been shortlisted for the 2021 ISC International Awards.

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