Every planner wants to have a meeting that allows attendees to put what they learn into action. Small meetings are ideal vehicles for making that happen — if they're done well. I had the chance to attend just such a meeting last fall: the first Continuing Medical Education Leadership in the 21st Century Conference.

The conference scored high in the three areas vital to creating a powerful, lasting educational experience: logistics, presenters and attendees, and the educational process. Here's how I thought they made the grade.

Area 1: Logistics

Facility: The conference was held at the R. David Thomas Executive Conference Center at Duke University, an ARAMARK Harrison Lodging property in Durham, N.C., a logical location because many of the faculty members were on staff at the university and its hospital, or were from nearby institutions. The 110-room facility is designed for this type of meeting. It has round-the-clock break food replenishment, and ergonomically designed furniture in the fully technologically equipped meeting rooms. Meals, which were served buffet-style, were outstanding, with options for everyone from the biggest meat-eater to the strictest vegetarian.
Grade: A+

Timing: The four-day conference began at 5:15 p.m. on a Saturday and ran to noon the following Wednesday, which left plenty of time for people to arrive and settle in — and pack and settle up. There was only one other group in-house, which meant we basically had the place to ourselves.
Grade: B+

Scheduling: The program started with networking breakfasts at 7 a.m., with sessions beginning at 8:15 and running almost continuously until 10 p.m. Organizers originally scheduled two hours of total break time per day, not counting meals, which were also scheduled as working time.

“Where's all that ‘ample time for independent study, recreation, exercise, and socializing,’ we read about in the brochure,” we whined. The organizers listened and canceled some of the activities for the first night. They continued to shift activities and delete some of the least essential over the course of the next several days.
Grade: A for effort

Area 2: Presenters and Attendees

Demographics: “Know thy attendees” is the first commandment for any meeting, and this one was no different. The faculty members were flawless in their knowledge base and in their dedication to achieving the meeting's objectives. Many never left the room, contributing to the conversations even during their “off” time. In fact, much of the most interesting information came from the faculty members batting around a topic among themselves and the participants.
Grade: A

Area 3: The Educational Process

Objectives and Desired Outcomes: We walked into the conference with a clear, albeit lofty, set of goals: to get help meeting individual leadership challenges; to develop a leadership alumni group and a community of leadership for the profession; and to enhance our leadership skills.

The organizers also had nine specific outcomes they wanted as a result of the conference, including translating research on learning and change into leadership imperatives, and using different perspectives on the future to create strategic visions and initiatives. They clearly articulated these outcomes ahead of time, and reiterated them at the start of the conference to reinforce the conference's focus.
Grade: A

The Process: What worked was giving participants a space in the conference binder to write notes relevant to their projects and related questions for further discussion. Everyone had brought along a challenge that they face on the job to work on at the conference, and by the meeting's end, all had come up with specific strategies to tackle their individual problems.

The mixture of formats used by the presenters helped to keep us focused and learning through the long days. Interactive lectures, panel discussions, and Q&As were followed up with small group breakouts to apply what we learned to a real-life case study. The mentoring program, where students had to opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty members, was surprisingly successful, especially considering that it was the last thing on each day's schedule.
Grade: A

Evaluation Plan: This started well before the conference when each participant was asked to write down and send to the faculty a challenge he or she was facing at work. The faculty then used these “challenges” to help focus the content to meet people's specific needs. Every morning, the program co-chair would review the previous day's evaluation comments and adjust the day's activities accordingly. He asked about everything, right down to the room temperature. A good chunk of the final morning was spent evaluating the conference.

The true measure of a meeting's greatness lies in whether attendees put the knowledge they gained to use. Here, faculty members planned to follow up with participants in a few months to see how they're progressing. But organizers also immediately set up a Web site where faculty could post new ideas, answer questions, and have alumni chat about the progress they're making overcoming their challenges.
Grade: A