Every religious meeting planner wants to have a meeting that results in more than just “seats in seats.” You want your 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 this fall: the first Continuing Medical Education Leadership in the 21st Century Conference.
While it wasn't perfect, the conference scored high in the three main areas that are vital to creating a powerful, lasting educational experience: logistics, presenters and attendees, and the educational process. And even though it was a medical leadership conference, its lessons translate well for religious leadership meetings that have a strong educational component.
Area 1: Logistics
Facility: The conference was held at the R. David Thomas Executive Conference Center at Duke University, Durham, N.C., a logical location because many of themembers 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, with strategically placed windows in most meeting rooms to let in natural light, round-the-clock break food replenishment, and ergonomically designed furniture in the fully technologically equipped meeting rooms. Meals, which were served buffet-style, were incredible, 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.
The weather was great, allowing attendees to wander around the campus during rare free time. There was only one other group in house, which meant we basically had the place to ourselves. Grade: B+
Scheduling: The program began 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. Every perspective was explored.
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 with each other 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 to happen 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
Educational Process: What worked was giving participants a space in the conference binder specifically for writing down notes relevant to their projects and related questions they would like to discuss further. The faculty reminded us to use those pages, and by the conference's end, everyone had specific strategies to tackle a challenge that they face at work, which they had brought along to work on during the conference.
The mixture of formats that presenters used 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 was surprisingly successful, seeing as it was the last thing on each day's schedule. We may have been bleary-eyed by 9 p.m., but we still lined up for the chance to pick the experts' brains one on one.
Humor was a key ingredient to the success of this conference. It was obvious the faculty all knew and respected each other, and had no problem calling each other out on misstatements, arguing a point, or making a joke. Intentional or not, it showed participants what a working leadership community looks and feels like, and it looked and felt like something we wanted to develop for ourselves. Grade: A
Evaluation Plan: This started well before the conference with the leadership challenges submissions, which were used to 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, down to the room temperature. A good chunk of the final morning was spent evaluating the conference.
The true measure of the conference's greatness lies in whether attendees put the knowledge they gained in the sessions to use. Faculty members planned to follow up with participants in a few months to see how they're progressing. But that's not enough reinforcement to keep the momentum going and actually develop an ongoing community of leaders, organizers decided. So they went to work immediately to 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