lighthouse counsel logo
The Agenda: A Leader’s Power Tool

The Agenda: A Leader’s Power Tool

February 1, 2024
Howard Cohen

Week in and week out, one of the most valuable tools available to a leader is the meeting agenda. The agenda should structure and give direction to a team’s work; it can signal priorities and lay the groundwork for building common understandings about the work ahead. Constructing an agenda deserves careful, consideration. Agendas should be distributed well in advance of a meeting. Agendas that are not distributed in advance or that are limited to boilerplate are wasted opportunities.

Meeting participants need time to prepare for and digest the topics that will be discussed and to absorb supporting materials. Serious discussion of serious issues needs time for preparation and reflection. If possible, a meeting agenda and supporting materials should be distributed at least a week in advance. Absence of preparation time invites snap judgments that may fail to foresee the unintended consequences of a decision.

Well-constructed agendas signal the relative importance of matters to be discussed. Items at the top of an agenda generally get the most attention. Items at the end often are short-changed for lack of sufficient time. 

If an item needs serious thought, slot it early in the meeting. As a meeting progresses, fatigue or impatience may set in and attention may wander.

Late in a long meeting participants may be thinking of the next thing they have to do or of the possibility that they are about to be late for an upcoming engagement. 

Items at the top of an agenda are likely to get participants’ freshest thinking. As a corollary, it is best to leave announcements and routine matters for the end of the meeting by putting them at the bottom of the agenda. Even better, many items discussed at a meeting could be handled in a memo or an email. 

Ideally, an agenda should not be filled with so many items that they cannot be addressed in the time allotted for the meeting. Think through the amount of time that might be required for a considered discussion of each agenda item and indicate that amount of time along with the entry. Discussion time for more important items generally can be extended, if necessary (particularly if the items that follow are of lesser importance). Of course, this observation does not hold true for items that are near the end of the agenda when time is running out.

Managing an agenda includes managing the discussion of each agenda item.

It is up to the meeting chair to keep participants on point and to (gently) bring meandering discussion back to relevancy. It also is up to the meeting chair to “read the room.” If a meeting participant is noticeably silent, it is a good idea to ask that person for thoughts or observations. The same goes for participants who look unhappy with the discussion or who seem frustrated by it. It is up to the chair to ensure that everyone who wants to speak on a topic is given the time to do so.

A good way to end a meeting (making it the last item on the agenda) is to designate some time for the participants to comment on the value of the meeting. Was it a good use of their time? Did the participants make progress on the issues discussed? Did any of the agenda items need deeper discussion? How might these meetings be improved in the future? 

This kind of collective self-reflection can help a team learn to function more effectively and more cohesively. Although this item is not least important (contrary to my previous advice about item placement) it really does need to occur at the conclusion of the meeting. It is, after all, an assessment of the team’s ability to handle the previous items well. The cart needs to follow the horse.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.