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by Joan Garry


Ready to take your leadership to the next level? Join me in the presentation replay of the 5 Practices Of Outstanding Nonprofit Leaders.


My coaching client seemed breathless. I noted some clock-watching. Tried not to take it personally and worked to keep him present in the discussion we were having. Based on his behavior, it seemed like maybe we were having the wrong conversation.  

So I pivoted. Can we talk about your calendar for the day? Maybe we should chat about how you are using your time.

He puts his head in his hands. “I started at 8:30 and will go straight through until about 7 pm with no white space. At all. No time to get any real work done.”

My client is a smart guy and knows that a day with back-to-back meetings is not a recipe for success and can be a fast pass to burnout. I wasn’t going to tell him he needed more white space on his calendar. He knew that already.

Instead, I asked him a simple question. I asked him to scan his meetings in real time with me and tell me which ones he was truly looking forward to, intellectually stimulating meetings. Would any meetings present opportunities for creative or generative thinking?

I sat quietly and it took him less than 5 minutes. None he said. No waffling. None of the meetings would be fueling my client.

And so today I want to introduce you to a new way to look at your calendar. 


Let’s start with that premise. As a nonprofit leader, you have many diverse sets of responsibilities. That results in a lot of different kinds of meetings. I don’t have to list them for you – you can just look at your calendar and see them for yourself.

But time management is key. Do I believe you should leave a minimum of 30 minutes between meetings? To process the meeting you had, to get present for the next meeting, and maybe to use the facilities?  Absolutely.

Do I also think that there should be a half day or even a full day each week without meetings – for processing, writing, considering possibilities, and untangling a big knot? I do. And I encourage my clients to do just that. I believe with all my heart that if you don’t slow down, it is really, really hard to think big.


Stay with me. This is the important point: all meetings are not created equally. 

Let’s go back to my client. He was going to be in back-to-back meetings and not a single one of them was going to fire him up.

By the end of the day, he would be out of gas. And by the end of the week, he would be toast.  And “toast people” do not give the organization the best they have.

I asked him to do an exercise and I’m asking you to do the same.


Try this process. Take 30 minutes on a Friday afternoon and look at your calendar for the coming week.

Using a scale of (-10) to (+10) with zero being neutral, rate each meeting as if your head and your heart were a gas tank. Rate each meeting based on the amount of fuel you believe the meeting put into your tank. 

A positive 10 is an incredibly engaging meeting. Great ideas are going to flow, you plan to work together to find a creative solution to a problem, and you are brainstorming a new idea for how to deliver a program at a lower cost. 

A negative 10 is the exact opposite. The meeting will totally drain your tank.

Your meeting calendar should have a mix of ratings BUT you want to shoot for at least 50% of them having positive numbers, preferably higher than +5.  

This is how you will keep sufficient gas in your tank to do hard work well. This is how you will set yourself up to have a good week. Without a good number of refueling meetings, you will run out of gas. And your clients, your cause, and the community you serve can’t afford an executive director who is out of gas.


Before you accept the next meeting, think carefully about the meetings that you see will deplete you and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this have to be a meeting? Or could it be a Google Doc that circulates in which folks comment and the issue is resolved?

  2. Do YOU have to be there?

  3. What would have to be true for that meeting to move to a positive number? Different people at the meeting? A more strategic agenda? An enriching pre-read? Should someone else run it? Is it clear to everyone what the meeting is about?


You’ve said it, you’ve heard it.

“I can’t get any work done because I’m always in meetings.” 

We need to move to a place where meetings ARE work – these are the ones you will rate above a +5. We need to fix the meetings that we do have to transform them into fueling meetings that are true ‘work’.

You might always feel like you go to too many meetings. But great work happens at great meetings and great meetings put gas into your tank and you should ALWAYS be looking for opportunities to refuel. Your jobs are hard and eat up a lot of fuel.

Try this exercise for a few weeks and it’s possible that it might result in fewer meetings but that would be icing on the cake. Lots of meetings may just come with the territory. We all need to work hard and with greater intention to ensure that all the meetings on our calendars fire us up.

Time to manage the meetings and not have the meetings manage (and deplete) us.

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