The (two) Elephant(s) in the Room


Nostalgic about meetings. Can’t believe I’m getting nostalgic about meetings.

Today I sat in my first full Exec meeting of the new year. Of all the things that make this job worth doing, meetings are probably not sitting right at the very top of the list. No, let’s be honest, meetings are the bain of college life for most people who work in colleges.

In my time here I’ve developed numerous strategies for making meetings more interesting/participative/purposeful* (*delete as appropriate). I claim to have pioneered the concept of putting a meeting agenda on shuffle play, which was a ruse to keep people interested in my meetings by not letting them know what would happen next. The ruse lost its sense of cutting edge innovation with the demise of the CD player.

I also tried the agenda-less meeting and pilfered a colleague’s idea of issuing the minutes of a meeting at its start so that people would a) know what I wanted them to decide in the first place and b) be liberated then to discuss unminuted whatever it was they really wanted to discuss instead.


And then of course there were the meetings at which we would finish by agreeing tenure of the ‘portable’ Secret Garden. The garden was commissioned from the Horticulture team and designed to be easily maintained and sit neatly on top of a standard filing cabinet. It was also designed to be easily portable, which it was, unless you made the mistake of watering it first, before you portered it.

At the end of each meeting the key item of AOB was who would be responsible for the garden until the next meeting. The person left holding the garden at the end of the year got to keep the garden. It didn’t feel like a reward. The garden was a minor act of rebellion against my predecessor who in demanding to know everything that was going on had once said in a meeting, “There are no secret gardens”. Well, now there was.

I sat in this most recent Exec meeting in reflective mood, wistful almost for the myriad meetings that have peppered my time in this sector. And so my mind was drawn inevitably to the former colleague and all-round good egg who was sometimes known as “Harry the Spy”.

I’m not sure that Harry was ever a real bona fide spy in the James Bond sense of the word, but as a youngster he took to sea with the Merchant Navy and during the second world war was given a camera by someone with a Home Counties accent and told to take pictures of anything interesting when the ship sailed into a foreign port.

To the teenage Harry I’m sure there were no shortage of interesting things to be seen when sailing into war-time foreign ports. I’m also sure that asking the young Harry to spy in this way was putting him in not inconsiderable danger should he ever be caught. He was never caught.

The more mature Harry that I had the privilege of working with at the very end of his career had three special talents that set him apart from mere mortals. Firstly, in true James Bond style, or perhaps more in true X-Men style, Harry was a human gadget. He was a human Speak-your-weight machine.

One of Harry’s roles was to ensure the successful distribution of learning materials and equipment anywhere in the UK or beyond. Harry’s unique talent was that he could pick up any box of any size and tell you to the nearest pound how much it weighed and how much it would cost to courier it to its intended destination. OK, so not the most remarkable superpower you’ve ever heard of, but it always impressed me.

Harry’s second great talent was artistic. Harry could produce the most intricate and life-like line drawing of the rear end of an elephant that I have ever seen. And he did this every Friday afternoon from two o’clock until about four, practice making the elephant-drawing perfect.

Coincidentally, the team meeting for the group that Harry worked in was also held on a Friday afternoon. Such was the utter tedium and shockingly inane nature of the meeting that the only way Harry could stay both awake and sane through to the end of it was by focussing every ounce of concentration on the creation of his latest elephant.

Colleagues either side of him could gauge where they were in the agenda by the state of development on the writing pad of Harry’s rear view elephant. As the meeting progressed the grey of Harry’s pencil allowed the beast to emerge, lumbering buttocks, delicate swishing tail, round cumbersome feet. By the end of the meeting a distant hint of trunk and tusks could just be seen.

Harry’s third gift, and my gift to you now, was as a coiner of phrases. One particular phrase has entered into the working vocabulary of this organisation and any other organisation where people who knew Harry still work.

There are meetings when you begin to sense that not only is this meeting not going to get anywhere useful, but it is going to take a very long time not to get there. On one dismal Friday afternoon, Harry and his team were in just such a meeting. It was the sort of meeting that didn’t seem to have a Chair, but more of a Chaise Longue instead.

As the painful truth began to dawn at last on Harry, and the prospect of escaping the tedium disappeared beyond the elephant into the distant jungle, he turned to the colleague on his left and uttered the fateful words:

“Gordon”, he said glumly, pencil in hand. “I’m afraid this is going to be a two elephant meeting”.


About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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