Effective chairing skills

Proactive leadership keeps meetings on track

Although holding meetings is part and parcel of business life, if a survey were conducted on the top five least favourite business activities, attending meetings would feature prominently. Ideally, meetings are vehicles which allow business to be transacted efficiently and effectively; they should be stimulating, motivating and even fun. Unfortunately, the converse is often true with many falling far short of the ideal.

However, even where the participants are willing and able and the topic agenda is focused, meetings can still end up as frustrating and boring affairs due to poor chairing skills. There are a variety of reasons why meetings fail. Lack of proper control is often cited. Because of the need to work closely with the chair before, during and after the meeting, a particular victim of poor chairing skills is often the minute taker. In discussions with delegates on the CGIUKI course ‘Effective Minute Taking’, problematic issues with the chair are a recurring theme.

Typically a chair assumes the role based on seniority, technical expertise or a combination of the two.  Training in the art of holding a successful meeting may be overlooked or even deemed unnecessary.

The leader

Essentially, the role is that of a leader. A good leader works towards a clearly defined set of goals and inspires others to follow in pursuit of those goals. Although an element of control may be exercised, this is done with a view to maximising the collective contribution from team members. In essence, successful leaders achieve goals through people.

In any meeting, the principal goal is to arrive at – and record – a number of key decisions on the agenda items. The chair must keep a tight focus on the meeting’s objectives and manage the meeting in an orderly fashion. Discussion on each agenda item needs to be sufficiently long to allow for the presentation of context and the airing of all the varying perspectives but short enough to ensure that the discussion remains on track. In an effective meeting, discussions take place in a professional manner, are not overly argumentative and embrace the contributions of all the participants.

This sounds reasonably straightforward but to achieve it requires considerable skill. The chair must be a good planner, organiser, motivator, delegator and time manager. Personal qualities are also important. The role requires excellent communication, assertiveness, enthusiasm, listening skills and emotional intelligence. To meet the challenge, three aspects need to be considered: careful planning before the meeting, capability during the meeting and critical evaluation after the meeting.

Planning

The first stage of planning is to understand the nature, purpose and objectives of the meeting. Know exactly why the meeting has been called and the overall purpose. It is then easier to keep the meeting on course. This includes knowing the objectives of each agenda item and the areas where decisions are required. This information should then be shared with the minute taker. If the minute taker is aware of the key decision points, it will be easier to record them. If necessary, the chair ought to undertake research prior to the meeting to ensure familiarity with the key themes, objectives and areas of possible contention.

The chair, within reason, needs to be aware of and understand the varying perspectives of the participants. Each person comes to the meeting with particular views, opinions and objectives because these will feed into the discussions. It is helpful to know beforehand any areas of possible contention, vested interests and likely political manoeuvering. This can be achieved – at least in part – by researching the historical background surrounding the item being placed on the agenda and by speaking to individuals. Talking to those attending before the meeting is good practice as it provides the opportunity to build enthusiasm and foster a collaborative spirit.

The agenda

A capable chair begins the meeting on time and aims to cover the opening items of the meeting reasonably quickly. ‘Apologies for absence’, ‘minutes of the last meeting’ and ‘matters arising from the minutes’ are fairly standard items which should be dealt with quickly. Although brief updates may be required under ’matters arising’, this section cannot swallow up too much time. The majority of the time will be allocated to the agenda items that follow, as they are the core of the meeting.

The purpose of each of the main agenda items should be explained and discussion on each item effectively time managed. Provide frequent summaries with regard to the key arguments and the decisions reached. Where actions arise from the decisions taken, ensure that everyone understands what these are, who is responsible for them and the agreed timescales for completion. ‘Any other business’ includes important and urgent issues, cleared through the chair, that would have been on the original agenda had they been known in time.

Participation

An effective chair encourages active participation. Understand the personality types in the group and develop strategies to ensure an overall balanced contribution. It may be necessary to manage the time allowed for contributions from talkative participants by interrupting in an assertive way, summarising the point and moving on and by limiting the number of times they contribute on a particular topic.  

More timid participants will need to be actively drawn into the discussion through focused questioning and encouragement. To avoid tension and conflict, the chair sets the example throughout the meeting, keeping tempers in check and avoiding personal attacks or displaying aggressive body language.

Acknowledging items likely to cause conflict and prefacing the discussion with an appeal for a level-headed debate will help. Assertive body language where disruption persists – such as standing up – can be an effective display of authority and serve to bring the meeting to order. In some situations, taking a short break or even deferring the item to another agreed time may diffuse the situation.
Interpersonal exchanges are a key part of managing the meeting. A useful memory aid which highlights the personal qualities required is the CHAIR mnemonic: commendation, humour, appreciation, insight and respect.

Sincere and appropriate commendation for participants’ contributions will likely stimulate further participation and appropriate use of humour can ease tensions and take the heat out of potentially explosive situations. The chair should express appreciation for the efforts made by participants, not just in the meeting itself but in terms of preparatory activities undertaken and efforts made to implement the agreed actions. Insight will help to look beneath the surface and understand why participants act the way they do – which is particularly important where sensitive topics are being discussed. The chair must accord respect to everyone in the group, acknowledging their right to be there and valuing their role. Promoting this spirit within the meeting is important.

Critical evaluation

Afterwards, the chair should critically evaluate the meeting’s effectiveness and reflect on key points (see box). If this reveals areas requiring improvement then these can be addressed prior to the next meeting.

Everyone involved in chairing meetings in organisations at whatever level should pay attention to the essential elements of meeting preparation, meeting execution and post-meeting evaluation. Taking ownership of the development of the range of chairing skills will contribute positively to the effectiveness of meetings and by extension, the quality of the decision-making processes within organisations.

Rob Robson ACIS is a principal lecturer at the University of Greenwich Business School and author and course presenter at TMF Training

Search ICSA