Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Making minutes count after a meeting

Writing minutes of meetings offer interesting challenges. They must be neither too long nor unduly brief, just capturing the objective essence of what happened.

We usually don’t need to know who said what, for they are not transcripts, but we must record who is to follow up on what and by when. Sounds quite straightforward, yes?

Not necessarily. For instance, when I am the chairman of a board or of a board committee I often find I need to offer guidance to the minute-taker.

They will be very formally trained legal people, with equally formal company secretarial qualifications… all absolutely necessary.

However, what I often see is that they have been taught to be so focused on being technically compliant with good governance, applying standard structures and styles, that they can miss out on the spirit of a meeting.

Sure, they record who was present and who gave their apologies, tell us we confirmed the minutes of the previous meeting, identify the decisions we took, show the date of the next meeting… all those obvious elements.

But what about when someone praises an individual or a group, for instance?

In my experience, too many stiff-upper-lip minute-takers feel that’s too frivolous, too human, to include.

Chances are they even switch off listening, convinced it’s not part of their job to record other than hard facts and figures, decisions and actions.

Forget the soft stuff, keep to the point. This is not story-telling, they would protest. We are not there to entertain or to educate, just to inform.

No smiling, no frowning, we are mere dispassionate observers seeking compliance with our professional best practice.

And yet, and yet…surely it’s OK where appropriate to switch from being a robotic technical recorder to becoming a more relaxed and informal reporter – or “rapporteur”, as recorders of other events such as conferences and workshops are called.

So particularly when I am chairman of a meeting I observe when the minute-taker is and is not writing or keying in what is being discussed.

If I feel they have not been doing so and in my view, they should, I will prompt them to ensure they do.

I also encourage them that when they are uncertain as to how to record something, they should feel free to seek guidance from the rest of us during the meeting.

And if I sense that what has just been handled is not so obvious as to how to write it up, I will ask them to share how they propose to, so they and we can feel relaxed that all is well.

It’s vital that minutes be written and circulated as soon after a meeting as possible, and not only so that those actioned with follow-ups can be reminded to get going with their obligations in good time, but so we still remember clearly enough what happened at the meeting and can confirm the accuracy of the minutes.

It’s good too to circulate a draft in advance, at least to the chairperson, who then can act as a quality controller.

I like it when minute-takers key straight into their laptops during meetings rather than write on paper and transcribe their notes later, as it’s then more likely their product can be shared promptly.

And here’s another thought: as some do, have two columns on the right-hand side of the page, one for the “By whom” and one for the “By when”.

Plus, if by the following meeting the action has not been fulfilled and should have been, add a revised “By when” date – identified as having been updated.

On one board where I presently sit there’s a good practice I’d like to share with you: just before the next board meeting the minutes of the previous meeting are again circulated, but now with one-liner updates under each of the actions agreed at that earlier meeting, shown in a different colour and telling us whether the intended action has or had not been fulfilled, or if is in progress. Very helpful.

In other than board, board committee meetings, AGMs and additional official events, ones that are less formal and do not require the legal/secretarial skills of a minute-taker I often suggest it should be a revolving function, giving more people the opportunity to develop this important skill and to become more sensitive to other minute-takers in future. (I also suggest the chairing could revolve, for similar reasons.)

So, there being no further business, I declare this article closed. Date of next column: a fortnight from now, on chairing meetings. Please confirm attendance.