Management Consultant Mike Eldon

The art of chairing great meetings

In my last article, I wrote about minute-taking, and it led me to think about that other vital skill that is even more significant in making meetings work well or otherwise: how they are chaired.

And just like some minute-takers write too much and some write too little, so some who chair meetings talk too much or too little. Of course, it’s not just the quantity of talking, but the quality.

You and I have been in meetings where the chair has added great value – indeed saved them from confusion and indecision, time-wasting and excessive protocol… and hence from frustration and boredom.

We have been in others where the one meant to be leading everyone else and bringing them together has lacked the skills to fulfil their role. Others are somewhere in between.

How does a chair perform at meetings we look forward to attending? First, there is the preparation prior to the meeting, not only ensuring that the purpose and agenda are clear and agreed upon but consulting one-on-one to understand participants’ positions and lay the ground for good progress within the meeting.

Plus coaching weaker participants on how to contribute more effectively and with greater impact. Reviewing how meetings unfolded is also important.Within the meeting, the chair must nurture a culture of keeping time, so that they begin and end when they should, with the agenda covered and the most significant topics allocated appropriate space, and the overall purpose achieved.

The chair is responsible for this time and agenda management, and ideally with a light touch rather than a big stick.

The skill of managing meetings is, however, not merely the mechanical one of clock-watching and directing the verbal traffic, agenda item by agenda item.

Chairs must go beyond the purely “efficient” to knit a smooth flow that everyone follows easily, and generate a lively pace that keeps the energy and the engagement high.

They must generate conversations that build momentum within and between topics, acknowledging and linking contributions.

The chair must also be sensitive to the balance of contributions, so that no more senior or more naturally vocal members dominate, and no more junior or otherwise humble ones are left silent.

They themselves should not rush to express their views but introduce the topic and seek inputs from others before making their contribution and summarising the situation, with the proposed way ahead.

The term I like for chairpersons is that they are “facilitators”. Or, as we express it in my consulting firm, for everyone “to have a good time doing good things”.

The way the chair behaves should generate a feeling of psychological safety, where the participants are comfortable expressing their opinions openly and without fear.

The chair must at the right times seek ways of building consensus through encouraging a spirit of give-and-take, guiding those who disagree on negotiating to win-win outcomes.

Some years ago I explained in a column that how we interact relates to suggestions and described the different ways of contributing.

The first category is seeking suggestions from others – the role played by a leader. Then comes making a suggestion, and also building on a suggestion that someone else had made.

Next – the negative category – we might either criticise a suggestion, ignore it or replace it. Finally, there’s just remaining silent.

Are you one of the many who listen not to build on someone else’s suggestion, but to criticise or replace others’ ideas, to only find flaws, to start each sentence with a “but”?

And if you are chairing a meeting, do you encourage others to build on the positive – the result of open listening – rather than listening just to show faults?

As in all aspects of leadership, chairing meetings requires both technical and non-technical skills.

At the technical level, the chair must understand the essence of the subject matter, and manage purpose, agenda and time.

And at the non-technical level, they must ooze emotional intelligence, knowing how to get the best out of everyone so they reach good decisions that they own and leave the meeting happy they had been part of it – with much thanks to how the chair played their role of co-ordinator, conductor, integrator, aligner.