The Challenge of the Chair

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

The challenge of establishing the conditions for a productive meeting falls to the CHAIR and much of the success of a meeting comes down to ADVANCE PREPARATION.

While the hints and ideas that follow should not be seen as prescriptive rules, they can provide ways to think through each meeting element.

As mentioned previously, once again, it comes back to first considering the explicit PURPOSE and precise OBJECTIVES of the meeting, or each part of the meeting.

Once the purpose and objectives are set, it is then useful to consider the meeting SIZE. Seven to ten is generally ideal for discussion. A meeting with over fifteen in attendance starts to become unwieldy and it will become increasingly difficult to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. In these cases, if discussion is desired, it can be helpful to first provide the context, then break into smaller groups for discussion and save time for a report back from each group at the end so thoughts can be collected and summarised.

Estimate the LENGTH of the meeting; two hours is generally a good maximum but many meetings can be effectively conducted within an hour.

The LOCATION of the meeting is also important. Ideally, everyone should have a clear view of everyone else; a round or oval table can be beneficial if the Chair does not wish to convey a hierarchical structure.

Do people need to ATTEND all or only part of the meeting? While having people come and go can be disruptive, it is worth considering on a case by case basis.

The Chair should draw up the AGENDA and circulate with applicable papers a minimum of two days in advance of the meeting (or longer depending how large that pack of pre-reading is, of course). Agenda items should be allocated in priority order so that the most important items are scheduled while people are fresh. Do students attend the meeting? Is their section always last? Why not try reversing the order? It is helpful to save a positive item for the end (see the point about praise in my last blog). However, if the meeting is a difficult one, it is important not to include something positive for its own sake. Simply thank participants for their honesty and engagement within the meeting.

It can be useful to request a brief SUMMARY DOCUMENT in advance from people who want to add agenda items to the meeting. This provides them with the opportunity to outline the purpose and objectives of their item(s), so the same rigour begins to be practiced by everyone.

DURING THE MEETING itself it is the responsibility of the Chair to maintain control by guiding the participants in a clear, transparent and respectful way through the agenda. It can be helpful to think of the Chair role as a facilitator who remains objective and impartial within the meeting even while having a direct and personal stake in the matters at hand. Getting engrossed deeply in the subject matter while simultaneously getting others involved are not activities that easily mix.

Once AT THE MEETING, the Chair should

Start the meeting on time

Clarify the objectives of the meeting so everyone has a shared understanding

Introduce each topic by putting it into context and explaining the purpose and objective of the item

Control the pace and time of the meeting

Keep discussions to the point by asking clarifying questions

Conclude each item by summarising what has been agreed or decided

Finish off by recapping all actions and time scales by individuals and confirm shared understanding

And what about AFTERWARDS? The Chair should:

Reflect on whether the meeting was successful in meeting its objectives by considering: what went well; what could have gone better? It can be helpful for the Chair to test their own perceptions with a few others who attended and who will be honest with us since we can either be our own worst critic or we can let ourselves get off too lightly

Confirm the minutes or action log and circulate to participants as soon as possible (ideally within a few days following the meeting)

Check that those responsible for actions have received the notes and taken action according to agreed timescales

Does all this feel just slightly overwhelming? Even as I write, I am cringing as I think how often I don’t manage to get all this right. However, since we spend so much time in meetings, isn’t it worth our concentrated and conscious efforts to make the best use possible of this ‘supertax‘ of work?

This blog has discussed the ‘what’ of meetings; my next blog will discuss some principles to keep in mind in relation to the ‘how’ of working with groups.

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