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20 October 2017
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How to chair a meeting

Chairing a meeting

My first go at chairing a meeting was what would be best described as a disaster.  I didn’t really understand the role of action points, agendas or minutes or how you made them happen in reality.  Worst of all the meeting ran forty-five minutes late.  With some gentle begging and maximising the tug of professional responsibility, the participants did agree to return for a further meeting.  It was apparent I had a lot to learn.  I volunteered to chair more meetings, watched and heard from the experts and, like every good professional did a google search into what makes a great chair.  These are the lessons I have learned which I hope will be of use to anyone presiding over a meeting.

Firstly, chairing a meeting is challenging and something few get much training in. Effective chairing is critical to successful meeting and requires preparation and awareness of the roles and responsibilities. 

Preparation for chairing a meeting

The most important question to ask first is, do we need the meeting? Could email or a face to face meeting with the main players be a more appropriate and more convenient form of communication?

Be clear as to the overall aim and prioritise the objectives which will have the most impact in reaching this aim.  Ensure the agenda is clear, concise and will achieve each of your objectives and move you towards your overall goal.

Who do you need in the room achieve the aim?  Participation can evolve, you can nearly always add contributors as the work proceeds, and you recognise gaps in expertise.

What format will the meeting take? In person, via teleconference or a mixture of both?

How long will you need for the meeting, remembering that time is precious to everyone involved including you?  How long will these meetings continue for: six weeks; six months; five years? 

These questions are worth reviewing after every meeting.

The details

Every meeting should have a dedicated person to take ‘minutes’ (a written record of what is said in the meeting) and record the action points (see later). Minute taking is quite a skill and it useful to identify beforehand who will undertake this role.  There may be dedicated administrative assistance, if not, it can be helpful to make a rolling rota for the minutes and agenda (described next) which includes all the participants in turn. 

The agenda lays out what is going to happen in the meeting and is crucial in keeping the meeting focused and productive but, more importantly, it is also the chairs secret weapon in keeping overly enthusiastic participants on track.  The agenda items are the topics that need to be discussed to achieve the overall aim.  Keep longer items towards the start of the meeting when attention is at its best. For difficult or sensitive topics, you may wish to table these early in the session, to get it over and done with, or mid-meeting when everyone has warmed up somewhat.  Avoid leaving difficult topics to the end as there may not be enough time to resolve issues which may result in the meeting finishing on a negative note.

The roles and responsibilities of the chair in the meeting

The chair sets the direction of the meeting, facilitates fair and proportionate member involvement, listens and draws together the most important points before setting clear, actionable plans. It is often better that the chair is not actively involved in the delivery of most the actions as it’s hard to maintain oversight if too engaged in the detail.

To begin with, you may wish to go over some basic information such as fire drills, locations of toilets and whether mobile phones are required to remain on silent.  Some chairs choose to reinforce ‘rules of engagement’ such as respecting others opinions, avoiding talking over one another and focusing on genuine questions.  This is the prerogative of the chair and how you feel most comfortable working. 

Action points

Start by outlining the purpose of the meeting and what you hope as a group to achieve.  Run through the action points which are the tasks or jobs participants agreed to undertake at the last meeting.  For example, the finance person may have been identified as the best person to solicit tenders for equipping an outpatient clinic.  The action point would then be ‘Mr x to seek tenders from external companies by the next quarterly meeting’.  At the next session, the chair then checks Mr X has completed the task.  It should be clear who is responsible for the delivery of each action point, and this should be recorded within the minutes.  

Action points are crucial to ensuring progress between meetings, and it is the chair’s responsibility to ensure these are clear, actionable and equitable.  If you don’t have any action points, then you need to ask yourself again do you really need these meetings? 

The bulk of the meeting

The content of the meeting and the structure will depend upon the stated objectives of the project which form the agenda items.

The chair’s key responsibilities during the meeting are to keep the meeting focused and on time, ensure all participants are included in the meeting, maintain an overview and summarise key decisions and action points (see five top tips).  A well-structured agenda with allocated time sessions can help with this.

At the end of the meeting, the chairperson should sum up, remind the committee members what they have accomplished and thank them for their attendance.  If possible, the date and time of the next meeting should be identified or reiterated.

Five top tips

1)    Preparation is vital

Know why you holding the meeting and what you hope to achieve from it.  Where possible circulate agendas and pertinent background information in advance. 

2)    Keeping to time is a make or break

If you want committee members to return for the next meeting, keep to time. Start and finish on time and where possible build some leeway in the agenda for overrun.  Think about timing items on the agenda; this gives members clear guidance about the time allocated to their discussion point. 

3)    Don’t avoid the difficult conversations

This can be particularly challenging.  Watch for cues and body language which signals that individuals are not happy and try to address this, sometimes directly.  Giving members the opportunity to air grievances will often feel awkward and unpleasant, however, when handled respectfully and professionally by the group, will ultimately build trust, improve teamwork and improve outcomes.

4)    Make sure everyone has their moment in the sun

Everyone wants to feel that they have been listened to and their opinions or concerns heard.  Bring the quieter people in tactfully.  Balance this carefully with maintaining oversight and not allowing one or two people to dominate the meeting (including yourself!)

5)    Accept that you won’t always get it right

Chairing is challenging and well done for stepping up to the plate.  No-one can get it right all the time and certainly not in the beginning, keep actively seek feedback (and yes it can sting a bit) and remain open to areas of improvement. That is what will make you a great chair..

A leader's dynamic does not come from special powers. It comes from a strong belief in a purpose and a willingness to express that conviction.

- Kouzes & Posner

Thank you to the RCP London Chief Registrars for reviews and comments.

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