Chairing meetings - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Chairing meetings

Chairing meetings

Meeting Table by mnadi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  mnadi 

I didn’t actually think I’d be writing a blog post about this yet – chairing meetings was on my list of things I’d be doing later this year (in my role as chair of CILIP West Midlands) but there was confusion over the date of the committee changeover. Seeing as the current chair couldn’t attend the committee meeting earlier this week at the last minute, the rest of the committee decided I should chair the meeting (which left the Vice Chair very confused as the current Chair had asked him to stand in). Unfortunately I got lost on my way to the meeting room and arrived a couple of minutes late so receiving the news I was chairing the meeting after that made for a flustered start! We also had no agenda so the meeting was a little haphazard to say the least.

I’ve attended numerous meetings so tried to stick to some sort of structure similar to what I knew we usually do although I did miss out some crucial elements like welcoming our new committee members and checking the previous meeting’s minutes for accuracy.

I have also been doing some reading about successful chairing of meetings as I’m keen to change the structure of the agenda (at present I don’t feel it is an effective use of our time) and am interested in different approaches and best practice. This may well be the subject for another blog post if I manage to get something better put in place. I’ve been reading some of Facilitating Meetings and Chairing Discussions and Meetings That Give Results: How to Plan and Chair Productive Meetings.

Here are some things I learnt from my reading and my first experience of chairing a meeting.

Before the meeting (sadly on this occasion I didn’t have the luxury of this, but next time I hope to!)

  • Plan an agenda and circulate it beforehand so everyone knows what will be discussed at the meeting (if appropriate, invite attendees to request items to be added to the agenda by a specified date – probably at least a week before the meeting).
  • Ensure the secretary has all the relevant information including the agenda, previous meeting minutes, and any documentation you need to discuss at the meeting well in advance so that they can pass the relevant documents to attendees or print for distribution at the meeting.
  • Ensure each attendee has any relevant documentation including the agenda in advance of the meeting (preferably by email so that they can choose whether they wish to print or not).
  • Make sure you arrive at the meeting in plenty of time to ensure the room is set up correctly, you have all the materials you need, and you can welcome people as they arrive.

During the meeting

  • Remember to welcome everyone to the meeting and aim to start on time.
  • Facilitate the discussion rather than dominating it – ensure everyone gets their chance to express their views (if appropriate).
  • Keep an eye on time throughout so that you don’t overrun (you may need to ask people to keep their points brief).
  • Ensure the minute taker is following throughout  – check with them at key points, or write down any actions yourself so that you can check afterwards that all were recorded. This is particularly important if the minute taker is new to the group and may not know attendees (and therefore who is responsible for what) or if they are unfamiliar with meeting content.
  • Stick to the agenda as much as possible – sometimes discussion will creep but try to keep it on topic and put discussions on hold until later if they are on the agenda but are mentioned earlier on (unless it makes sense to move them).

After the meeting

  • Thank everyone for attending.
  • Follow up on any actions you have – there’s nothing worse than reviewing the actions at the next meeting and the chair repeatedly having to say, “Oh, yes, I haven’t done that yet”.
  • Assist the minute taker with minutes if needed.
  • Set a date for the next meeting and start the process all over again!

I still have a lot to learn when it comes to chairing meetings. Being thrown in at the deep end was probably a good thing though as it made me realise which areas I really need to improve on. For the next meeting I’m hoping to set an agenda based on current activities rather than the standard set agenda that we have used in the past for everyone to report back (sometimes not everyone has anything to report and others have a lot of items to report back on). I’d also like to set approximate times for each item, even if that’s only for my own time management. I don’t want to be too rigid so that people have chance to discuss each item but I do think it’s important to ensure adequate time to discuss everything that needs to be discussed – in the past we have overrun and not covered elements we wanted to discuss.

Are there any other useful tips for chairing meetings? All advice greatly appreciated!

  • Ian
    Posted at 09:16h, 13 February Reply

    Interesting post Jo.  I’ve not got huge experience of chairing meetings in real life (I have chaired a few online ones with VftL).  The one and only time I did do so was for a Voices meeting we held last year in Oxford.  I was a bit nervous about doing so (especially as I had never met some of those that attended) but my nervousness was misplaced and it seemed to go ok (they may say differently!).

    I definitely think you have to strike a balance between ‘controlling’ the meeting and allowing the natural flow of the discussion.  I think this is certainly the case when you are looking for creative solutions to problems.  Sometimes a little meander can produce interesting results.  But it is a tricky balance and I certainly also feel it is important to ensure everyone contributes to the discussion as much as possible.

    The thing I found most difficult was trying to concentrate on all the chairing duties whilst also ensuring that I am not too detached from the discussions.  A bit like when doing the minutes I can be so focused on my role in the meeting that I lose sight of why I am actually there!

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 13:50h, 14 February Reply

      Thanks for the comment Ian. I agree it is a tricky balance and something I think it will take me a while to get used to. It’s tricky to get across your own views too whilst also being the facilitator listening to other’s views. 

  • Andromeda Yelton
    Posted at 12:45h, 13 February Reply

    A totally good book is _The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making_.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 13:51h, 14 February Reply

      Thanks for the recommendation Andromeda, will check it out.

  • Chris B.
    Posted at 12:46h, 13 February Reply

    Good summary – those books look interesting. If the secretary is new to post, it is also worth saying “could you action me to do X”… to make sure that the main action points are noted (many people just quickly glance through minutes before the next meeting, looking for what they were supposed to do for it!)

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 13:54h, 14 February Reply

      Good tip. I am definitely one of those people who look back at the action points frequently to check progress – I use them to populate my to-do- list and then a week or so before the next meeting I’ll revisit to check I have done what I should have!

  • Tom Roper
    Posted at 14:39h, 13 February Reply

    For those like me who learnt their chairman/person skills in the trade union movement, the best texts are Walter Citrine’s ABC of Chairmanship and Wal Hannington’s Mr Chairman. Very different styles: Citrine was General Secretary of the TUC and very much part of the labour movement establishment, whereas Hannington was a communist and organised the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 1930s.
    They may seem dated, with lots on moving the previous question, and other arcane procedural tricks, but as any veteran of CILIP AGMs could tell you, this great profession of ours is not without people with an unhealthy interest in such things, and a Chair has to know how to deal with them. 
    One day I shall start a professional presentation with one of Hannington’s suggestions, by setting fire to some newspapers. 

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 13:56h, 14 February Reply

      Thanks for the recommendations Tom. I’d love to be at the meeting where you begin by setting fire to newspapers – maybe a suggestion for the next CILIP AGM?!

  • Gill Kaye
    Posted at 16:40h, 15 February Reply

    One useful thing that some meetings do is ask at the beginning if there is AOB (any other business) to be raised at the end – with a brief description about the subject (you have to be careful at this point that people don’t start discussing them straight away!). That way you stop people springing whole new debates on you just when people think the meeting is about to be over and if you can anticipate what is coming it helps with the time keeping of the meeting.
    You also need to flag up AOB that you are going to bring up as Chair. One Chair i knew used to say any other URGENT business – and the criteria was ‘can the organisation still funtion tomorrow if we don’t discuss this now’…a little harsh i think.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 12:03h, 17 February Reply

      That’s a great point Gill, thank you. Also that way it may be that points could be merged or rearranged if necessary depending on decisions which need to be made before discussions can take place. As an introvert I know all too well that we need time to consider our thoughts on things in advance too, so knowing what to expect later would definitely be of benefit! 

      • Chris B.
        Posted at 13:14h, 17 February Reply

         With AOB you also have to be strict about not allowing any item that is being introduced at this point to prevent people having time to consider it properly (or taking advantage of an absentee who might object to it). In such cases one has to state they will put in the agenda for the next meeting.
         Never come across this in CILIP committees I hasten to add, but on one of my hubby’s committees this happens a lot.

        • Jo Alcock
          Posted at 13:25h, 17 February Reply

          Interesting – thanks for sharing Chris. It’s not something I have come across thankfully but definitely something to bear in mind!

  • Alyson Tyler
    Posted at 14:07h, 17 February Reply

    All sensible points. I chair our strategy meeting and am always looking for ways to make it the most effective use of everyone’s time. As chair I would like people to come to the meeting wtih useful information for everyone, and, to go away having learnt things and to feel that it’s been beneficial for them to have attended. Good luck with your chairing

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 15:08h, 17 February Reply

      Thanks Alyson. I find it difficult to know how much information people should have beforehand, and how much should be shared at the meeting. Having it before gives time to personal consideration before discussion, but some may feel that there’s no point in holding a meeting if there’s no new information. I guess it depends on the focus of the meeting – is it to share information or is it to make decisions based on group discussion? In CILIP branches it tends to be a combination of the two.

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