BE A “PRO” COMMUNICATOR
When you are asked to chair a meeting, it is up to you to ensure the meeting’s success. It is your responsibility to make the meeting productive, worthwhile and a positive experience for everyone involved.
Much of the success of any meeting is determined before it starts. As the chairperson, you are responsible for these actions:
- Verify that there is a meaningful reason for the meeting. If not, cancel it.
- Decide on the most appropriate time, date and place for the meeting. Book the meeting room. Make arrangements for any needed audiovisual or other presentation equipment. For meetings of any length, arrange for water, tea and coffee to be available.
- Determine who should attend all or part of the meeting. Sometimes, individuals only need to participate in the meeting when one of the subjects being covered pertains to them. Invite such people to join the meeting at the time that particular subject is being dealt with and then excuse them from the meeting when you move on to the next agenda item. There is no point in keeping someone at the meeting when what is being considered is irrelevant to that person.
- As soon as possible, send an e-mail or written notice to everyone who should attend regarding the time, date and place of the meeting. If some of the participants are not familiar with the location, give them directions on how to find the meeting place, where to park and what other means of transportation may be available. If the meeting is not one that is held on a regular basis, advise the participants about the purpose of the meeting and the likely length of the meeting. Ask everyone to confirm with you as soon as possible whether they will be able to attend.
- Beforehand, ask the most appropriate person to act as secretary of the meeting, take notes on what is discussed, and prepare a draft of the minutes of the meeting afterwards for you to review before they are finalized. The minutes should first record who attended the meeting (as members or by invitation) and the date, start time and place of the meeting, and then describe in summary form the main subjects discussed (in accordance with the agenda), any decisions reached and any motions made and passed. Motions should be recorded as “Passed”, “Passed unanimously”, “Deferred” or “Defeated”. It is not necessary to record the names of those who voted for a motion nor those who abstained from voting or voted against the motion unless they specifically request that the minutes show they did so. Depending on the importance of an item being covered, it may be worthwhile to include some of the main points that were made or raised without attributing them to any individual person or speaker. It is not necessary or desirable to have the minutes represent a verbatim record of what was said and who said it.
- Ensure that the specific wording of all motions is clearly understood by both the meeting participants and the individual taking the minutes. Often, it is a good idea for you as chair to repeat each motion before it is voted on.
- Request that the secretary or note-taker pay particular attention to accurately recording in the minutes any future action that has to be taken as discussed at the meeting. Highlight these points in the minutes by placing in bold print the term “Action Required:” before each of them. Always specify in these action required minute notes the name of the individual who is going to be directly responsible for carrying out the action and the deadline for its completion, e.g., “Action Required: Steele is to prepare a draft of a mini-manual for the advisory boards of the satellite offices by August 15.”
- Consult the principal attendees beforehand on what subjects they believe should be included in the agenda for the meeting. Decide on whether anyone outside of the organization should be invited to make a special presentation on a relevant matter. Prepare a written agenda listing the items to be covered in order of importance after the business arising from the last meeting has been covered. The last two agenda items should usually be “Other Matters” and “Date of Next Meeting”. Below is a sample agenda to use for a formal meeting, such as one held for the board of directors of an organization.
Name of Meeting Group
Date and Time of Meeting
Location of Meeting
1. Call to Order and Introduction of Guests [if any are expected].
2. Meeting Quorum.
3. Approval of the Agenda.
4. Review of Minutes of Prior Meeting.
5. Business Arising from Prior Meeting Minutes.
6. The Most Important Subject to Discuss.
7. The Second Most Important Subject to Discuss.
8. The Third Most Important Subject to Discuss.
9. Special Presentation [People and organization presenting].
10. Other Matters.
11. Date of Next Meeting.
For a less formal meeting, such as one comprising the members of a management group, the agenda does not have to include items 1, 2 and 3 above, although it is always useful to begin a meeting by welcoming those in attendance and stating the purpose of the meeting. Sometimes the chair may decide to have the agenda include in parenthesis after some agenda items, such as 6, 7, 8 and 9 above, an estimate of the time to be allocated to covering each of those items, e.g., “(15 minutes)”.
- Decide what materials should be sent out together with the agenda in support of what is being covered. Make sure that the agenda and supporting materials are in the hands of all the attendees five working days in advance of the meeting. Use e-mail or the phone to get a final confirmation of whom is attending.
- If you intend to call on anyone at the meeting to deal with an important subject, give that person advance notice of your intention to do so well in advance of the meeting.
How a meeting starts is a good indication of its likely success. As chairperson, these points will help you get the meeting off to a good start:
- Arrive for the meeting 15 minutes early. If the meeting table is long and rectangular, you have the option of either sitting at the head of the table at one end or selecting a seat in the middle of one of the two long sides of the table. The latter case positions you to have better physical control over the meeting in terms of being closer to everyone, plus encourages the attendees to be more open and less hierarchical in their participation in the meeting. Chairpersons sitting at the head of a long table are better able to establish eye-contact with whomever is speaking but are less accessible to people sitting at the other end of the table. For other sizes of tables, sit in the middle.
- Ask the most senior person attending the meeting to sit on your right side and the meeting’s secretary to sit on your left side. If someone other than the acting head of the organization is chairing the meeting, the president or executive director should usually sit on the right side of the chairperson.
- In the case of internal meetings, just prior to starting the meeting ask everyone to turn off their cellphones and BlackBerrys. To prevent people from fiddling with such devices during meetings, some managers follow a practice of having their subordinates put all their cellphones and BlackBerrys at the back of the meeting room on a table. A piece of tape is attached to each device where the owner writes his or her name.
- Always, always start the meeting on time regardless of who is not yet present. This will send a strong message to any late-comers that they should be on time for any future meeting. If an insufficient number of attendees is present for a quorom, the meeting can still proceed but no formal motions can be passed until you have a quorum.
- Begin the meeting by welcoming any new members to the group and introducing any special guests present. Try to inject some humor in your opening comments to put everyone at ease. Your job from this point onward is to keep the meeting focused, productive and on track time-wise.
For formal meetings, here are the procedures for the chairperson to follow:
- After you have made your introductions of new members and guests, state in a firm voice, “I would like to call the meeting to order. The main purpose of today’s meeting is to … I hope to end the meeting by [state the time]. We have a quorum present (which means that the required number of attendees is present for the transaction of business in accordance with the organization’s bylaws) and the first order of business is to approve the agenda. Does anyone have any recommended additions or changes to make in the agenda?” Unless it is a major new item, most additional subjects can usually be covered under “Other Matters”.
- After dealing with any additions or changes to the agenda, at formal meetings the chair should request, “Would someone please move a motion approving the agenda?”
- Follow the procedure after someone has made a motion (usually by saying “I move that … ” or “so moved”) of asking, “Would someone please second that motion?” This is usually done by a participant saying, “I second the motion.” Then, you as chair ask, “Is there any further discussion on this motion?” After which you say, “Everyone in favor of that motion, please raise your right hand.” Then, you ask, “Is anyone opposed?” If a majority of those present voted in favor of the motion, you state, “The motion is carried.” In the event that no one is willing to second a motion, the motion is dropped and the meeting continues.
- When someone makes a motion, another person present can interject and propose that the motion be amended or changed “as follows”. For this to happen, that second motion needs to be seconded and then, after a discussion, a vote should be taken on the proposed amendment or change. If this vote passes, then the original motion is so amended and, if seconded, a vote is held on it. Note that the seconder of a motion does not necessarily have to vote in favor of it.
- When a majority votes against a motion, the chair says, “The motion is defeated.” A motion is also defeated when the vote is tied. As chair, you should refrain from voting except in the case of a tie. In that event, you have the option of voting in favor of the motion. For the chair to vote against it serves no purpose as a tie vote already means the motion is defeated.
- If an important decision is strongly opposed by a number of participants before a vote is taken, often the chair is better off to say, “I would like to defer consideration of this motion until our next meeting if that is agreeable with everyone.” The same applies when someone, whose views should be heard before the decision is made, has been unable to attend the meeting.
- Any participant who has a conflict of interest regarding a matter being discussed and voted on should immediately declare his or her conflict of interest and be excused from the meeting during the discussion and voting on that issue. The meeting’s minutes should record that the participant declared the conflict, left the meeting for the discussion and abstained from voting on that matter.
- When someone is participating in a meeting by phone, the chair should always ask that person to indicate verbally how he or she is voting whenever a vote is taken.
- Following the approval of the agenda, the chair should state, “The next item of business is to review the minutes of the last meeting. Does anyone have any additions or corrections to make in the minutes?” After dealing with any changes regarding the minutes, at formal meetings the chair should request, “Would someone please move a motion approving the minutes?”
- After the motion concerning the approval of the minutes has passed, the chair should cover any future matters of consequence contained in the minutes and not included in the agenda, especially those marked as Action Items. This is done under the agenda item: “Business Arising from Prior Meeting Minutes”. Afterwards, the chair should proceed to cover the remainder of the agenda.
- At the end of the meeting, the chair should ask: “Are there any other matters that should be raised at this meeting?” Quickly deal with any such matters and then get everyone’s agreement on the date, time and place of the next meeting. When this is done, you can state: “The meeting is adjourned. Thank you for your attendance.”
If you become responsible for chairing a formal meeting on a regular basis, take the time to read a handbook of Robert’s Rules of Order, which describes generally accepted procedures for conducting formal meetings. Treat this as a guide to follow as appropriate and as a reference source in the event of a procedural dispute regarding the conduct of any formal meeting.
The extent to which the chair is required to follow formal procedures depends on the nature of the meeting. Often, the procedures to be followed by meetings of an organization’s directors, members and shareholders are specified in the organization’s bylaws or related documents. At other kinds of meetings, the chair is expected to follow procedures based on precedent or past practices.
In the case of internal management meetings, the chair usually has considerable flexibility in determining the procedures to follow. It is rarely necessary for chairs of such meetings to have to declare a quorum present, approve the prior meeting’s minutes or pass motions. On the other hand, it is advantageous for the chair to establish and observe a consistent set of ground rules for conducting any type of regularly held meeting.
Other important practices for a chairperson to follow to have successful meetings include:
- As the chairperson, definitely limit your involvement in discussions. Do not be a self-indulgent, pontificating chair. After someone has made a presentation, you may need to ask a few key questions to open up and expand the subsequent discussion. Similarly, it may be helpful for you to use several questions to ensure that people making proposals or recommendations have properly thought them through and have considered all the logical alternatives.
- One of your challenges as chairperson is to manage the amount of time being spent on each agenda item so that the meeting stays on track and ends on time. In the case of major issues, this means you have to control how much time is devoted first to presentations, afterwards to discussion, and finally at the end to determining any needed action plans and deadlines for completing them. Sometimes, you have to diplomatically end the discussion on an agenda item in order to move on to the next item. Discourage digressions from the agenda by saying, “We’ll deal with that subject after the meeting or at our next meeting.”
- Another challenge is to encourage everyone present to participate in the meeting. If you notice someone keeping quiet about a subject on which he or she may have something to offer, ask that person: “John, do you have views on this matter?” Also, do not let anyone dominate or monopolize the discussion. Again, call for the views of other attendees. Your objective should be to have a full and open discussion of the issues covered, including an airing of any dissenting views. This means eliciting comments and questions from all of the attendees. Pay attention to everyone’s body language for clues on who should be asked to speak up.
- During the course of discussions, you may find it helpful to ask someone to write the key points being made on a blackboard or large blank flip-chart pad mounted on an easel stand.
- When an important decision has been made, attempt to summarize that decision as clearly as you can and ask everyone, “Is this what we have agreed to?” It also is usually advisable for the chair to clarify who is responsible for taking any required action and determine the agreed upon timeline for doing so. These matters should all be recorded in the minutes.
- Few meetings need to take longer than 1 ½ to 2 hours. If the meeting is likely to last three hours or longer, call for a break of ten minutes after the first 1 ½ hours so everyone can stretch, walk around and use the bathroom. As the saying goes, “If you keep people sitting on their behinds for too long, they’ll begin to think with them.”
- Compliment people making excellent presentations during the meeting, especially outsiders. Wait until after the meeting to compliment individuals who have made good points in the discussions.
- Sometimes, when a discussion gets especially argumentative and heated, it is a good idea to call for a ten-minute recess or break in the meeting so everyone can cool off before the discussion is resumed.
- During the meeting, take your own notes on the important subjects being discussed so that you can be certain the minutes prepared afterwards properly reflect what was covered.
- Ask the meeting’s secretary or note-taker if you could see a draft of the minutes, hopefully within the next three working days while everything is still fresh in both your minds. Make any necessary changes to the draft of the minutes and send out the finalized minutes to all the attendees and members of your group, including those who were unable to attend, within a maximum of ten days following the meeting.
If this was one of the first meetings you chaired, ask one or two of the most experienced attendees to give you some suggestions for improving the way you chaired the meeting. Take advantage of any future opportunities to chair other meetings. The more experience you get at doing so, the more effective you will become as both a chairperson and leader.