The lost art of chairing a meeting

by | Mar 4, 2022

How many of the meetings that you attended in the last month had a focused and clear agenda, ran to time, and sought a useful contribution from each of the attendees? How many of those meetings had attendees who then agreed and noted down a set of actions? From the feedback we have collected from teams working on major projects, the answer probably is: ‘not many’. If one considers the huge amount of time and resource that goes into meetings, it is astonishing that project leaders and their commercial advisers do not put more effort into ensuring that meeting time is used effectively. Much has been written on this topic, but bad meetings continue to be a chronic problem in most project teams. So, what can be done to make a difference? I believe some effort should be applied to relearning the lost art of ‘chairing’… let’s take a further look.

The term “chairman” arose in the mid-17th century and was used to describe someone occupying the ‘chair of authority’ for a meeting, group, or corporate body; the person responsible for ensuring the effective outcome of the meeting. Over time, we seem to have interpreted that for the chair to hold authority, the role should always default to the most senior individual at the table, but this isn’t the case.

The prevailing assumption appears to be that chairing a meeting is simply a matter of being in charge, where seniority governs how contributions are made and should be received. We also face an interesting phenomenon that senior managers and leaders rarely think their own meetings are run badly, but can quickly identify the problems of poor leadership in meetings where they are only attendees. The suggestion that they might need to do some training in this area will often be swiftly dismissed, and so, organisations continue to propagate the habits and culture of bad meetings. Fortunately, there are some straightforward and easily applicable actions that leaders and attendees can follow to curb bad meeting culture, the question is, how?

The importance of effective meetings

People meeting in groups of four or more typically requires a degree of leadership to ensure the time spent is productive. To get the best out of any group event, people need a framework which that sets the expected boundaries of behaviour within which they can feel comfortable to express themselves and, be creative in their thinking, whilst engaging with the thoughts and ideas of others in the room.

For effective meetings, organisations need to adopt a framework and create a good meeting culture, this should be exampled by the project leaders and embraced by all team members.

A distinctive role

The Chair of a meeting should be seen by everyone as a distinct and essential role to having productive meetings. Defaulting to the most senior person is not necessarily the right option, especially, if they are needed as part of the discussion. The Chair needs to be able to take a step back from the content of the discussion and focus on using their skills to facilitate and keep the meeting on track – these distinct skills are not difficult to learn but are hugely important. Regardless of your seniority, you cannot assume that you have the right skills to chair a meeting – however, you can develop skills these skills and help your team have more effective meetings.

Team meeting

Chairing a better meeting

At a basic level, the primary skill for chairing a meeting is to learn to contract with the rest of the group. Contracting is a process used at the start to remind everyone of their shared purpose in attending the meeting. This is the most important part of the session as it provides everyone with the opportunity to become aligned with the required output of the meeting. The contracting process gains attendee consent to a short set of agreements at the start of the meeting which the Chair will use throughout to provide boundaries and to keep participants accountable. The agreements should align with the following:

  1. Reiterate purpose
    The Chair should reiterate the purpose of the meeting and confirm agreement with the participants. Without an agreed purpose, it is easy for the discussion to be derailed by other urgent concerns. The Chair can use the agreed purpose to keep the meeting focused on what is important for that particular meeting.
  2. Agree on outputs
    The Chair will agree on outputs with the attendees – they could be shared information, a technical solution or some initial thoughts and ideas, but there must be an agreement between those involved on the expected outputs from the meeting.
  3. Expected timings
    The Chair should confirm timings with the group and offer an opportunity for anyone to communicate if they need to leave the meeting early.
  4. Common ground rules
    People assembled as a group need a set of common ground rules within which to operate. When the ground rules are not explicitly stated, bad behaviours tend to creep in, and meetings become ineffective. The following ground rules should be stated by the Chair at the start of the meeting:
  • Everyone present is expected to speak
  • Everyone who speaks is allowed to be heard
  • We have one conversation
  • We stick to the topic
  • Everyone stays present (no checking emails on your phone, etc.)

Everyone is then asked to state they agree. This might seem overly formal, but the point about these rules is that they create a verbal contract within the group which gives the Chair the authority to pull people back in line when they move off-topic, become disengaged or display other behaviours which may take the meeting off track.

  1. Taking notes
    One of the most important roles in any meeting is to agree on who is going to take a formal set of notes. This is a particular problem in meetings among senior people, as note-taking is traditionally regarded as a task for junior staff and often ignored. The problem is, without some form of record of the discussion, it is very easy for each participant to walk out of the room with a different interpretation of what was agreed. As a bare minimum, the Chair should ensure a written note is circulated that summarises:
  • The date;
  • Who attended;
  • The matter under discussion;
  • Agreed actions by whom and by when.

Again, this may seem basic, but in a major project, hundreds of meetings take place every day, and if it is common practice to meet without formal notes, decisions often become blurred or misinterpreted.

Advanced chairing skills

Once the meeting is off to the right start, with everyone focused on the agenda, and following the ground rules there are, however, additional skills that can be very useful when dealing with ‘difficult’ meetings. These include:

  • Identifying the introverted thinkers and ensuring they contribute
  • Managing extroverted thinkers who continually interrupt others
  • Reading the dynamics of the room to identify interrelationships and how they influence the discussion
  • ‘Hearing’ what is not being said to identify issues people may be avoiding
  • Managing outsized egos who want to push their own agenda
  • Avoiding ambiguous decisions that allow different interpretations of what is being agreed

These are skills that aren’t essential at the beginning but are skills that every Chair should aspire to learn over time.

Final thoughts

What can we take away from this? Project leaders need to ensure that all meetings are effective – to do this, they need to make sure team members are aware of the specific framework needed for meetings and ensure that there is someone competent to take the role of Chair. The Chair must be trained in the various skills mentioned above in order for them to facilitate the meeting well. These behavioural changes will help teams focus on the topic at hand and use their meeting time effectively.

As a final thought, consider how many meetings you will be involved in across your project this week – perhaps you are taking the role of chair for several of them. How might you adopt a structured approach to chairing these meetings and what would the effect be on the productivity of your time and others in your team?