Meetings, in one form or another, have existed as long as language. They have always played a key role in organised human activity, later becoming central to the development of trading and business activity. Therefore, you would think that the ability to chair a successful meeting is a well-honed and well-understood skill in every manager’s toolkit.
But this isn’t always the case. When I ask teams and leaders about the meetings in their organisations, the majority groan and tell me what a waste of time they are. It seems that, even though they are integral to progress in business, and in life in general, we still don’t know how to run engaging and productive meetings.
Let’s take a look at what the trouble is, and how we might fix it. Here are nine things to think about when chairing a meeting, based on typical issues I hear from managers across the UK
1. Invite the right people
The best way to avoid a room full of people half-asleep by the first coffee break is to only invite those who will be engaged in the first place. Review your agenda, and stand down anyone who won’t find it useful, or who won’t have anything valuable to contribute. Consider a protocol where participants can choose to leave if it isn’t proving useful.
2. Give attendees bang for their buck
Most of the people at your meeting will have sacrificed other important tasks to attend, so make sure they get a good return from their time investment. Ensure every meeting has a clear purpose, that the desired benefits are understood, and that the agenda should is designed to deliver these. As chair, you should keep a note of actions and decisions in your minutes, and share these in later follow-up.
3. Stay structured
It doesn’t take much for meetings to stray into aimless conversation. While some chitchat is a nice way to create a calm, friendly atmosphere, keep it to the beginning and for breaks. Once the agenda has commenced, carefully steer discussions, keeping them to the point.
4. Encourage participation
As we’ve already established, every attendee should be there to gain or share something useful, and meetings are not an opportunity for you to subject people to your voice non-stop for an hour. The best way to ensure this happens is to give everyone the opportunity to contribute, and to challenge those who haven’t contributed to put forward their views or ideas.
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5. Prevent hijacking
As chair, it’s your responsibility to make sure your meeting sticks the agenda, so that everyone can get as much out of it as possible. As difficult as it might feel, this means guillotining contributions when they are inappropriate or have turned into rambling, and returning the meeting to its core purpose.
6. Approach ‘any other business’ with caution
To prevent anything essential being overlooked, give attendees the opportunity to contribute agenda items before the meeting. This way, there is little need to have ‘any other business’ on the agenda, and only extraordinary and urgent items relating to the purpose should be raised under this category.
7. Keep it short and sweet
The human attention span is not infinite, and you will find that people switch off when you drag meetings on for hours at a time. To avoid this, carefully plan your meetings, and have a designated finish time. Try to come up with at least a rough estimate of time per item, and take care to steer discussions onto the next item when the time comes. If your meeting is set to last much longer than an hour, consider whether everything can realistically be done justice in one sitting.
8. Start on time
On the topic of timeliness, it’s important that you start the meeting at the specified time. Out of respect the to the agenda, and to the people you’ve invited, don’t wait longer than two minutes from your designated start time. Anyone late can catch up afterwards from the action points.
9. Avoid ‘carrying forward’ actions again and again
We’ve all had meetings where actions are set, forgotten about, and then set again at the next meeting. This process can go on and on, until everyone has lost faith in your ability to see actions through to completion. As the chair, it’s your responsibility to follow up agreed actions, sending reminders before subsequent meetings.
If you’re a leader or manager at any level, organising and chairing meetings probably takes up a significant amount of your time, and this will only increase the more senior you get. There is an art to chairing a successful meeting, which ties in with the broader ability to engage your people.