Have you been chosen to chair a group or a meeting for the first time? In the Chair is a practical, up-to-date and comprehensive guide to how to become the successful Chair of any body, whether it s the organisation you work for, a community group or charity, or a public or company Board. What qualities and skills do you need? How should you approach your group and its members? How should you prepare for and conduct meetings? How do you arrive at decisions, and cope with difficult situations and people?
Inside you will find invaluable advice on chairing formal Boards and working with Chief Executives, as well as how to approach special kinds of meeting, including formal and public meetings, conferences, appointment panels, bilingual meetings and videoconferences.
In the Chair will benefit anyone keen to make participating in groups and meetings a productive and enjoyable experience.
An excellent guide for those who perform that most under-rated and important of roles: chairing a group. Robert Peston, BBC Economics Editor
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In the Chair
How to Guide Groups and Manage Meetings
By Andrew Green
ParthianCopyright © 2014 Andrew Green
All rights reserved.
Does the chair fit?
1.1 Groups and meetings: burden or benefit?
Anyone who spends time in any kind of organisation, commercial or non-commercial, institutional or voluntary, will spend some of that time as a member of a group, very often in meetings. For a few people, at some levels in some organisations, working with groups or in meetings of groups can even prove to be the most common kind of activity.
A group isn't the same thing as a work-group or team. A team, usually under the charge of a single manager or leader, tends to operate as an established set of colleagues within an organisation on a specific range of duties or tasks assigned to it. 'Group' is a wider and looser term. Members of a group, though they share a common purpose, will probably not belong to a single unit in an organisation. They may belong to the same overall body but come together from different units, as in a project group or task force. They may belong to quite different organisations, as in a liaison committee. Or they may represent no one but themselves, like volunteers who join a community group.
What these groups have in common is that they tend to be led by someone who lacks the direct responsibility for some or all of the group's members – typically, a 'Chair'. The Chair does have status and authority, but not necessarily as the director or manager of the other members of the group. This means that it's not possible for Chairs to command a fellow member to take a particular action. Instead, they need to seek consensus, using persuasion and other forms of indirect influence to arrive at agreement and decisions. This makes the nature of the Chair's role very different from that of an organisational manager or director.
For many people being a member of a group is a satisfying experience. Working with others towards a common goal, having a chance to make your unique contribution, being valued for your achievements by your peers, interacting with fellow members – all these help to attract people to groups and keep them engaged. A few people aren't by nature group animals. They may just prefer to work on their own. Or they may believe that individual endeavour is usually more productive and efficient than sharing a task with several other people, who could be less expert or hold conflicting views. One reason they give for this belief is that meetings, one of the most common activities of groups, are 'a waste of time'.
It's certainly true that groups tend to hold more meetings than work teams. Their members are not in such frequent contact, and they rely more heavily on discussion and negotiation in order to reach decisions.
Meetings can also soak up huge quantities of time and money. Most office workers spend between four and six hours a week in meetings, and senior managers spend many more. You can buy a 'meeting cost calculator' that will work out the total cost of your meeting. Some surveys report that 50% of meeting time is felt to be irrelevant by those attending, and one found that the total time wasted cost the UK economy £26 billion in 2011. Meetings can become an impediment, rather than an aid, to getting things done. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith spoke for many cynics when he said that 'meetings are a great trap ... they are indispensable when you don't want to do anything', and the US comedian Milton Berle said 'a committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours'.
1.2 Why have groups? Why hold meetings?
So what are the positive reasons for wanting to form a group or hold a meeting?
The basic principle behind the group, often called the 'synergy' effect, is that individuals together are capable of achieving more than can be done by the same individuals working on their own. This is particularly true when the issues in question are complex and multifaceted, calling not just for different kinds of specialism but also for specialists to interact with one another. But there may be other reasons why groups are useful. In some circumstances the agreement of a group is a formal requirement, for example to approve financial accounts. The conclusions of a group, particularly one that is unanimous in its views, may carry much more weight than those of a series of isolated individuals. And regardless of their formal outcomes groups are fruitful ways of sharing experience and knowledge, of teaching and learning, of creating feelings of solidarity and loyalty to a body or an idea, and of course of realising the personal goals of individuals.
What are groups and their meetings used for? In essence they can do one, or both, of two things: they can be used to explore a subject, or to reach a decision.
Exploring a subject can be done independently by each individual member of a group, of course. But a meeting between them is a good way of thinking together and sharing multiple perspectives – of allowing ideas and opinions to touch, collide, prove themselves or even defeat one another. The force of persuasion may cause original views to change under the influence of other speakers. Information can be shared, and evidence and research can be introduced, for example through a presentation or paper by a member, and a space opened for questioning. Different options can be examined, weighed and assessed. The creativity of everyone present can be tapped and pooled. The result may enlighten even if it doesn't bring agreement. And – an important point – those present may leave the meeting feeling that their views have received a fair hearing and that they've had a chance to influence the debate.
Decision-taking groups and meetings can take many forms. At one end of the spectrum an emergency group might look at a single urgent problem and try to arrive rapidly at an agreed response. At the other, extensive discussion over a series of meetings could result in a major strategic decision or change of policy. Or the 'decision' may in reality be agreement on recommendations to be passed to a higher authority for ratification or rejection. Again, members should depart feeling that, even if their view has not prevailed, they've played a part in arriving at the decision.
Both kinds of group – exploratory and decision-making – must share a common feature to be successful: their discussions must be to a purpose.
The reasons for establishing a group or holding the meeting are likely to be determined in large part by the nature of the body whose members are meeting. The Board of Trustees of a charitable foundation will meet to make decisions on whether to make grants to applicants. Members of the Planning Committee of a local authority have to decide whether or not to give planning consent to building applications. A company may set up an innovation group to refresh the firm's branding, or government ministers may commission a task-and-finish team to give them advice on a new policy development. In these two cases the group's task is not to decide, but to explore and evaluate possibilities.
Before leaving the reasons for forming groups and holding meetings, we should acknowledge a truth that can work for or against their success. Humans are social and gregarious animals. Groups can provide the opportunity for them not just to 'do business' but to interact in a multitude of complex ways, and from many motivations. These social interactions may have little or nothing to do with the formal reason for their coming together, or their tasks. From the Chair's point of view, this can be positive – normal socialisation can help build the group's cohesion and solidarity, and make it work more smoothly. Occasionally, though, it may be negative. Meetings, even quite formal ones, can be undermined by some of the less attractive interactions and behaviours that people bring with them to the group, or form within it: exclusive alliances, suspicions, bickering, cabals, or even vendettas and conspiracies. When this happens the Chair needs to be adept at reading the relationships between members, and signs of hidden agendas.
You might say that a central part of the Chair's role is to reconcile the individual and the social elements inherent in the group and harness both towards the group's goal.
1.3 What's a Chair for?
Let's assume, then, that a decision has been taken to set up a group, which will hold meetings. One of the next decisions will often be to identify a Chair. But why is a Chair needed?
The brief answer is that the Chair is the person who has been given the chief responsibility for making a group and its meetings effective. This means everything necessary to give the group the best chance of success: not just the control of discussion, or even the general conduct of the meeting, but everything to do with the group and how it operates.
Some simple groups, especially small and informal ones, may not need someone to organise them and their discussions. In business meetings of the Society of Friends ('Quakers') there is no Chair as such. But most meetings do require a Chair.
Occasionally people object to the presence of a Chair on the grounds that no one should be singled out who might dominate discussion or impose decisions. This, however, is to mistake the true role of the Chair. A dominating or domineering Chair is a bad Chair. The Chair might advise, stimulate or steer but should never browbeat or bully or try to override the clear view of the other members. The most common metaphor used for the Chair is the captain of the ship, who leads the crew members to a chosen destination, marshalling the seas, the winds and the skills of the mariners. But this is too strong a comparison: the captain, after all, holds absolute power and from time to time will use it. A closer one is the leader of a string quartet. In a quartet, typically self-governing and non-hierarchical, all four performers are completely equal, but they normally designate one of their number as the member who supplies the non-verbal cues, movements of the head or eye, that bring in the other players at the right time. A successful meeting is to some extent a performance, and the adroitness of the Chair in co-ordinating its conduct is crucial.
Some groups work with two or more Chairs. Sometimes this is an outcome of the nature of the group. For example, the group might be a joint body, containing representatives of two organisations or interests. In the interests of equality its rules might say that it will have two Chairs, one from each side, and each Chair taking turns to preside over meetings. Or it might be agreed that the chair will rotate among the members of a group, out of respect for egalitarian principles or to give all the members a taste of the experience of occupying the chair. Sharing the chair can often work well, especially in less formal groups or when members are already experienced at chairing in other contexts. But there are dangers, too. Continuity of leadership can sometimes be lost, for example between meetings, when it may be unclear who the responsible person is, and the group can appear to be in limbo. Discussions and decisions need to be recorded and communicated very carefully, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. There's also more chance of having a less than competent Chair.
1.4 What skills does a Chair need?
It's entirely possible to learn to be an excellent Chair. Chairs are not born, but made. That's not to say that people who, for example, can instinctively empathise with the feelings of other people, or who are by nature organised and methodical, don't have an advantage. But in essence the skills of a Chair are a set of techniques and behaviours that can be taught and learned.
These are the five main groups of skills and behaviours a good Chair should try to master:
After the first hour of a meeting look around the table at your colleagues. How many of them look as though they're paying full attention? Even the most assiduous members of the group can find themselves taking less interest in some parts of a group's work than others. They may let their minds wander, or even be tempted to take a short nap.
For the Chair, to 'nod off' is anathema. In general, you should never lose sight of the group and its aims. In meetings, the Chair is one of only two people in the room – the other is the Secretary – who can't afford to pay anything but their full attention to what's being said throughout the whole meeting. Nothing is more certain to erode your reputation as Chair than having to confess that you've just missed the most forceful and intelligent contribution to the discussion.
Alison: '... So that's what I've found from my research over the last few weeks. It puts a completely different complexion on our discussions.'
Chair [waking from a daydream]: 'I'm sorry, Alison, I didn't quite catch what you were saying there. I wonder if you could repeat it?'
Alison: 'Oh, I'm sorry, perhaps I wasn't very clear in the way I explained that. I'll start again ...'
[Other members sigh inwardly.]
Staying awake, though, is just the bare minimum. The Chair also has to listen especially carefully, to have an 'active' ear. Indeed, active listening is probably the key requirement once discussion has started. Active listening means that you're able to do two things:
· hear, understand and recall what the speaker is saying
· feed back – that is, paraphrase or re-state – what's been said
The second of these, feeding back, is an essential skill if you're going to be successful in clarifying the speaker's views (direct feedback to the speaker), testing them on the other members (feedback to the whole meeting) and preparing to arrive at an agreed decision. If you can prove that you're listening by challenging, paraphrasing and summarising, other members of the group are likely to follow your lead and pay the same attention.
As well as registering what is said a good Chair will also be paying attention to how. Tone of voice, speed of speech, body position, direction of sight: all of these can give clues about what the speaker's intentions are. Sometimes words disguise an unspoken opinion or emotion. So good listening means using your eyes as much as your ears.
You need, too, to be attentive to what isn't said, and who isn't speaking. There might be several reasons why someone isn't participating in the meeting: lack of expertise, lack of confidence, fear of another member, boredom or hostility. The Chair should try to keep an eye open for non-participants, and if necessary, aim to involve them.
Attentiveness is a useful skill outside the meeting, too. In fact it's especially useful then, in order to make sure that the tasks the group has agreed are being completed, or to maintain personal contact with members in order to sustain their interest and commitment.
Being attentive, therefore, extends well beyond just 'keeping your ears open'. It slides into the second set of abilities: empathetic skills.
The work 'empathy' is derived from two Greek words and means 'experiencing as if within' or 'feeling into' another person. It doesn't mean the same thing as 'sympathy', which means 'experiencing with' or 'feeling with' another. To feel or express sympathy requires you only to acknowledge what it is that another other person is suffering: you are concerned for their wellbeing. To be empathetic, on the other hand, is to put yourself in the shoes of others, to share their emotions, to recreate imaginatively what feelings and thoughts they're going through. It's at once a more objective and a more emotionally imaginative process.
An empathetic sense is highly useful when chairing a meeting. To be able to get a feel for how people approach a meeting, where they're 'coming from', both intellectually and emotionally, puts a Chair in a strong position. It becomes easier to sense whether members have a positive, negative or indifferent attitude to the group, to 'read' what members are saying, and to anticipate how they're likely to react to a controversial proposal.
To work in this way you'll need to cultivate the habit of putting yourself in the place of others – of imagining yourself 'standing in' their mental space. Nature fails to endow some people with this ability, but those who are equipped with empathetic abilities can practise and improve them in all kinds of social contexts, either systematically or simply through the practice of 'living well' with other people. Some contemporary psychologists maintain that empathising is a capability 'wired in' to the female, but not the male, brain. Whether this is true or not, Chairs of both sexes should try their best to develop and train their capacity to tune in to the thoughts and feelings of others.
As Chair you'll need to get to know the members as people so that you're in a position to empathise with them. This can be hard to do – for example, if the meeting contains a large number of participants, or consists entirely of strangers, or doesn't meet regularly enough for you to develop any real personal knowledge. There are, though, ways of doing the best you can to become familiar with those you're chairing – as people as well as representatives in a meeting. The most obvious is to make sure you keep in contact with individual members of the group outside meetings: it's much easier to develop an understanding of, and feeling for, their position if you take the trouble to communicate with them individually and informally. But even if you encounter people for the first time in the meeting, careful observation may give you clues about their positions.
Feeling empathy, of course, doesn't mean that you're going to take the side of the person whose situation you're considering. Unlike sympathy, empathy is a more objective process and doesn't mean leaving your judgement behind or setting aside your own feelings. It's important that as Chair you can combine an understanding of the standpoint of others with an ability to keep your independence and your fairness – in short, your integrity.
Excerpted from In the Chair by Andrew Green. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Green. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Title Page,
3. 1 Does the chair fit?,
4. 2 Knowing your role,
5. 3 Planning the meeting,
6. 4 Conducting the meeting, 1: mechanics,
7. 5 Conducting the meeting, 2: dynamics,
8. 6 Chairs, Boards and Chief Executives,
9. 7 Special kinds of groups and meetings,
10. 8 Looking back and looking forward,
11. A chairing checklist 10 'dos' and 'don'ts',
12. Further reading,