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||How to…Chair a meeting
The ability to chair meetings is one of the most useful and frequently tested skills held by managers in any industry.
The fact remains that attending and sometimes chairing meetings will be unavoidable.
Why hold a meeting?
Executive meetings involve the exercise of managerial, executive or statutory powers and authority so that decisions can be made.
Informative meetings can be large or small and convey information to a group of people and sometimes seek their views.
Consultative meetings seek views upon a given policy or data set, to inform future actions.
Diversionary meetings are not, as the name suggests, an excuse for amiable activity but are intended to divert or confuse responsibility or blame. They are extremely common and often have a large membership, poor definition of purpose and unnecessary frequency. They should be avoided at all costs. Very few people deliberately set up meetings with such objectives but you should ask yourself whether any particular meeting has mutated into this form. It is common for project-based meetings to degenerate in this way when the project is falling behind timetable or generally losing its direction.
Why do meetings need chairing? All meetings need co-ordination, preparation, organisation and control. The process of chairing encompasses all these points. There is much semantic debate as to whether the chair of a meeting should be referred to as a chair- man/women/person or just as the chair. This guidance adopts the latter but whatever the title …chair, co-ordinator, president… the function is the same.
How are chairs chosen? Wherever possible the chair should be chosen or elected by the meeting, either on an ad hoc basis at each meeting or on a longer-term basis. The longer term is preferable because it will enable a continuity of approach and knowledge from meeting to meeting. Of course, for statutory bodies (NHS and primary care trusts and health authorities) the chair will be appointed by a higher authority. In other sorts of meetings in the NHS the chair will often be appointed by a senior manager to undertake the role. Where this is not the case, a chair should be elected from among the committee members. At the first meeting, the person convening the meeting should chair it and begin with the election of a chair. This should take place through a process of nomination and seconding followed, if more than one person is nominated and seconded, by a show of hands or a paper ballot if requested. In many cases this might seem to be a sledgehammer to crack a peanut but it confers legitimacy and may well avoid later disputes when disagreements occur.
What should the chair of a meeting do? The chair of a meeting is responsible for ensuring that the objectives of the meeting are met through effective discussion, decision and observance of procedures. The chair is an enabler and a catalyst. Except in the those cases where holding the chair is a public appointment, the individual in the chair has little formal authority outside of the actual context of the meeting.
The chair is responsible for ensuring proper discussion takes place – like Goldilocks this must be neither too much nor too little, but just right. You decide. But as in normal life, meeting participants will have varying personalities. You will need to draw out the reticent (by inviting comment), support the reasonable and suppress the overbearing. It is not possible to draw up specific guidance other than to say that the chair should assess each participant on each occasion. It helps if you know in advance what any given participant's position and personality is likely to be.
The chair is responsible for all aspects of the meeting including ensuring that the ‘housekeeping’ arrangements have been made (where, when, who, refreshments). In particular the chair must ensure that proper notice of the meeting has been given, including circulation of supporting papers. The chair is also responsible for ensuring that the deliberations of the meeting are properly recorded and approved. The details of arranging and administering meetings and taking the minutes are the topic of another study. Link HERE to other article.
When preparing to chair a meeting it is important to identify for yourself which sort of meeting it is to be. Executive meetings will often be governed by some form of standing orders or even statutory procedure. Make sure you are familiar with these. Other types of meetings will often be less formal but it is important to lay down from the chair how the meeting is to be run, the following are a list of suitable headings:
Preparation: Master your brief . Check in advance that you have all supporting papers and make sure you have read them, especially the previous minutes. Go through the minutes with appropriate people to make sure you understand where matters arising occur.
Attendance: Who is entitled to attend? Co-ordinative and executive meetings rarely benefit from having too many people. Be firm and courteous in establishing who is entitled and expected to attend and who might be invited to leave. Do this, wherever possible, on a one-to-one basis rather than making a pompous declamation from the chair. If you can make your policy clear in this respect in advance of the meeting so much the better. Don’t forget that for meetings of statutory bodies such as health authorities and trust boards, or sub-committees of the same, unauthorised attendance and participation might invalidate the decisions made.
As a matter of course ask all attenders to sign an attendance sheet or minute book. Apart from anything else this will greatly assist minute writers. If you are not, yourself, fully aware of the identity of each attender, find out who everyone is before the meeting and prepare a ‘crib sheet’ for yourself. One way of doing this is to ask everyone at the meeting briefly to identify themselves to the meeting in turn. If only one or two people are not known to you it is best if you can catch them for a brief introductory chat before the meeting begins.
Agenda: Every meeting needs an agenda. Without one they will quickly degenerate. Make sure an agenda has been prepared. It is usually the chair's responsibility to approve the agenda prior to its circulation. Overlong agendas should be avoided. It is better to have two two-hour meetings in a month than one four-hour meeting. Even experienced meeting attenders will be flagging after three hours and important matters may not be discussed properly as a result. If you must have a long meeting, do not be afraid to hold occasional adjournments for ten minutes to allow people to refresh themselves.
From time to time, especially for informal meetings, it might be that no agenda has been prepared in advance. Five minutes spent at the beginning of the meeting to map out a draft agenda will always pay dividends.
In almost all cases a standard agenda can be created which will be:
These headings are considered in more detail below:
Opening remarks: These should be brief and good humoured - remember to welcome new members or visitors to the meeting.
Approval of agenda: A simple request for confirmation of the agenda should be sufficient. It is also advisable to state that this is the last opportunity for participants to register that they intend to raise a matter under any other business. If, by some mischance, a matter has been omitted in genuine error you should seek the permission of the meeting to add it. But if there is dissent or if the matter is weighty and can wait until the next meeting it should be deferred. This approving of the agenda fixes the matters for the meeting to discuss – you should not allow later additions.
Minutes of the last meeting: The minutes should always have been circulated in advance. The sole purpose of this item is to give participants an opportunity to correct factual inaccuracies, NOT to re-open an old debate. The chair should always sign a good corrected copy of the minutes at the meeting and have these stored properly. Minutes are a major source of information and record and will frequently be consulted after the fact, there must be an unequivocally correct version held somewhere.
Matters arising: ‘Matters arising’ is a section of the agenda intended to allow further reports on new developments or follow up matters to be discussed which arise from a previous discussion. It is not an opportunity for someone to raise again a matter which was properly transacted and resolved at the previous meeting.
Correspondence: Formal receipt of correspondence is normally only used for statutory meetings where the receipt of correspondence (tender returns, official documents, perhaps legal matters) needs to be recorded in the minutes.
Substantive matters: This will be the meat of the meeting. Substantive matters may be receipt of formal reports, discussion and deciding upon motions, verbal reports upon actions, progress reports etc. In all cases the chair must ensure that adequate (but not excessive) discussion takes place and that all of the matters are transacted. This means that the matter must be brought to a formal conclusion which can be minuted. There are a number of outcomes for such matters. The following should accommodate most eventualities:
RECEIVED: Means formally entered into the minutes but makes no claim to any type of consent or authority having been given. It will often appear at the start of a minute eg 'The Report of the Chief Executive was RECEIVED'. This will be followed later in the minute by a decision as below.
NOTED: Means seen and accepted by the meeting – but is only used for information receipt and not for executive decisions, except where it indicates that the meeting accepts a decision by officers within their powers, and where the committee does not need to decide for itself.
ADOPTED: Means the committee accepts something as its own. The most common form will be in approving the accounts where participants may have personal liability for some aspect of accounts; or in adopting standing orders of some form to regulate the meeting’s activities.
APPROVED/NOT APPROVED: Means that a proposal in a report (or several proposals in a single report) have been approved (or not) for action or as policy.
AGREED/NOT AGREED: This is often interchanged with APPROVED, but it is
wrong to do so. A formal motion or proposal which is moved, seconded and
decided upon by a meeting constitutes AGREEMENT not APPROVAL. It is usual
to add the means by which agreement was achieved as follows:
It is not normally necessary to record the actual votes cast.
These formal decisions end the transaction of each piece of business and must appear in the minutes.
It is not uncommon to add who is responsible for action in the final minute. This must be clear at the meeting and not added afterwards.
Any other business: This is where genuinely urgent or unforeseen items can be discussed. It should only be used if the matter really cannot wait until the next meeting. Most can. Do not allow items to be raised which have not been notified to you in advance at least at the start of the meeting.
Time, date and place of next meeting: You might find it difficult to co-ordinate diaries afterwards, so fix the next meeting now if it is not on a recurring cycle.
Supporting Papers: It is unreasonable to expect meeting participants to absorb a paper or proposal which is tabled (handed round) at the meeting. In a perfect world everyone should have all papers and the agenda ten days in advance. Five working days advance notice should be your aim as chair, but attenders should always have at least an overnight period to digest proposals. Note that meetings held under statutory arrangements will always have a fixed notice period, and although these can often be adjusted by agreement it is generally bad practice to do so except in genuine emergency and can invalidate proceedings in certain circumstances. This can be one of the most difficult rules to enforce. Some people will deliberately submit supporting papers late to give an impression of drama or immediacy. Don’t be fooled.
Nonetheless there will be occasions when papers simply have to be tabled. If this happens you should postpone detailed consideration and decision to the next meeting or to a specially convened meeting if at all possible. Even a one-hour delay will greatly enhance the value of the discussion. Whatever happens you must allow participants time to read a tabled paper and adjourn to enable this to be done. Do not allow discussion to proceed whilst participants are still reading – this is a frequently used means of manipulation.
Timetabling: State at the outset the time at which you intend the meeting should end and remind people throughout of the approaching deadline. If it is clear that you will not complete the agenda, propose to the meeting that more urgent items be moved up the agenda, with the remainder being dealt with on another day. It is sometimes possible for non-controversial proposals to be agreed ‘on the nod’, if this is the case identify these to the meeting for formal approval without discussion. If any attender objects you must stick to the formal agenda.
One of the most frequent causes of meetings over-running is that a small number of participants speak too frequently and at too great a length. Attempt to restrict contributions to one per person per item – if necessary you can state this as your policy. A more complex problem is the re-iteration of points already made. It is not uncommon for participants to wish to make the same point but in their own words. Try to identify these as they are being made and gently suggest that unless the contributor has a new point to make the meeting should move on.
Few items merit more than half a dozen contributions and unless there is some over-riding reason for recording the views of all present, try to sum up and ‘put the question’ after a reasonable number of views have been expressed. Summing up is in itself a considerable skill you should try to develop.
Voting: Voting on a proposal is rarely required. It is usually sufficient to ask the meeting if the proposal is agreed by affirmation. Those who do not agree will make themselves known. If there is dispute as to whether an item has been agreed, you should initiate a vote by show of hands. Start slowly and deliberately to make sure participants know what they are voting on. It is surprising how often this is not done properly. For example, it may seem reasonable to say something like ‘we need to vote on whether or not we approve this proposal, all in favour please show’. But are the participants voting on whether they wish to have a vote or are in favour or against the proposal? Make the object of the vote specific, such as: 'We are now going to vote on the proposal in Mr X’s paper. All those in favour of the proposal please show.’ This makes clear what the vote is about.
If someone asks for a paper vote you should always be prepared to have one unless it is clearly a mischievous suggestion, and even then it is probably advisable to do so. It is even more important to specify the vote here. Make it clear what the vote is about and how people should record their vote …yes/no …tick/cross …agree/disagree… etc. Ask someone who has not voted to count the votes. If there is no such person then ask two responsible people to do so. As has been said above, it is not usually necessary to record the specific outcome of a vote other than as ‘by a majority’ etc. But in one important respect it will be necessary. If the participants at a meeting hold a statutory obligation, then any failure to act appropriately might lead to legal action against them. In this case, especially for spending decisions, participants may sometimes ask for a recorded vote of who voted which way by name. In general non-statutory meetings this is almost never necessary.
Don’t forget the chair usually has a vote as well. Many chairs do not
exercise their own right to vote in order to maintain objectivity but it
is no great matter either way. Except in the matter of a casting vote.
Practise here can be varied and difficult.
Casting Votes: It is generally accepted that the chair will have a casting vote in addition to their own vote, unless it has previously been agreed that they should not. In order to foster a reputation for impartiality many chairs decline to cast their personal votes. When using a casting vote it is always advisable to seek a further show of hands or ballot before doing so. It is surprising how often results will change.
Practise in using a casting vote varies. Parliamentary protocol is for the chair to vote for no change to the status quo. This is often the safest course. If in doubt, chuck it out. But there is no obligation upon a chair to use the casting vote. This is especially so where a decision is particularly controversial and/or where the chair has already cast a personal vote. If you do not use a casting vote and a vote remains tied then the proposal or motion is not approved or agreed. In this eventuality the whole matter can be raised again at the next meeting. It is normal practice, where a decision is reached for the matter not to be raised again for a given time – usually not less than three months.
However, sometimes a proposal must be enacted immediately and in these circumstances you should let your conscience and common sense guide you. Once the decision is made move swiftly to next business – there is never a virtue in discussing the merits of your decision.
Sometimes you will need to redirect discussion so that it moves back to the main agenda and away from diversions and irrelevance, however enjoyable that may be. Pay close attention when you make a decision to curtail debate or seek to silence an overbearing or abusive participant. Your first decision will be your only chance to maintain your authority. If you get it wrong and change your mind you will never be in control of the meeting again. Once you have made a ruling you must not rescind it.
If a meeting becomes unruly, you should call an adjournment while tempers cool. For meetings held on private property the chair is empowered to require a person to leave the meeting. If they refuse, the chair can seek the assistance of the police and is allowed to use, or authorise others to use, reasonable force to eject a person from the meeting. Hopefully in the NHS this power will be used infrequently!
Expressing your own views
Holding an interest
For this reason, such matters usually occur at the end of the normal agenda in what is frequently called ‘Part Two’. At that point all extraneous persons leave the room and the matter is discussed. Make sure that accurate minutes are taken and that the minutes of confidential discussions are protected and not circulated to non-attenders.
It is not uncommon for participants to ask for an item to be moved to ‘Part Two’ in order to avoid embarrassment. Unless it is in the public interest for such a course to be adopted you should not agree. It is for the chair to make the decision.
Don’t minute that!
The doctrine of perfection would be to minute everything substantive which is discussed. But it is common to use phrases like ‘a wide ranging discussion was held’ or ‘further debate took place’ which can hide a multitude of sins. In general a minute (unless it is just a listing of decisions) should reflect why a certain decision was reached and if the ‘not for minuting’ part is crucial to this understanding then it needs to be referred to.
As chair it is your decision as to whether part of a discussion is not to be minuted. Essentially you have three choices: agree to the restriction of the minutes; authorise some form of obfuscation to avoid direct reporting of confidential comments, or (and this is the one you should use if the comments are germane to the reaching of a decision) institute a confidential (Part Two) discussion and arrange for the minutes to be circulated under confidential cover to meeting participants only.
In general terms, the ‘don’t minute’ decision will relate to specific comments, not to an agenda item (for which the Part Two arrangements set out above are appropriate). A fictitious example might be where a committee is discussing why a hospital consultant is seeking early retirement. If one of their colleagues knows that the consultant has been greatly upset by a medical negligence claim against them at another hospital it might be relevant to say so in confidence but would be improper to report the same in minutes except along the lines: ‘Dr X expanded in confidence upon Mr W’s reasoning’. If Dr X doesn’t want Mr W to know he has been reporting confidential matters, perhaps a comment such as: 'The meeting considered the personal and professional issues surrounding Mr W’s decision.’
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