Taking the Chair

I was interested to discover recently that candidates for the headship of a certain Cambridge college were required to chair a mock Governing Body meeting (this was not part of my own selection process at Churchill I should say). I can see why a college would think this was a good idea. The ability to chair is a crucial one, one that seems never to be taught – except by example, good or bad – but which can make so much difference to a committee’s outcome.  Furthermore, I am led to believe that in some colleges there are an awful lot of committees; indeed I heard the number 26 quoted by someone for their own particular college recently (this happened to be an Oxford one), a number which I personally find astonishing. So, ensuring that the person you are about to commit yourself to for a number of years is competent to keep good order, ensure good results and do it all graciously and with a smile may make excellent sense.

I am reminded about this, not because I’m suffering from sleepless nights as I contemplate the array of committees I will soon be chairing in Churchill, but because of a question that was put to me over Twitter: what to do when two members of a committee take up 95% of the airtime? My own response was that it was down to the Chair to shut them up and keep firm control on the discussions to prevent such a monopoly, but I was then told that one of the offenders was actually the Chair. That does cause problems. I have sat on committees like that, or rather on a committee where the Chair alone took up a disproportionate amount of the time so that no one else got much of a look-in.

This behaviour reduced the committee in question to something of a rubber-stamping farce, because what decisions can be taken beyond those the Chair themselves push if the others present can never get a word in edgeways? After a few meetings like that the dynamics are so flawed that, at least in the case I recall,  everyone else just gave up. We may have sat through the meetings but we had zero expectation of anything useful being done. Maybe we were all wimps and should have staged a coup, but there were reasons why that would have been difficult. I have written previously about how I handled the Chair of a committee who persistently referred to us as ‘gentlemen’ and how, with a little bit of help from my (male) friends on the committee he was stopped in his tracks. Not a coup, but certainly a triumph in a minor skirmish which made the remaining meetings somewhat more pleasant at least for me and the other women around the table (of whom there were several). However, if the Chair is the prime offender when it comes to monopolising the discussion I’m afraid I have no simple solution to offer and would be pleased to hear suggestions from readers in the comments!

The Twitter question came my way at just about the time that Mary Beard was giving her lecture on the Public Voice of Women at the British Museum in which she discussed how, from the times of the Odyssey on, there has been a tendency to shut the women up, In classical times this was not of course in committee meetings but simply any ‘public space’. She alluded to the ‘Miss Triggs‘ Punch cartoon I often use in my own talks about the challenges faced too boringly often by women at committees. (If you don’t know it, the text reads ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.). The need for good chairing is all the more important if the committee has members who are prone to talk over others, of either gender, or who just don’t know when to shut up (see what I said about ‘Standing up to the bullies’ previously).

Sorting out the ‘Miss Triggs’ issue is easier for any committee member to do than shutting the Chair up. Anyone can say, if someone else tries to nick the idea that was originally hers, that they feel Miss Triggs had said that already and it would be good to allow her to expound on it. If the Chair hasn’t the nous or grace to do this then it is helpful if one of the saner members of the committee chip in on this front. But it is harder to shut up the drone (wherever they sit round the table) who just meanders on or the overpowering egotist who can’t imagine that anyone else could either a) have anything useful to say or b) not automatically agree with them. That really has to be the Chair’s responsibility which is why it is so hard when the Chair is the prime offender.

By this stage in my life I have chaired a good many committees of many different complexions. One of the reasons I think using a mock committee meeting as part of a selection process is not entirely satisfactory is that often one has prior knowledge of the committee members. You are likely to know who is the bore, who the extrovert, who the smart-ass and who the salt-of-the-earth you definitely want onside. You most certainly are likely to know their attributes (by which I mean their role, discipline, seniority or who they are representing), at least if you’ve done your homework. With any luck you know their name too (or have made sure there are those things I always think of as Toblerones on the table to remind you who is who). So, walking into a room cold with none of these facts at your disposal and then being asked to lead a discussion of the siting of the new bicycle shed or the wisdom of accepting a donation from an alumnus who made their money in armaments may be much trickier than the reality would in fact be.

However, despite the fact I have chaired many different groups, I have never formally had any instruction in what to do. Maybe other institutions run courses on the topic but as far as I’m concerned it’s just one of those many things for which I have been thrown in at the deep end. The first time I chaired a grant-giving committee I took advice from a more senior colleague as to how she ran similar meetings, and very good advice she gave me too: let everyone have their say and then draw the discussion to a conclusion. Never jump in too soon or people will be left dissatisfied.

But letting everyone have their say is exactly where things can go wrong, with meetings dragging on way beyond the stated end time and a sense of frustration and restlessness pervading the room. So, in my experience, I do tend to shut people up when things show signs of getting out of hand or when someone is showing a bulldog-like tenaciousness about some point in which they are in a minority of one. I also, always, have an eye on the clock: keeping your committee past their lunchtime or denying them a ‘comfort break’ at an appropriate moment will not lead to optimum discussions in my view. The troops get restless.

But letting everyone have their say, making sure Miss (or Mr)Triggs is not derailed, talked over or never allowed even to open her (his) mouth must be a key goal for a Chair. If the usual suspects are the only ones who get to speak then the only outcome will be what amounts to the status quo or a sectional interest of dubious worth. If good decisions are to be made the input of all who wish to contribute should be valued and heard even if, for any particular question, not everyone necessarily has the same expertise. A committee in which a small minority is allowed to dominate time and time again is not a committee whose decisions are likely to be wise.


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12 Responses to Taking the Chair

  1. Lauradragon says:

    An excellent article! My many years of committee membership span all sorts of committees in all sorts of organisations and I’ve worked with a few excellent chairs but many poor ones. Much depends on two issues:

    a) the committee members’ understanding of the role of the committee (it’s surprising how often this is not clear) and their personal role (are they representing a constituency or members in their own right?). A good chair will remind members to consider these aspects occasionally.

    b) control of the agenda and papers. A tightly written agenda which makes clear for each topic whether a decision is needed, with concise supporting papers, makes a huge difference. If the chair then rambles on, members can tactfully refer to the agenda to get things back on track.

    And I’ve found it useful in quelling the loquacious to require items to be raised under AOB to be notified to the chair in advance.

  2. Brilliant advice as always. Any ideas on how to keep the meeting to the alloted time slot at the same time as discussing issues thoroughly (assuming that a seemingly sensible agenda was set)? I’ve also been thinking about whether all the meetings I’m involved with are actually necessary, particularly the ones where the decision has already been made and the meeting, though framed as discussion actually is really just a “telling” meeting?

  3. Bob Newport says:

    Sensible thoughts, as ever. Like you, I have never been trained in the art and skill of chairing committees. I hope that the fact I have been asked to chair all sorts of bodies over several decades – of all sorts, not solely at my place of work – leads me to hope that I do a decent job. However, one of the good things about posts such as this is that one gets challenged about the realities of working life from a range of different, ‘external’, perspectives. So, whilst I certainly endorse what you say about the traits of a good chair, I am reminded that vigilance must remain in order that assent converts to behaviour. As I was reading your post and mentally reviewing my career in this area it occurred to me that, as in other areas of my working life, and despite the existence of some good mentors through the years, I often develop so as to move away from examples I dislike rather more than towards those I like. I suppose this represents ‘training’ of a sort, albeit without structure.
    By the way, I sometimes resort to ‘timed’ agendas in order to focus the minds on particularly large or ‘challenging’ committees; one doesn’t have to adopt them rigidly, but it does give the chair a useful means by which to close down the sorts of negative influences you cite.

  4. I certainly agree a ‘timed’ agenda can be helpful for the chair mentally to keep track of where one is and how one is doing as regards to time. Sometimes, inevitably, this can slip fairly drastically but at least then you are aware. I think pointing out that you are allowing extra time for one item because the discussion is so crucial can sometimes give you ‘permission’ later on to speed up if at all possible. I also think setting the tone of the meeting at the start is important. I think that helps with Ellie’s point, because if you make it clear what is expected from members they will often do better on this front than if the meeting doesn’t seem structured at all.

    For instance, at grant-giving meetings if the chair points out that there is only 5 minutes per grant on average, or whatever, and agree that those below some cut-off point in the scoring will be given rather less, than everyone knows. You may still get people who ramble on unnecessarily, but hopefully fewer of them than if nothing was said originally. I think that applies to almost any committee, pointing out in advance which topics you think will be more controversial and need more air time and which you expect to be kept quite brief. People can disagree, but at least it is then an active decision rather than just allowing everyone to mumble on about everything without thought!

  5. cromercrox says:

    I have occasionally been called upon to chair meetings, and I must be quite good at it, because I get return bookings. So here, for what it’s worth, is my experience.

    1. Make sure you work closely with the committee Secretary – that is, the person who prepares the agenda and does all the work.

    2. As Chair, you can assume absolute power for the conduct of a meeting, and nobody will mind. You are under no obligation to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing. If you think a thread of comments is getting off-topic or generally out of hand, it is your prerogative to stop it, and remind all parties that all responses should be made through you. It’s your party.

    3. It’s quite in order for you to lay out ground rules about time limits.

    4. Is your meeting really necessary?

    I am reminded about this … as I contemplate the array of committees I will soon be chairing in Churchill

    As the Master of Churchill I suspect that you’re a kind of Meta-Chair of all the committees. Were I in such an exalted position one of my first jobs would be to review all the various committees to see which meetings are really necessary, with the aim, wherever possible, of abolishing as many as I could. As you know, committee meetings use an awful lot of time. A one-hour meeting for eight people uses up a whole person-equivalent’s working day, so one is entitled to ask whether the decisions reached by a given committee might be reached more effectively in some other way. In my experience meetings are sometimes set up for some temporary purpose but then become permanent. When you start getting sub-committees … well, metastasis has set in and radical surgery might be the only option.

    • I am under the impression that the committee structure in Churchill has been streamlined quite recently. If I thought there were 26 I had to chair (as in the Oxford college I mentioned) I would certainly be scrutinising them carefully. I am definitely not in favour of the metastasis you refer to!

      • cromercrox says:

        Many years ago I saw a John Cleese training video called ‘Meetings, Bloody Meetings’. If you can get hold of it, it’s full of good advice about how to chair meetings; how to keep them to time; how to avoid subcommittees getting out of hand, and so on. (It’s also very funny.)

      • Bob Newport says:

        The videos are at http://www.videoarts.com (http://www.videoarts.com/search/product-search/?query=Meetings,%20Bloody%20Meetings) and there are bits and pieces on YouTube. Cromercrox is right in declaring the series to be funny, and they’re often helpful.

        Whilst not suggesting for a moment that committee proliferation is a good thing – it’s not – there needs to be, in my experience, a wider balance applied. If ideas cannot be aired in more informal settings (e.g. in departments like mine without the benefit of a communal place to sit and chat over tea/coffee/…, or over lunch/dinner for instance in the case of external committees) they can burst out in counter-productive ways within a meeting. If not in a meeting then, conversely, they’ll pop up in some other context. In other words, appointing clever, articulate and passionate people and then denying them the opportunity to air their thoughts in one environment or another can lead to problems. So, whilst extreme ‘efficiency’ on the committee front can reap front-of-house benefits I think there’s a place for a manager to adopt a wider perspective for the broader aspects of organisational health. And no, this isn’t a charter for inappropriate statements or endless rants at innumerable meeting: it is just an argument for a sensible balance.

  6. Niall MacKay says:

    It’s a very special talent, being able to chair a committee really well. The best I’ve ever known was Ken Calman. Doubtless many other talents combined to support his career, but in that one – in a difficult committee, with warring factions – he was, in my experience, singular.

    • Ruth Jones says:

      I remember once sitting in a interminable meeting with a cast of thousands…… the finance director who was present asked a question which stuck with me, ‘ How much is this meeting costing us?’ A quick back of the fag packet calculation revealed too much – number of people x approximate hourly rate. Was there a return on investment from all those people huddled in one room and maybe still unable to make a decision, probably not.
      How many chairs do actually evaluate the benefits of the meetings/committees they lead? What about an agenda item tabled by the chair for feedback on whether participants feel that a) they are adding value b) they are getting value? A simple, perhaps anonymous, feedback form with a few open and closed questions plus room for narrative- the results of which could be shared at a subsequent meeting and a further discussion had to ensure
      that the cttee/meeting is delivering what is required – or whether an informal discussion will suffice. It might be your party, but as host everyone deserves to have a rewarding experience !

  7. Trevor Hawkes says:

    At Corpus (years ago), the monthly Governing Body started at 5 pm and was followed by stiffeners (on that night only) served promptly at 7 (for dinner at 7-30). As 7 approached, progress through the agenda accelerated, and we were inevitably done in time to brush up and put on our gowns for the pre-prandial gin and tonic.

    BTW, Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica has some entertaining tips for the tyro chair of an academic meeting.

    • cromercrox says:

      Reminds me of Spike Milligan’s novel Puckoon in which the commission drawing up the boundary between Ulster and the Republic rushes the job because the pubs were about to open. The result was that the new border separated the town of Puckoon from its graveyard, so newly interred corpses had to be exhumed so they could get their pictures taken for passports. Haste is not necessarily a good idea.

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