Chairing: Not as Easy as it Looks

If you are setting out on your career, how do you acquire leadership skills? If you think you’re a born leader how can you check it out or improve? As part of the commemorations around the 50th anniversary death of Sir Winston Churchill (Churchill2015) various organisations have been considering different aspects of leadership. The Moller Centre at Churchill College has developed a course for new generation leaders (described here in the Financial Times with accompanying video) to help those setting out gain the necessary skills. One aspect of leadership is of course the ability to chair meetings and keep committees working effectively.

Having recently taken on a new chairing responsibility, in a new sphere, I am mindful of the challenges such a role entails. Every committee is different and young leaders have to learn that the way one approaches the task has to suit the specific group of people sitting round the table, whilst keeping one’s goals clearly in mind. New committees bring new dynamics. Get it wrong at the beginning and it may be much harder to be effective in the long run: the chair bears a special responsibility from the start of the very first meeting to get the committee to ‘gel’. Any subsequent change of membership may perturb – for good or ill – the complex web of interactions between those round the table. Even with the best of care and attention things can go pear-shaped at any point (and of course one should not forget the adage that if things can go wrong they will).

I have two cardinal rules for chairing, regardless of the committee: make sure appropriate introductions are made at the start of meetings and allow time for comfort breaks. I know plenty of other chairs who dispense with such niceties. I have sat through meeting after meeting of some committees still in a fog about who some members are, even why they’re there if they never open their mouths. This cannot make for the most useful debate. But in particular, when a new committee meets for the first time, surely it only makes sense to take a few minutes to allow for introductions. This is even more important for committees external to any particular institution, where people may be brought together from many different organisations.

When I first took on chairing a major committee I took advice from a more experienced chair to help me acquire some basics. She gave me some very valuable hints. First, do a quick sketch of who is sitting where so you don’t forget people’s names. A useful tactic, particularly if dealing with a group who meet only rarely and there are no name tags of any sort in use; the more people in the room the more important it is. Nevertheless there is one accompanying pitfall into which I have fallen with great embarrassment. It’s to do with people whose first and second names could both be first names (e.g. James Francis or Leslie Thomas – I’m not sure it’s so likely to happen with women’s names). In a flurry at the start of a meeting I once miscalled someone by their second name not their first. As I hate the fact that people are sometimes startled to find me a woman whose second name is Donald not a man whose second name is Athene I should be very sensitive to this, but I still fell into the trap when swiftly glancing down at my list of names and pulling out the wrong half. Very red-faced I was.

The second piece of advice I was given was about how a chair should act: listen to all the arguments and be alert to when it is time to draw them together and come to a conclusion. This isn’t equivalent to knowing what you want to get out of a meeting and then making sure others reach the same conclusion, a piece of advice that some might also think was useful. As far as I know I’ve rarely used that as a tactic, not least because it really doesn’t apply if chairing something like a grant-giving body: one could never go into such a meeting knowing exactly which grants you wanted to succeed – and make that happen. Even if you could do that you shouldn’t!

However, the advice is more subtle than you might think. It means both that you shouldn’t cut people off before they’ve all had their opportunity to speak and also that you shouldn’t let the usual suspects rabbit on too long simply repeating themselves. The art is to step in once the circle has been completed once and not wait for multiple circuits. A bad chair can fail to interrupt that repeated circular path and progress will never be made. Equally, a bad chair can stop debate before any sort of consensus has been reached, in which case some committee members will simply feel a decision has been imposed, leaving lasting resentment.

If a chair allows a discussion to go on… and on….and on…the meeting will overrun. People will get cross and indubitably a good decision will not be made. Indeed, often in that situation people start leaving before any conclusion/vote has been reached and so it is those who are prepared to stick it out who get the last word.

So, some personal advice for anyone about to take on chairing for the first time:

  • Do your homework, read the paperwork and think about where the sticking points are likely to arise;
  • If necessary and appropriate (and it often may not be) talk to people in advance if you know that they hold strong but opposing views;
  • Know who everyone is and what their backgrounds are; remember names;
  • Concentrate so that you know when to wind up a particular discussion point;
  • Take the time necessary to reach a consensus, or at least let those whose views are being over-ridden feel that they have been heard;
  • Try to ensure anyone who wants to speak gets their chance – in particular do not let a couple of vociferous and possibly arrogant people dominate. It is the chair’s job to see this does not happen and that the timid get their moment;
  • Do not let tempers flare and use humour if you can to keep the meeting light (self-deprecating humour is fine and is often described as typically British);
  • Use breaks as time-outs if necessary, but also to allow legs to stretch, comfort to be restored and caffeine and sugar levels to be banked up as desired.

Other points may depend on the nature of the committee. I know I have tended to avoid votes – they can seem like an admission of defeat although sometimes good governance absolutely requires them. But I once went so far, in a fellowship committee, to have a straw poll when we were down to the last position to give out. Although the debate had seemed even-handed between three candidates, when asked to give their first choice there was a near-unanimous decision which the debate (undoubtedly a case of going round in circles) had masked as everyone was being so scrupulously fair to all. Nevertheless, when push came to shove and they had to name their top candidate, the answer for everyone was essentially obvious.

My final piece of advice for a happy committee: keep to the allotted time – never overrun!







This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chairing: Not as Easy as it Looks

  1. An additional benefit of letting people introduce themselves, even if you already know them, is to see in what capacity they introduce themselves. It tells a lot about what people expect from the meeting.

  2. Jim Smith says:

    For sure never overrun. And I would also keep a close eye on potential conflicts of interest. I always err on the side of caution.

Comments are closed.