I was recently asked to chair a meeting with a group I’ve been volunteering with for a number of years now. The President was away and as part of my duties as Vice-President, it fell to me to organize and chair the meeting.
We are a dedicated group of people and most of us have volunteered together for at least two years, with a few members being newer than that. There are strong personalities in the group, each of whom has different ideas on how things should be done. Meetings typically run over time and at least half a dozen items get moved from one month’s agenda to the next without resolution. Frustration levels in this group are high. Once you pair that with a couple of strong personalities that sometimes clash, it makes for challenging meetings. Here’s how I handled it:
Before the meeting
1. Read documents from the previous meeting. I prepared by reading over the financial statements and minutes from the previous meeting. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often that we, as a group, don’t do this. (I’ve been guilty of it myself, at times.) Since I was chairing the meeting, I wanted to set a tone of “leading by example”. So I sat down and reviewed every single document, which included a 43-page set of new proposed By-Laws for the group. In total, I reviewed over 80 pages of documentation to prepare for the meeting.
2. Prepare an agenda. I used the minutes and agenda from the previous meeting to prepare a first draft of the agenda. Then I went back to my e-mail history and reviewed all the issued we had discussed in the previous month. The group had exchanged over 100 e-mails in the month since our last meeting. Not all members receive all the e-mails, but as VP, I get copied on most of them. I didn’t re-read them all, but I scanned the subject lines and reviewed key messages, ensuring that important items made it to the agenda. Knowing that our meetings typically run over time, I put the most pressing issues at the beginning of the agenda, so that if we ran out of time, we would not have important matters outstanding. I could have circulated a call for agenda items, but in this case, I chose not to. I knew we had a lot of issues to cover and I was confident that I’d captured the most important ones. This was a strategic choice on my part. I also didn’t want to open up too many new issues with our President being absent. There are times, however, when sending out a call for agenda items can be useful.
3. Prepare a progress report. It is not typical of our group to have executive members prepare a report, but I thought it would be useful to have a 1-pager with highlights of work that had been completed. I made sure that my report just gave updates and that there were no action items or decisions to be made.
4. Collect the necessary documents in an e-mail. I attached a copy of the agenda, the minutes from the previous meeting and various financial documents and my report so participants would have all the documents in one place. I made a list of the attachments in my e-mail and asked everyone to print their own copies or bring them in digital format on their laptop.
5. Send the reminder e-mail with clear instructions and expectations the day before the meeting. In addition to the list of attachments mentioned above, I also reminded members where the meeting was being held, the time it started and asked them point blank to budget two hours for the meeting. In the past there have been varying ideas on how long our meetings are. The reality is that nobody really knows how long they should be. But as someone who has been part of the group for several years, I’ve seen people get frustrated (or just get up and leave) after about 2 hours. I made it clear how long I expected them to be there, and in turn, I promised them that the meeting would not run over time.
6. Politely decline demands to change the agenda once it has been circulated. In my case, I had someone write to me with new items that had never been on the table before, demanding that they be included on the agenda. This was done via e-mail to our entire group. I politely responded, using “Reply All”, saying that I had reviewed the request and that they would not be included for three reasons: 1) agenda had already been set, 2) members have complained about meetings running over time and it was my intention to honour the 2-hour time limit for the meeting and 3) these items were both new and not urgent and could therefore be addressed by the President at the next meeting.
7. Arrive early and prepared. This not only gives you a chance to select the seat you want, but it also sends a clear, non-verbal message to people when they arrive that you are organized and prepared. This in itself sends a message that you are taking a leadership role for the meeting.
During the meeting
8. Stick to the agenda and follow it in order. In our meetings, we typically jump all over the place, going from one item to another. The agenda becomes more of a wish list of things we’d like to talk about than a step-by-step guide as to what issues we are going to address and in what order.
9. Hold the agenda in your hand. By doing this, you give yourself a physical reminder of the meeting plan you prepared. You also send a visual cue to others in the meeting that the agenda is important and that you are paying attention to it.
10. Allow one speaker at a time. Our group has developed this habit of all talking over one another. It is not uncommon that 2 or 3 people will be talking at once. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, not only because it makes it difficult to follow the conversation, but it makes it almost impossible for the meeting secretary to take good minutes and record the events of the meeting accurately. I’m a stickler for good minutes, but it’s hard to prepare good minutes when three people are all talking at once. For this meeting, when someone interrupted someone else, I literally put up my hand in a “Stop!” position and said, “Just a minute, please, Jane is speaking. Let her finish and then it’ll be your turn.” Members responded well to this and it made it easier to hear the ideas being presented, and made it easier for the minutes secretary.
11. Ensure everyone is heard. If I promised someone I’d let them speak, I kept that promise. Everyone got a chance to say something. One thing that happens when you have two or three loud extroverts all talking is that the introverts become even quieter, shrinking away from animated conversation. A couple of times I did a “round robin”, going around the table one-by-one, so each person could give their comments.
12. Give each person the spotlight, even if it is only briefly. In the case of our group, each person is responsible for mini-projects that they take the lead on. I prepared the agenda so that everyone would have a few moments in the spotlight, where they were responsible for reporting on the work they’d completed in the past month, as well as proposing solutions and asking for feedback on their projects. People tend to be most interested in what they are directly responsible for, so I ensured that everyone’s projects got some attention and that everyone was publicly accountable for their contributions to the group.
13. Focus on solutions to problems. Differences happen, especially in a group of alpha personalities with distinct values and opinions. By focussing on how to solve the issues on the table, you are united in your cause, not divided by your differences.
14. Thwart attempts to hijack or derail the meeting. There were three attempts during the meeting to either hijack it (which is when someone other than the chair tries to take control of the situation) or derail it (which is when someone attempts to get you off track or divert the conversation away from the agenda). I did not take this personally, as our group has developed a culture of people all jumping in, demanding that things be done in a certain way, or trying to take over because they don’t like the fact that we jump all over the place. In all three cases, I acknowledged what was happening, reminded everyone that we had an agenda to follow and we had a lot of material to cover in a short period of time. As the chair of a meeting, it was my job to keep us on track, keep us organized and maintain control. I still wanted decisions to be democratic, but I also wanted to send a clear message that I had no intention of letting the meeting get chaotic.
15. Ask tough questions. Our group has a habit of going off on tangents, with people telling stories and getting away from the business at hand. I took on the role of asking some tough questions. I did it in a polite and respectful way that was intended to keep us focussed on our agenda. I asked questions like, “How does this story move us toward a solution?”, “What’s your action plan to move this forward?”, “What are your specific recommendations on this issue?” and “Are you making a motion on this item?”
16. Allow some humour. The tough questions and “tough love” approach to running a meeting can be oppressive. In our case, we have one member of the group who has a mischievous sense of humour. She made a few jokes throughout the meeting and I let her do so, without getting off track. The comic relief helped add some lightness, which kept people engaged and ultimately helped the meeting to be productive.
17. Conclude by reviewing the details of the next meeting date. Ensure that everyone leaves the meeting knowing when and were the next meeting will be held. This also sends a message that the current meeting is about to conclude.
18. Thank everyone for their attendance. Whether they are volunteers or not, people made a point to be there. I acknowledged the time they took and their contributions.
19. End on time. I promised everyone a two-hour meeting. With 20 minutes to go, there were still a number of items to address. I made it clear that whatever was not addressed would be tabled, with a view to moving it to the top of the agenda next month. I was pleased that people later came up with their own ideas on how to make the next meeting more efficient (e.g. have questions prepared beforehand and not waste time shuffling through papers to find an important piece of information).
After the meeting
20. Follow up right away on your action items. As chair of the meeting, it fell to me to lead by example. I made a point to follow up on each of my action items as soon as I could, to set the tone that we are accountable to do what we say we are going to do.
21. Follow up with a group thank you note. This is a strategy I learned from Patricia Morgan, a specialist in resilience. I once sat on a board chaired by Patricia and within 24-hours of every meeting she sends a follow-up e-mail to all members of the group. She lists each person who was present by name, thanking them for something specific that he or she contributed to the meeting (a good sense of humour, diligent preparation, thoughtful input on a particular issue, providing the space to host the meeting, etc.) Each person is acknowledged for their individual strengths and contributions. I have found this practice to be extremely helpful, particularly in a group where personalities differ. It highlights the entire meeting in terms of the constructive and positive contributions made by each person. Even though personalities may differ, we are all investing our time and expertise. Acknowledging people’s contribution publicly and by name has a profound effect on their perceptions of one another and helps us focus on each others’ strengths.
Will these steps ensure a perfect meeting? No. But they can help set the tone of a meeting, ensure that expectations are clear from the start, that things move ahead in an orderly way and that each person’s contributions are valued.
I wasn’t expecting a perfect meeting and I didn’t get one. But in general, it was very good. And I got three thank you notes from members of the group, acknowledging how well the meeting went. That made it all worth it.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.