The Chair has a very specific role in meetings. We have already discussed their role in setting the agenda. When it comes to running the meeting, the Chair is like the conductor of an orchestra, with responsibility for getting the best from every participant.
The board represents the leadership of the organisation, and the Chair is the leader of the board. Their role is to ensure the board as a whole considers issues, and reaches decisions. The Chair does not make unilateral decisions, impose their will, or unduly influence the opinions of other board members. A good Chair has excellent listening skills, and is able to bring people together constructively. They encourage everyone to voice their opinion, and gives everyone time and space to do this, even if the view differs from their own. If you are chairing a meeting, the following pointers may help you to help your fellow board members.
The way in which the Chair opens the meeting sets its tone. The Chair should arrive at least 15 minutes before the meeting is due to start. This allows the Chair time to ensure all their papers are in order. It also allows for time to chat informally with other board members as they arrive. Start the meeting when it is due to start by asking everyone to take their seats. Don’t delay the meeting to wait for latecomers. If you do, the likelihood is that there will be even more stragglers at the next meeting.
Do make sure everyone knows who everyone else is. This is particularly important where outside advisers have been brought in to discuss specific items, or when there are new board members. Never assume everyone knows all the faces at the table.
During the meeting
It is the responsibility of the Chair to get through the agenda. As discussed previously, it helps if the agenda is timed, giving more emphasis on key strategic areas. When both planning the agenda and running the meeting, the Chair should pay particular attention to getting the balance between strategic thinking, policy formulation, supervising management and accountability and compliance right. The board has a role in each area, and it is important that they are all covered.
You may encounter some difficult behaviours during the meeting, and we will look in more detail at how to deal with these next week. However, the role of the Chair is to make sure everyone contributes to the meeting and decision making. The Chair often introduces an agenda item, hands over to someone to summarise the main points and then encourages discussion on the subject before the board comes to a decision. A good Chair will not ‘lead’ the thoughts of board members, but will keep the discussion and debate flowing.
The Chair will summarise the thoughts of the group and seek consensus when reaching decisions. They should also ensure everyone is aware of the action points arising from the meeting, and their own individual responsibilities in relation to them.
The meeting should have an end time, and in the same way as starting the meeting, it is equally important to end the meeting on time. Generally, board meetings should not last any more than around three hours. After this amount of time, attention wavers and energy levels drop.
At the end of the meeting
The Chair should occasionally seek feedback on how everyone felt the meeting went. Getting immediate feedback is a great way of improving skills for the next time. The Chair should be the last person to leave, having taken time to interact with everyone in the room on an informal basis. Don’t forget to thank everyone for their input, and remind everyone when the next meeting will be.