Handling meetings – as Chair and Participant

Handling meetings – as Chair and Participant

This article was first published in Business Times on 21 December 2019

Handling meetings – as Chair and Participant

John Bittleston, Terrific Mentors International

Meetings get me down. I don’t mind the informal ones where everyone says what they think and nobody is trying to get their own point of view endorsed. I like chatting with people on occasions which happen by chance and we maybe chew over a bite to eat. The best decisions I got made were at these sort of gatherings. But you do have to have some formal meetings, some regular catch-up sessions where all present know the figures and most can write the script for the Chair.

I call these Discipline Meetings. Regular, to an agenda and, if well done, brief. Trouble is, these meetings often turn into platforms for self-promotion. Perhaps the Chair wants applause. Or maybe the next in line feels the need to shake his muscles at the Chair. The meeting then degenerates into a boxing ring without the physical action. The Chair invariably has the OK punch because s/he has the most clout. Moral of this story is ‘Don’t battle with your boss in a meeting s/he is chairing’.

Chairing meetings
You will have to chair meetings in your work. First essential is that you have a very good Secretary to the committee even if it’s a one-off meeting. Make sure all the admin goes through this Secretary and tell them what you want as a result of the meeting. If it is just a show, make sure it is a good one. The less bored people are, the better they will think of you and your suggestions.

For example, I was often presenting to clients to get business for an advertising agency. Clients expected brilliant work but they also wanted a good show. Bring on all the bells and whistles, I said. We usually got the client. On one occasion we were presenting to a Bank of England Governor. I had all the usual razz-a-matazz but I quickly saw that it wasn’t to his taste. He wanted only figures. I cleared everything and everyone out of the room except the grey suits (accountants). The BoE Governor not only gave us the business but said how impressed he was that we recognised his needs and adapted so quickly.

I had read the client correctly on that occasion. You cannot always do that but you can teach your team to read the personalities and moods of any visitors or newcomers. Just as reading people is so important in our daily lives, so it is vital in meetings where moods, ideas and exchanges may happen very quickly. An example of such a mood change was when the Chairman of a very big European food company was visiting his R&D Centre. The R&D Director was a lovely fellow, fat, bouncy, innovative, full of good humour. He waxed lyrical about what his discoveries might lead to. Purely as an illustration he said ‘we might even go into pet food’. The Chairman had just sold a loss-making pet food business. He went ballistic. Totally uncalled for but the R&D Director had pushed a sore button.

Keeping your cool and courage
Senior people, especially people chairing meetings should never lose their cool. For every minute of rage a senior person exhibits he loses 0.1% of his authority. A good meeting should have fireworks and enthusiasm but not from the Chair. It’s not the Ref who swears during the game. At the same time there is a need for the Chair to facilitate the discussion. This means bringing in people round the table who might not be inclined to contribute. You have to draw a line here between making it a training session for some members of the meeting while others have an urgent purpose to get decisions made.

All management is faced with this dilemma frequently. The urgent priority is to get things done but the longer-term need to train younger and less experienced members of the organisation is also critical. Personally, I mixed up management, training and decision making all the time. It seemed to work well even if it sometimes confused the participants a little. My method has the advantage of being highly participative. Well managed it can also allow people to learn from their mistakes, not as a punishment for them but as a reward for the courage to make them.

Courage is often lacking in old-established organisations. When CEOs ask me what we do to help with this problem I answer ‘We teach people to be disobedient’. Not very Asian in concept, it is being accepted more widely now that trade is international. It has to come anyway, and a good deal faster than most managements are equipped to handle. The voice of the people is being asserted round the world. It leads to a lot of antagonism but it is an inevitable consequence of having everyone in touch with everyone else all the time. The social media may not be our preferred way to democratise but they are here and they are doing it.

Good management, of which good meetings are a vital part is more important than ever before.

Virtual meetings
Virtual meetings across the internet are invaluable in this context. So far the success rate has been appallingly low. The technology is now good enough for these virtual meetings to be better managed. Just as there are rules for physical meetings so too there are disciplines for virtual meeting. When these are phone only they suffer from the disadvantage that participants cannot see who is straining to be heard. Better to have visual virtuals if there are more than two people involved. Even with vision it takes a skilled Chair to know how to draw in reluctant participants.

As a participant in a meeting you should prepare yourself for the event as well as you expect the Chair and Secretary to be prepared. Make a list of the points you want to make, prioritise them and keep to the list as much as you can. That way you will use the meeting to your benefit. Avoid grandstanding at meetings. Even if you appear to win you will be thought poorly of by your colleagues.

The rule for all exchanges in and about the workplace is politeness at all times.